In the novel The Damned United, David Peace puts those words into Brian Clough’s mouth after another Derby County victory. And it would be no surprise if Nigel Clough said something similar in the dressing room at Elland Road on Saturday evening,
I’d been warned by Tommo Jr to expect an intimidating atmosphere at Leeds – he’d been there in the late nineties, when a capacity Yorkshire crowd helped the Whites to blow Derby away. It seemed, back then, to be their natural right, to beat Derby at home. When the Billy Davies team finally got a typical 1-0 out of them, as Leeds sank towards League One in 2006/7, it was the first time we had won there since 1857.
So the first thing that surprised me when we walked into Elland Road was just how many empty seats there were. This was the opening day of the season, their return to the Championship after three seasons languishing in League One, against a club with whom their most successful team jousted so memorably in the seventies.
Yet the attendance of less than 27,000 – whilst not much less than Derby can expect against Cardiff City next Saturday – made Elland Road look much too big for the current Leeds United era. The top tier of the hulking, cavernous main stand was entirely empty.
Derby’s magnificent support, of course, was in fine fettle and never really got dominated by the home fans. On watching the game back on the BBC iPlayer, the first thing I noticed was how much louder the home crowd seemed on the telly than they did in the stadium – because I was buffered from the volume by the constant noise that our lot generated. Going to away games is often so much more fun, because it’s truly a privilege to be a part of the band of lunatics that so loyally follow the Rams o’er land and sea.
The match in summary – Leeds huffed, puffed and hoofed with little reward. Their front three of Becchio, Watt and Sam were not terribly threatening and when we took the lead, it felt like we deserved it. Kris Commons had already slalomed through the defence and shot just over in the first minute, before ten minutes of inconclusive Leeds pressure were followed by a classic breakaway goal. Paul Green nicked the ball in midfield and simply set off, with Commons and Rob Hulse in hot pursuit. As Leeds panicked, Green found Hulse with a simple pass behind the defence and the big man obliged with a deeply satisfying finish.
Much as Nigel Clough has talked about how hard it is to choose between Hulse and Chris Porter to lead the line, in my opinion, so long as Hulse is with the club, he has to be first choice. He is strong, holds the ball up well whether received on the ground or aerially – and certainly leaves centre backs well aware that they’ve been in a contest. Plus his finishing is excellent.
By this time, the pattern of the match had emerged. Leeds were going to rush us and battle for everything, whilst Derby were going to attempt to play out from the back. Leeds very rapidly realised that if they put our centre backs, especially Russell Anderson, under pressure, he would not enjoy having the ball, but the Rams stuck to the plan – even after disaster struck in the 16th minute.
Dean Leacock‘s lateral pass to Robbie Savage was miscontrolled and led to total confusion between Savage and Anderson. Jonny Howson (a local hero, if the T-shirts bearing his name are anything to go by) nipped in, pulled the ball across to a blissfully unmarked Becchio, who couldn’t miss with an open net at his mercy. All the good work was undone.
Fortunately, Derby’s commitment to passing football continued – and paid off. In the aftermath of the goal, it was nice to see Hulse walk over and signal the defenders to stay calm and keep playing. That’s exactly what they did and very soon, we’d pinged the ball through the Leeds lines for Commons, who fed Tomasz Cywka in the box. From our angle (bottom tier behind the opposite goal), it seemed that the lunging Sam had managed to nick the ball and I was surprised when the ref pointed to the spot. Morgan received texts from Leeds fans and neutrals in short order, informing him that ‘it was never a pen’. However, TV replays were inconclusive, so you have to go with the ref’s call.
Commons coolly sent Kasper Schmeichel the wrong way and the Rams now had a moral responsibility not to cock up again.
At half-time, as we sat in the Bowels of – if not the Beast (we weren’t at the City Ground in Nothingham), at least one of Satan’s more annoying helpers, we felt quite exhilarated. Derby had passed it well and strung together some really progressive moves. OK, there had been a couple of howlers, but we had also created two goals, without recourse to a single long ball.
It’s all about attacking with the ball at your feet, looking for your mate in space, short, simple forward passing . If your team-mates movement has dragged the opposition around, all the better – that’s space you can run into.
John Brayford, from right back, provided some of the most probing runs forward, but in the final analysis, it was Commons and Green, in their attacking midfield roles, who had caused Leeds all manner of trouble.
It hadn’t been all our way – both Leeds centre backs managed to hit the bar from set pieces and the second opportunity – I think it was Naylor – was actually a free header from close range, which he planted straight into the turf rather than the gaping net. But the man of the match for Leeds was most assuredly Schmeichel.
A shock of white hair, a hyperactive ability to command his box, a booming kick, swift distribution and an apparent impenetrability in one-on-one situations. Who does young Kasper remind you of? In form like that, Sir Alex Ferguson wants to think very seriously about bringing him to Old Trafford. He was magnificent throughout.
When he somehow pulled off a double save of Schmeichel Snr proportions in the second half, I was onto my Manchester United supporting mates in a flash –
he’s just like his fuckin dad.
The second half was more of a battle for Derby. I think Simon Grayson must have given his lads a rocket at half time, because Leeds came out scrapping. Stephen Bywater was forced to launch a few more pragmatic long clearances, but Derby did continue to attempt to pass it. Leeds were swarming around us like angry, albino Yorkshire wasps, but when they did hustle us off the ball, they simply weren’t composed enough to create meaningful chances. The nearest they got to a clear sight of goal was when Bywater lax pass out towards Brayford was intercepted – but fortunately, Derby had the answer to that.
Shaun Barker, who missed out on pre-season as he recuperated from his knee operation, wasn’t even meant to be on the bench. And then, suddenly, there he was. As we finished our half-time pints, we saw, on the concourse monitors, the number 5 going up on the substitution board. There was our finest defender with his black hair longer and slicked back than before, but still attached to a head which acts as a magnet when the ball enters the Derby County penalty area.
Barker it was who blocked the shot after Bywater’s horrific rick. Barker it was who took a venomous free kick square in the face, for the team. Barker it was who repeatedly rose like a salmon to clear the danger as Leeds turned our final third into the Alamo by hurling the ball into the box at every opportunity.
In the final analysis, we struggled to come up with a man of the match; we were so thrilled with the team performance. Brayford and Cywka will do nicely, thank you very much. Brayford is quick (Sam was in his pocket the whole game), intelligent and brave. Cywka is quick and extremely skilful – on watching the game back, it became clear that the chief thorn in Leeds’ side been Commons, but Commons is a player who needs his team to support him. Without the ball at his feet, he can do nothing. Every one of them played their part.
As we strode away from the ground, Tommo Jr got a worried phonecall from Tommo Sr, who was watching a ruck transpire in the Elland Road carpark. We were well away from the danger zone by then. Soon we were ensconced in The Angel, eating nuts, drinking pints and feeling – at least I was feeling – drained from the tension of holding a 2-1 lead for an hour.
It really shouldn’t have been that taxing. We should have been out of sight. And but for an exceptional young goalkeeper, we would have been.