After the two sides finished level at Rockingham Road a week and a half ago, it was the only draw that could have been made. Manchester United. For Leeds United, this match is an opportunity to make acquaintances again with their rivals from the other side of the Pennines. Their fall from grace has been bumpier than most, and possibly the most hurtful aspect of the whole sorry saga is that Manchester United supporters have been going whole days, perhaps even weeks, without thinking about how much they despise Leeds United. In football, hatred doesn’t have a great deal of currency unless it’s reciprocated.
After the last couple of seasons, the good times may be starting to slowly return to Elland Road. Exceptional in League One this season under the managership of Simon Grayson, it already seems impossible to not see them topping the table come the end of the season. Only the continuing question marks over the ownership of the club and what is now looking like some highly suspect behaviour during the summer of 2007 remains an issue for the club. Tonight, though, is about validation and identity. Manchester United against Leeds United in the Third Round of the FA Cup would be a throwback to the days of the Premier League and the Champions League.
The appeal of a trip to Old Trafford to Kettering Town should be obvious. Quite asides from anything else, the financial reward would be massive. Rumours of their imminent demise may have been overstated by their owner Imraan Ladak, but the gulf between the haves and have nots in football is now so colossal that one match there could shape the club’s future for the next five years. Since holding Leeds to that unlikely draw, however, their fortunes have been mixed. They went to Kenilworth Road and beat Luton Town by an odd goal last Wednesday, but last week their recent dip in form continued with a home defeat by relegation-threatened Salisbury City last weekend. Such inconsistency may end up costing them in the Blue Square Premier, where a suddenly in form AFC Wimbledon are suddenly breathing down their necks.
At some unspecified point this afternoon or this evening, however, Kettering freeze. Maybe the size of the task hit them as Elland Road, a stadium which still carries the demeanour of a Premier League stadium, looms into view for the first time. Maybe it hits them backstage, as the history of Leeds United – the ghosts of Revie and Bremner – start to reveal themselves. Maybe it happens on the pitch, when they see the gargantuan East Stand for the first time. Whatever the cause, for the first forty-five minutes they freeze. The ITV commentary team blames the width of the Elland Road pitch, and Kettering look diminutive as Leeds stroke the ball around them. Robert Snodgrass crosses from the left and Luciano Becchio heads wide of the stranded player-manager Lee Harper. They have other chances, too – Beckford brings a fine one-handed save from Harper and heads narrowly wide. At the other end of the pitch, Anthony Elding gets half a break but fires well over. Half-time comes with the two division difference between the two sides all too apparent.
The first five minutes of the second half follow the same pattern – Becchio’s close range header hits the inside of the post and out off Harper and Beckford’s shot is saved by the goalkeeper – but then the fog lifts. From out of nowhere, Kettering start to drag themselves back into the match. Their passing crispens and their movement off the ball is more intelligent, and it earns its reward. Just after the hour, Richie Partridge finds himself an acre of space on the right hadn side. He swings the ball over towards the edge of the penalty area and Anthony Eldridge – a transformed player since half-time – stoops to head the ball past Ankergren to bring them level.
Suddenly, the game is alive. Leeds supporters that stayed away because they considered this match to be a foregone conclusion (the crowd is only just over 10,500) may be rueing their decision. They are being outsung off the pitch and, for twenty minutes, they are outplayed on it too. Leeds do start to reimpose their authority – Beckford brings two good saves from Harper – but the visitors throw legs, bodies and backsides in the way of the ball. The clock ticks over ninety minutes and Leeds still haven’t found a way through. Deep into stoppage time, substitute Tresor Kandol’s header is scrambled off the line by Andre Boucaud and seconds later the whistle blows. Extra time.
Leeds continue to pile on the pressure during the first period of extra time. Snodgrass hits the angle of post and bar – the third time that they have managed to hit the frame of the goal this evening – and the follow up is blocked. “It’s not the despair, I can stand the despair; it’s the hope”, said John Cleese in the 1986 film “Clockwise”, and thoughts along these lines must be running through the heads of the away supporters at a time like this. Kettering are starting to tire, and it is becoming noticeable. Still, though, there is a head, a foot or a buttock getting in the way of every ball into the danger area, and the Leeds shooting is looking as tired as the Kettering defending. Half-time in extra-time arrives and the teams are still level.
Three minutes into the second period of extra time, Leeds finally, finally find a way through. A break on the right hand side sees the ball squeeze into the penalty area, and Mike Grella drives the ball into the top corner from close range. A minute or so later, Tresor Kandol leaps to head a third goal from five yards out. In the space of a minute, Kettering hearts have been broken. Leeds are home and dry, and seem intent now on punishing Kettering for having the temerity to take them into extra-time in the first place. Grella adds a fourth from the edge of the penalty area – a third Leeds goal in eight minutes – and Beckford scores a fifth (ill-deserved, considering the paucity of his performance over the previous one hundred and nineteen minutes). Leeds have been flattered tonight, and it was primarily the tiredness of the non-league side in extra-time that proved to be the biggest difference between the two teams.
Full-time comes with the Elland Road crowd somewhat embarrassingly “oléing” their team keeping possession. In extra time. Against a team from the Blue Square Premier. They’ll need a major improvement on their performance for much of this evening if they are not to find themselves on the end of something that approaches being just as humiliating at Old Trafford in the next round next month. For Kettering meanwhile, and evening that looked like being an absolute disaster ended up as a night that, despite the scoreline, will enhance the reputation of the club no end. They are back on the Wembley trail in a somewhat more achievable sense on Saturday when they entertain Barrow in the First Round of the FA Trophy. They may have missed out on Old Trafford, but they will have made a reasonable amount of money from having got this far and they can take their leave from the competition with their heads held high.