Da da daaa.....
By Matt Rowson
"I want to say something!" says Lewy, eventually.
There are five of us in the car. Myself, my brother and Dave Lewy quietly seething, BSaD's Leeds correspondent Nick and girlfriend Ruth having enjoyed the evening's outcome rather more. A fragile diplomacy has remained largely intact as my brother's car bounces away from Beeston; Nick and Ruth are utterly gracious, Lewy has been banned from all speech having been deemed by the driver the most likely to jeopardise the entente. An ambulance bombing past us with lights flashing as we head back into the City Centre had prompted him to break his silence.
"Go on then Dave," says Will with a hint of apprehension.
"Do you reckon that's Sean Gregan on his way to hospital?"
It's been an eventful evening, and the onset of proceedings feels like a very long time ago. We had again been located in the pokiest corner of Elland Road, and our own seats were virtually at ground level rendering any judgment of distance and location relative to pitch markings next to impossible, particularly in the opposite half. The anticipated facility to relocate to somewhere more agreeable did not materialise... assurances that plenty of tickets would be available seemingly misplaced; our corner was virtually full.
John McClelland, now a Leeds employee, was briefly in the away end to speak to an acquaintance to warm grins and the occasional handshake from travelling 'orns of sufficient vintage. We were in close proximity to a largely empty but accessible bank of home seating, a parade of orange-clad stewards taking position shortly before the teams came out to offset any risk of disagreement between adjacent supporters. Our most accessible steward nailed her colours to the mast early doors; "I bloody hate Leeds".
Leeds entered the arena on their own, evidently the chief attraction. The red-clad Hornets slipped in after them presumably to facilitate separation of cheers from boos in setting the stage, although the home support was soporific for most of the evening and the strategy fell rather flat.
Word had already reached us in the chatter beneath the stand that Gavin Mahon had succumbed to the dead leg inflicted by Saturday's referee. With Matthew Spring already missing (due to a clause in his transfer that is as graceless as much of Leeds' conduct this evening) and with Dom Blizzard still absent we fielded a central midfield of eighteen year-old Al Bangura and full-back James Chambers. Chris Eagles was back in the side in place of Anthony McNamee; otherwise it was the same line-up that faced Coventry.
Opening encounters were rather tentative from both sides, with the first twenty minutes or so of the match resembling a game of Kabbadi. Both sides were keen to size the other up without giving a lot away... the home side had the edge in terms of possession but didn't create a lot. However the apprehensive response on and off the pitch as Henderson pulled wide to the left and fed a ball into the box which Sullivan fielded with King homing in suggested a degree of nervousness on Leeds' behalf with respect to our recent achievements.
Some dogged play from Lloyd Doyley on the right flank won a free kick off an impatient challenge from Eddie Lewis. Young's delivery into the box was met by Henderson, his knock-down found King who appeared to be wrestled to the ground by Gregan. Appeals from our end were muted, presumably because nobody could bloody see anything, but the verdict on the radio was apparently somewhat more conclusive. This was not to be Gregan's last lucky escape of the evening.
James Chambers earned the first yellow of the game for a tackle that was so late that it was almost in the second half as Leeds had a spell of pressure during the middle of the first period. Lewis was permitted to play-on despite appearing to foul Doyley on the left flank; his cross was scrambled wide. From the corner Rob Hulse, a large oblong striker, rose well above the defence; his header was poorly directed, but permitted to bounce in the area before going wide.
Ashley Young had been largely uninvolved up to this point, but a show of determination in chasing down Liam Miller announced his arrival in the game and signalled our own spell of ascendancy. His persistence freed Henderson, who clouted a left foot shot wide. Shortly afterwards Stephen Crainey made an outstanding tackle on Marlon King on our right, but then contrived to return the ball back to him and eventually concede a corner. Ashley Young's deep cross found Al Bangura alone at the back stick, but the shortest player on the pitch headed too close to Sullivan.
Chris Eagles was the next to earn the Hornets a corner on the right flank, popping up again at the near post to flick Young's shorter delivery goalwards, again defied by Sullivan but not entirely comfortably. Watford now had most of the pressure with Leeds attacking on the break; Al Bangura joined Chambers in the book for interrupting one Leeds break by grabbing a shirt.
