No-one is hit harder by the unremittingly harsh light of football’s inherent meritocracy than the supporters of a “Big Club” that falls upon hard times. When they slipped to the third tier of English football during the late 1990s, Manchester City supporters came up with a song that expressed their existential angst called, “We’re Not Really Here”, a singular act of defiance at the plight of their club that bordered upon minimalist genius. “What has become of us?”, is the subconscious question that is constantly running through the mind of the supporter that didn’t sign up with their clubs for trips to slowly decaying League One grounds and early-round humiliations in the FA Cup.
All of which brings neatly on to the subject of Leeds United, of course. There must have been many points over the last four or five years at which the years of the Don Revie dynasty or of the Cantona-inspired, out of the blue league championship must have felt like, if not a dream, then an out of body experience. The supporters of Leeds United have tasted what they have interpreted as hell, but if there are steps to be made on the return journey from perdition, this afternoon’s performance against Arsenal may just reached the point at which, after seven years away, their club took on the feel of a Premier League club.
Leeds United were here this time last year, but their win at Old Trafford, cathartic as it may have been for their supporters, still had the feel of a giant-killing about it and it certainly felt different to today’s match. Perhaps the Manchester United result was the start of this journey, and today’s performance was the arrival at a significant milestone on the way. It was only in the very closing stages of the match that Arsenal finally started to find their feet and the match took on the Rourke’s Drift-esque quality that we might have expected from the final minutes of this fixture with this scoreline. For the first eighty minutes, Leeds thoroughly deserved their lead. This match didn’t feel so much like as a glimpse of what things could be like as what things will be like again.
Simon Grayson, the Leeds manager, was disingenuous with his pre-match comment that, “I would take losing if it meant finishing in the top six at the end of the season”. One doesn’t mean the other and one cannot mean the other – Leeds could end the season with promotion and the FA Cup scalp of Arsenal, or with neither. It was perhaps surprising that he should say this, considering that beating Manchester United last January may well have provided his team with the psychological springboard that pulled them from their torpor and out of League One. Certainly if the Leeds support broadly agrees with him, then it is not a matter of them not caring about the FA Cup if we are to read anything into the Wall of Sound production technique that they applied to their contribution towards the match.
Perhaps more impressive than anything else was, having snatched the lead through Robert Snodgrass’ penalty eight minutes into the second half, their refusal to merely park the proverbial bus in front of the Arsenal goal. As the second forty-five minutes proceeded, they were, as we might have expected, pushed further and further back towards their own goal, but they continued to prod and poke at the Arsenal defence when the opportunity arose and, had Becchio rather than Djourou lunged further towards Gradel’s tempting low ball into the six yard area with six minutes to play, this particular match would almost certainly have had a very different outcome. With a minute of the ninety left to play, however, and having dodged one close call just seconds earlier, Parker tugged at Walcott, and Cesc Fabregas used up one of Arsenal’s nine lives for the season. All back to Elland Road the week after next for a replay, then.
This is, of course, the last thing that Arsenal need, but it is no more than they deserve. As the fifty-something thousand of their support wend their way home through the North London traffic this afternoon, three words will continue to poke their way to the front of their minds. Not. Good. Enough. During the week, Manchester City chose something approaching catenaccio in order to grind out a draw at The Emirates Stadium, but Arsenal were merely found wanting again this afternoon. They’ve only won one of their four matches since concisely displaying Chelsea’s deficiencies just after Christmas and, whilst being in the last sixteen of the Champions League, the semi-finals of the League Cup, still in the FA Cup and in third place in the Premier League is light years from anything that could ever be described as a “crisis”, today was another example of the sliver of uncertainty that continues to follow this team around.
Leeds United may not be promoted into the Premier League this season, of course, and the psychological bounce that a win today might have brought was snatched from them at the death. However, there is still all to play with a replay at Elland Road the week after next and it would be unwise to write Leeds off because they stumbled at the last this afternoon. Simon Grayson’s one man revival of the club continues, and it now feels as if supporters of the club are merely playing a waiting game before a return to the Premier League and a chance to recreate former glories. On the basis of this afternoon’s performance, such a return would be an entirely meritocratic one.
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