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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 01/10/05, 3.00pm
Watford
versus
Leeds United
 
Hex Enduction Hour
By Matt Rowson

One of the most positive developments in the TV schedule over the past couple of weeks has been the reappearance of "Hex", back for a second series on Sky One.

Education for the uninitiated: Hex is a drama set in a creaky English boarding school. The characters as the first series started were the pupils and staff of the school; very quickly, however, their number was augmented by the leader of the Nephilim, and the cast - beautiful people one and all - gradually swells and mutates to include ghosts and, in this new series, all manner of ghouls, demons and witches.

Frankly, it boasts all the cheap voyeurism, patchy storylines and lazy thrills that one would expect from a Sky One series repeated three times a week just after the watershed. And that's without considering the strapline ("Bloody. Hell.") and the "letting go of the reins a little" in Series Two that was implied by this week's "Making Of" documentary. Put all the pieces together and it should be thoroughly awful. Except it isn't. It's quite fabulous.

Leeds United are, in many ways, the anti-Hex. The counterspell. You look at their squad, their stadium, their crowds. They should be outstanding, at least by the standards of this division. And yet...

Admittedly, Leeds' fans' standards might be a little higher than those of others in the division, which isn't too hard to understand. These aren't Wolves... it's only thirteen years since Leeds won the title, four since they reached the semis of the Champions' (sic) League. Despite all that has transpired since, another season of treading water was not part of the plan, particularly after close to 3.5m of transfer outlay since the start of the summer. Whilst United were hardly adrift from the play-off pack prior to Wednesday night's home game against Derby, performances have not been altogether convincing.

Given that Kevin Blackwell served his managerial apprenticeship under Colin at Sheffield United, it's not entirely surprising to see a wide array of strikers competing for a start. Indeed, the "bring in players to do a job in this division" ethic which Blackwell was surely recruited to deliver seems to have been taken to extremes here, with Leeds' forward options reading like a divisional "supergroup" based on the last five years or so.

David Healy, scorer of that goal in Belfast, is likely to come back into the side having on Wednesday night completed a three match ban following a sending off against Queens Park Rangers. He will partner either Rob Hulse, a scorer in this fixture last season, or Richard Cresswell, who has already visited Vicarage Road once this campaign in one of his last games for Preston North End. Robbie Blake could be on the bench, although a calf injury and patchy form have limited his effectiveness since arriving from Birmingham City in July, whilst one suspects that Ian Moore, veteran of innumerable muddy encounters with Burnley in our recent past, might struggle for a game in the absence of injuries. Michael Ricketts, on loan at Cardiff City and linked with the conveyor belt to Vicarage Road over the summer, is unlikely to be missed, one suspects.

The midfield is less well endowed, however, and has a slightly pedestrian look; a lack of creativity was held responsible for the 2-0 reverse at home to Ipswich at the weekend in which the home side dominated possession to no effect. Matthew Spring's lack of opportunity at Elland Road has been bemoaned in more than one messageboard conversation. Shaun Derry, who looks as if he belongs under a bush on Woodhouse Moor with a bottle of Thunderbird, is one man assured of his place; ferocious and industrious in the centre of the park. He's been partnered with Icelander Gylffi Einarsson who seems to have struggled so far but is strong in the air and an attacking threat from set pieces. With Malky Mackay back in the Watford fold on Saturday to add to our aerial targets, the Whites could probably do with all the help they can get in this area.

Jonathan Douglas, on a year's loan from Blackburn Rovers, has been playing out of position wide on the right - the best of not many options, with Steve Stone out for a few months with an achilles injury and Frazer Richardson's speed and endeavour not compensating for his limitations in other areas. Eddie Lewis, like Cresswell a recent recruit from Preston, will play on the left, whilst the spiky Simon Walton might get a place on the bench. Jermaine Wright, surprisingly unconvincing since his arrival from Ipswich, has joined Millwall on loan.

Leeds' backline is surely the most experienced in the division, but isn't high on pace; all five goals conceded in Leeds' last two home games prior to Wednesday night were the result of being hit on the break. The ever popular Paul Butler and Sean Gregan are likely to be the central defensive pairing and epitomise this problem; both hugely experienced, both about as mobile as an Ikea wardrobe. Matthew Kilgallon is the likeliest alternative, with Portuguese Rui Marques' involvement limited to the League Cup thus far. Garry Kelly somehow only turned thirty-one over the summer (what?) but has made over 450 appearances for Leeds; Stephen Crainey currently holds sway on the left over another summer recruit, Dan Harding, and former Manchester United man Danny Pugh.

Neil Sullivan, outstanding in this fixture last season, remains between the sticks although not all are convinced, with several messageboard comments championing yet another Division Two stalwart, Ian Bennett, who should be on the bench.

"Boothroyd's Revenge", then (revenge for what? we can only speculate...). Leeds' away trips seem to have been quite tight affairs, with their last four in the league yielding a total of three goals. The last game before a two week break will do a lot to determine the prevailing mood over that interval... an interval that will hopefully see the return to fitness of our first choice forward line. This looks like the toughest proposition we've had to face without them, at least since the Sheffield United tie, but with Carlisle and Spring's involvement in particular worth keeping an eye on, it could be the most interesting.