It's worth breaking at this point to remark that the most tedious match reports to read in researching BSaD previews are those that blame every ill, bad break and defeat on incompetent refereeing; as such I'm not going to indulge in this temptation here. Beyond this paragraph. Because it was evident as the game progressed with Leeds' fans wailing at every throw in, offside flag and other incidental decision that didn't go their way (and otherwise betraying no suggestion that they were in the stadium at all) that more and more decisions were going to the home side. In particular, the physical excesses displayed by delicate nymphs like Gregan, Butler and Derry were broadly overlooked. Our reaction to one such incident in this spell lead to our steward confiding that "Bates will have paid him", and you had to wonder.
Robbie Blake sent a looping shot in from the right which Foster tipped over in the name of safety. Then a Douglas cross from the right found Lewis stooping on the far edge of the area, but his header was weak and straight at the keeper.
Five minutes before the break we won a free kick wide on the right just inside Leeds' half. The ball was sent in for the dominant Henderson, who again knocked down for the marauding King, again dragged over by Gregan. From our vantage point there was no telling whether the incident had occurred on the penalty spot or on the halfway line, but it transpired that we had a free kick right on the edge of the area.
We lined up as is becoming traditional, with two men standing on the ball with their backs to goal facing Ashley Young. Every match seems to provoke ever more delicate variations on this theme, but the routine on this occasion proved breathtakingly straightforward. Both men peel off, Ashley twats the ball into the very top corner. Awesome. David Beckham doesn't like those you know, too close to the goal, he can't get them "up and down". Pah. One-nil.
Leeds' response was a slightly more vigorous extension of their strategy up to this point, which consisted largely of hoisting balls from the flanks into the far post and seeing what happened. This approach yielded one fine Lewis shot (tipped over) and from the corner a Gregan header off the top of the bar before the half-time whistle blew.
Lucky half-time Chocolate: A Mars Bar
Reason: Successful employment against Sheffield United and Coventry
Level of Success: Rubbish. Depressing evidence that the fortune-bringing powers of particular brands of confectionery are finite. It is also possible that Sean Gregan had already consumed all available lucky chocolate.
"You just need three more now!" grinned our steward before a half-time relocation. Her replacement turned out to be a Leeds fan. "But I wish I weren't...."
The rest of the half time chatter revolved around how we might protect our midfield from the referee's unpredictability via changes of formation, with both of the "new boys" in the centre already on a yellow albeit performing admirably. Redundantly, as it turned out.
The second half began with both sides attempting to seize the upper hand. A "goal" from either side was disallowed for offside within the space of five minutes... in Leeds' case the assistant's flag remaining unnoticed by their lot behind the goal to our left for an entertaining length of time. Watford's disallowed effort came via a powerful left-footed drive from Henderson and illustrated the degree to which new "interpretations of the rule" put pressure on the officials. Henderson was clearly offside, but because the assistant on the far side from us didn't flag until he became "active" the call was interpreted as late and indecisive by the crowd.
Play was much more frantic than it had been for much of the first half. The ubiquitous Bangura executed a quite seismic challenge on Douglas to turn play in our favour; Eagles received the ball on the right and sent a wicked cross to the far post where Butler turned it wide for a corner with Young homing in. As he collected the ball and strode towards our corner to take the kick, Ashley gave us a "Tommy Mooney fist" that had Lewy chuckling uncontrollably for about five minutes.
It was breathless stuff, and much as we were giving as good as we got anyone in the away end would have gone home happily with one-nil at this point. As Bangura relieved another spell of Leeds pressure with some confident ball juggling, Will commented that this felt a bit like forty-five minutes of injury time. And then the game changed.
I have to confess to being distracted by my notepad when the first critical event occurred; however a consensus amongst Leeds and Watford accounts in the car later was surprisingly readily agreed upon. Under minimal attention Stewart, who had been having a convincing evening up to this point, put Foster under pressure with a weak back header. Hulse galloped onto into it and went down under Foster's challenge... a penalty but not a clear goalscoring opportunity with ball and player heading for the corner flag according to our panel. The referee agreed on the first score, but not the second, showing Foster the red card. The incident had come from nowhere, and my level of disorientation having missed the incident was compounded by seeing Foster trotting off when my brother's cry of "Oh Jordan!" had led me to expect the full-back's departure. Enter the veteran in place of Chris Eagles, but he got nowhere near Robbie Blake's spot kick.
