Thursday, March 25, 2010
Leeds get that familiar fear
It lasted 44 tumultuous days, pre-empted a decline, prompted a controversial book and film and gave them a nickname: The Damned United. Brian Clough's brief but remarkable reign at Leeds United left a legacy. Seven weeks can change a great deal at one club, as they discovered in 1974 and will do again 36 years later. Saturday is the first of 43 days that will determine Leeds United's destiny. The Grand United for half a season, damned is starting to look a more apt description again.
A bygone era retains a significance. In League One, it is barely possible to escape mentions of the Premier League in the context of four clubs who made a swift descent down the divisions: Leeds, Norwich City, Charlton Athletic and Southampton.
For fans of a certain vintage, Leeds' trip to Norwich on Saturday, League One's top-of-the-table clash, is far from the only meeting where silverware is on the agenda. They have a record of competing for rather grander prizes. Leeds' final game of the 1991-92 season was against Norwich; as they had been crowned champions the previous week, it became a celebration.
In the following season, Norwich beat Leeds 4-2 in April, near the end of a title challenge that could have resulted in the Canaries, rather than Manchester United, becoming the winners of the inaugural Premier League.
The subsequent time gives that an air of implausibility. Taking the League One trophy appears altogether more realistic. Norwich, the top scorers in the country, are setting a frightening pace. They have won 21 of their last 27 league games to complete a startling turnaround.
A season that began in ignominy, with a 7-1 home defeat to Colchester on the opening day, is looking increasingly likely to end among scenes of ecstasy. The swift sacking of Bryan Gunn, harsh as it appeared, has been justified by the rapid progress under Paul Lambert. The Scot's front three of strikers Grant Holt and Chris Martin plus winger Wes Hoolahan, reinvented as a central player with a role at the tip of a midfield diamond, have contributed more than 60 goals between them.
It has given Norwich an aura of invincibility that once Leeds possessed. Yet, perversely, their greatest moment for the best part of a decade sent them into a downward spiral. When Jermaine Beckford's goal knocked Manchester United out of the FA Cup in January, Simon Grayson's side had won 17 of their 23 league matches; since then, they have triumphed just three times in 14.
A third season in League One represented another humiliation for a proud club, but a still scarier spectre is starting to haunt them: yet another year at this level. None of the biggest clubs to fall into League One during the past dozen years - Manchester City, QPR, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday or Leicester - have required a fourth season. Leeds' first attempt to escape the third tier was hindered by a 15-point deduction that meant reaching the play-offs constituted a real achievement, their second in a slow start that culminated in Grayson replacing the sacked Gary McAllister.
This season was supposed to be different. With the stability of a settled side, a winning habit that dated back to last season, the guarantee of goals that Beckford provides and a purchasing power few could rival at this level, this should have been a procession to promotion.
For much of the campaign, it appeared to be. Not now, however: Monday's defeat to Millwall means that Leeds could be out of the top two on Good Friday. The 27-goal Beckford is struggling with a hamstring problem, the premier defender, Australia's Patrick Kisnorbo, out for the rest of the campaign with an Achilles injury.
Those who excelled earlier in the season, such as Bradley Johnson, Neil Kilkenny and Jason Crowe, have either lost their form or their place. Leeds have lost their way. At a club where expectations have crushed many, there is an understandable sense of despondency.
Leeds' past is invariably inescapable. Now it contributes to the gloom. Successive failed play-off campaigns has heightened the importance of bypassing the end-of-season knockout. A tradition of being nearly men dates back nearly half a century: successful as the side Don Revie forged were, they could have won far more, finishing runners-up in the league five times, the FA Cup three times, the European Fairs Cup, the Cup Winners' Cup and (after Revie's departure) the European Cup.
It is a history that can seem to distort League One. Others cannot conceive of possessing it; several, such as Wycombe, Yeovil and Hartlepool, had never shared a division with them before the last few years. Yet far from providing an immunity against embarrassment, it seems to make Leeds more prone to it. Their play-off defeats have come to Doncaster and Millwall, the former a smaller Yorkshire club and the latter one of their many bitter rivals.
Further discomfort could await. While Leeds have floundered, Millwall, along with a similarly in-form Swindon side, have the most momentum in the division. With Leeds' hold on second place looking ever more precarious, they represent the greatest threat. Damned might be one of the more polite adjectives used if a season that promised so much delivers nothing.