The favourites for promotion before the start of the season, Leeds United started 2009/10 as if they were in something of a hurry to finally lay the ghosts of lower division football to rest and get back to something approaching the normality of the Championship. Their credentials seemed to be confirmed by their January FA Cup win at Old Trafford and grabbing a draw at White Hart Lane against Tottenham Hotspur in the next round of the same competition. They lost the replay, however, and since then their season has started to fall apart at the seams to the extent that some Leeds supporters are starting to worry that the nightmare scenario may be starting to unfold. The team has lost its air of impregnability. They have only won twice in the league since losing to Spurs in the FA Cup at the start of February. Norwich City are now eight points clear at the top of the table, meaning that the likelihood of a trophy being lifted at Elland Road is starting to fade into the background. Might they blow it altogether and find themselves in the League One play-offs again?
Millwall, meanwhile, are showing all the signs of moving in the exact opposite direction. They started the season reasonably slowly, but since the new year have started to assume the momentum of a steamroller. Since losing at Norwich on Boxing Day, they have only lost once in the league, and the quality of their performances has been mirrored only by the calibre of the teams that they have run many of these results up against. They beat the leaders, Norwich, in their return match against them and, in their most recent match, put four past Charlton Athletic in a match which doubled up tidly as a thrashing of both a local and promotion rival. A win at Elland Road tonight would close the gap between Leeds and Millwall to just three points with nine matches left to play and Millwall in substantially better form.
Considering that the home team is still in second place in the league, there is a surprising air of apathy in the air at Elland Road. The loss of form, extortionate ticket prices imposed by Ken Bates, concerns – whether justified or not – about the reputations of the two clubs’ support when they play each other and a Monday night kick-off scheduled solely for the benefit of the armchair audience all seem to have had their effect on the size of the crowd this evening. The mammoth East Stand, which faces the television cameras, is only lightly drizzled with people. The relative lack of atmosphere seems to rub off on the Leeds players, who start tetchily. They lose Patrick Kisnorbo to injury after seven minutes and, four minutes later and with the defence still reorganising itself, Millwall take the lead. Liam Trotter swings a deep ball over from the right hand side and Steve Morison rolls the ball in from a tight angle. It’s a curious and unnecessary for Leeds to concede. Morison, a non-league player not so long ago but blessed with exceptional positional sense, doesn’t finish perfectly and Kasper Ankergren should really have saved it, but the goalkeeper can only palm an eminently stoppable shot over the line.
It sets the tone for much of a first half that sees Leeds chasing a Millwall team that is playing tidy football with a greater degree of confidence and poise than their hosts. The Leeds midfield frequently looks pedestrian compared to Millwall’s, and it is only with a couple of minutes left that they fashion their first real, clear chance of the first half when John Howson gets the ball on the edge of the penalty area, but wraps a little too much of his foot around the ball and sees it fly a foot wide of the post. In injury time, Chris Hackett’s out-swinging corner for Millwall is headed onto the top of the Leeds crossbar by Paul Robinson. The Leeds players, perhaps unsurprisingly, are booed from the pitch at half-time.
Leeds do start the second half with greater purpose than they started the first, but they remain apparently jumpy. Good approach play on the left hand side sees the ball squared into the middle but Robert Snodgrass balloons the ball yards over the crossbar from twelve yards out. They start to push more and more players forward, but the sponge-like Millwall defence soaks it all up and, occasionally throws forward counter-attack that seems to take the Leeds defence completely by surprise. Steve Morison gets clear on the right hand side but shoots into the side netting from a narrow(ish) angle, and Chris Hackett pings the ball high and wide when he may have expected to do better.
With just over ten minutes left to play, Millwall wrap the three points up with a goal that sums up everything that is wrong with Leeds United at the moment. Shaun Batt has only been on the pitch for a few minutes, having come on to replace the seemingly ageless Neil Harris, and he doesn’t seem to be in any great position of danger on the left hand touchline, but he skips inside with ease, dances past a defender and shoots past Ankergren at the goalkeeper’s near post. It’s a second eminently avoidable goal. Much as it is easy to criticise this version of the 2010 Leeds United vintage, by the way, Millwall thoroughly deserve this lead. They have been neat, tidy and efficient, using their possession effectively and allowing Leeds to come at them with the confidence that they will be able to shut them out before any significant threat is posed to their goal. There isn’t any significant threat posed to it in the last ten minutes. The Leeds players, one suspects, know that the jig is up. Elland Road starts to empty with five minutes still to play, and those that stay seem only to be there in order to give the players a piece of their mind as the final whistle blows. A cacophony of boos around a half empty stadium for a team still in second place in the league says much about the strange world of Leeds United AFC over the last five years or so. It’s becoming the nightmare that they cannot shake themselves awake from.
Perhaps the biggest clue came at the start of the second half. The television cameras went back to Elland Road for the start of it, and the tannoy man was still playing “Leeds Leeds Leeds”, a 1972 song that may act as a something of a comfort blanket for Leeds United supporters in times of misery such as this evening. That the club should wish to abandon the past for memories of Bremner, Lorimer and Giles at times such as this is completely understandable, but it may be worth asking how much of an albatross around the neck of subsequent generations of Leeds players has been. The expectations remain so high that any Leeds team that hasn’t won its previous three or four matches seems paralysed with fear and, while it is not a criticism of the supporters of the club to comment upon their absolute enwrapment in the heritage that they have, it sometimes feels to the outsider as if a culture of over-reliance upon the past holds back the current team. Quite how the club, the supporters or the team itself can break this cycle is difficult to imagine. Tonight, though, Millwall came to Elland Road and plundered three points that blow the League One promotion race wide open and, on the basis of this evening’s performance, the Leeds United team doesn’t appear to be in the best mental condition for the rigours that the next few weeks seem likely to bring.