And then, of course, it went from pear-shaped to just rubbish. There didn't seem to be much to Doris' tussle with Gregan, but the fat lump of a defender went down and the odds were heavily in favour of another red before the referee consulted his assistant. Without having seen the incident again it has to be said that Doris really needs to focus his aggression a little bit further on the side of the line that involves giving fewer free kicks away. At his best he looks like Duncan Ferguson. At his worst... well, he looks like Duncan Ferguson.
The real mystery here was how Sean Gregan remained on the pitch, having already been booked for a misdemeanour in the first half. Henderson left the field with his shirt ripped from his collar to his midriff, which is kind of a tricky thing to do to yourself even if you're minded to do so. Referee Jones didn't seem interested, and allowed Gregan to roll about a bit and get some treatment before resuming with us now several men worse off than our opponents.
Improbably, we put pressure on Leeds from the resumption of play, earning a corner from which the ever more convincing Demerit headed wide. Much has been made of our side's fitness, and the final half hour of the match demonstrated this conclusively. We settled into a 4-3-1 formation with Doyley and Stewart supporting attacks down the flank and Ashley Young, who barely broke from a full sprint between Henderson's departure and the final whistle, seemingly operating both in midfield and in attack.
Naturally the game settled into our half for the most part, but much as Kevin Blackwell was able to smugly comment on the value of patience in the post-match interviews, and much as Leeds did the sensible things in stretching the play as much as possible, their failure to break the deadlock before they did smacked of a lack of ideas, and one wonders if they'd have scored had we not slipped up. As it was, a controlled but slightly high half-volley from the overlapping Kelly was the best they managed for fifteen minutes.
Leeds introduced two more strikers... David Healy for Douglas and Richard Cresswell for Hulse. Incidentally, Blackwell was heard to comment in last week's commentary on the Sheffield game that our success owed a lot to our ability to invest in our forward line whereas he had not. Except that Cresswell and Hulse both cost Leeds more than our entire forward line combined, Blake cost more than any one of our strikers and David Healy was signed for an "undisclosed fee". Still, poor Leeds and so forth.
Watford's change at this point was to replace Al Bangura (given a fully merited ovation by the away end) with Adrian Mariappa, who settled into a defensive midfield position. Gradually, he earned an unlikely refrain which grew from the back of the stand to the tune of "Let's all do the conga".... "Da da daaaa... Adrian Mariappa, da da daaaa... he's gonna score a goal...."
With the prospect of a result that would in many ways been as much of an achievement as the demolition of Sheffield United a week ago growing and an air of celebration developing in the away end, Leeds kinda put a dampener on things by scoring with ten minutes remaining. Demerit made a tired mistake on the left, Cresswell seized on it and sent a ball over to the centre. Healy forced a good stop from Chamberlain, but the weight of numbers finally told with Blake finishing calmly from close range.
The Leeds fans woke up, and "Marching on Together" rang around the stadium as if they'd contributed to the result rather than just sitting and watching it. To the Watford nine's immense credit we kept at them, and forced some nervous moments in the home defence with a free kick and a couple of corners... one of which Adrian Mariappa briefly looked like getting his head to (now that would have been some celebration). Leeds also had the ball in the net again, once more hauled up for offside (which I guess is an easier trick to pull when you have fewer players on the pitch). Ashley Young, having been in perpetual motion for much of the half, collided with Sullivan as he attempted a quick drop kick and then predictably made more of the incident than it really merited. Our final chance came from the last of those corners, as Bouazza, on for King, miskicked and Doyley of all people snatched at the loose ball with his left foot, sending it wide. And then it finished.
A disappointing result, but all in all if we were going to lose our hundred percent league record this year, then these weren't bad circumstances to do it in. With a weakened side due to some questionable tactics from our opposition, thence reduced to nine men away from home against a competent side, we dug in there and the result was far from comfortable, and still in question in the closing stages. Leeds themselves looked solid but very far from spectacular, and nobody in Watford will be losing sleep at the prospect of meeting them again in the play-offs.
At the end of the game, Betty came to the boisterous away contingent and gave his two fisted salute, just as he has done in response to recent victories. His bullishness in insisting that second place is still there to aim at, despite the evening's developments here and across Yorkshire where Paddy Kenny was saving a last-minute penalty, is entirely appropriate. Whilst we will be shorter on options in upcoming fixtures, this evening was not disheartening in any respect beyond the final score, and there is no reason to believe that we won't return to winning ways at Brighton.
Bring it on.