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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 24/11/04, 7.45pm
Leeds United
What shape is his head?
By Matt Rowson

I used to live in Leeds. Ten years ago now... the city has changed a bit, the familiar faces have gone. But I'm sure that it used to be cold up here by the end of November. Very bloody cold, in fact. Not this evening, by those standards.

Which is not all that's changed. On the concourse outside the away entrance there are vendors selling air-horns, that most "continental" of football-supporting apparel, now seemingly lamenting into the darkness Leeds' descent from Champions' League (sic) contention. There's a curiosity on the catering side also; opposite the turnstiles next to the busy stand selling the regular fare of gritty burgers with oily onions, there's a second trailer untroubled by custom selling pork rolls with a whole roast pig on display. Our accents still earn us the grotty off-cuts, though, so not a rarity in every respect.

Inside, we gaze around the majestic Elland Road stadium from our seats, an out-of-the-way afterthought high in the corner of the ground. United are only tenants now, of course, and the 25,000 crowd looks a little lost in the vast arena. Dad sums up the situation succinctly... "They really f***ed this up, didn't they...?".

Watford line up in the blue away kit, which seems a little unnecessary. However following the win at Forest and Cup success in Sheffield, the blue kit has confirmed that it isn't the bad talisman that last year's white effort seemed to be. So not a major concern. No change to the starting line-up, but Marcus Gayle making a surprise and welcome return to the bench in place of the injured Bouazza.

From the off it's evident that this isn't going to be a cagey encounter. Leeds' movement flows and rolls, the width to their formation evident from the start and their target fairly obvious. But it's the Hornets who look the more potent, with Bruce Dyer growling into what becomes his strongest performance of the season and arguably the best since his return to Vicarage Road. He forces an early save from Sullivan, and shortly afterwards Chambers receives a pass from Helguson to open up a half-chance but drives straight at the keeper.

Leeds look sharp and confident going forwards, but eminently upsettable in defence even before we take a ninth minute lead. But what a fine move it is... Ardley's arcing ball down the left flank finding Helguson pulling wide out of the area. He turns and slips a ball past Kelly across the face of the box to find Dyer who slides it unfussily past the keeper from the penalty spot. No happy coincidence this, Helguson and Dyer were moving before Ardley's ball was even played, the simplicity of the finish a testament to what went before. Lovely stuff.

Leeds look rattled, and the Hornets enjoy a fine ten minutes or so. Dyer turns Gregan and draws a foul, central and about twenty five yards out. The ball is rolled to Ardley who pelts the increasingly popular low, fierce shot wide with the help of a deflection. His left wing corner causes havoc, Leeds' defence reeling but the killer touch isn't there and the ball is put behind again for a corner from the opposite flank. This time the ball finds Gunnarsson... my notes don't confirm whether he was unmarked or had just out-jumped his marker into irrelevance, either way we're disappointed to see the header narrowly clear the bar.

Bruce Dyer grabbed possession again on the left as we broke from midfield, and roared towards the Leeds goal with Clarke Carlisle being dragged behind him in confusion. He releases Chambers on the right whose ball across the face of goal cuts between the far post and the onrushing Helguson.

And then Leeds score. Against the run of play, this is their first attack since we took the lead but they make it count; a deep ball finds Deane who chests the ball out to Jermaine Wright. His low, fierce shot beats Lee to the corner to his right and is reminiscent of the same player's goal past Lennie Pidgeley at Portman Road last season.

Leeds are buoyed, and on the offensive. "We're gonna win 6-1" sing the home crowd gleefully, mindful of having gone behind to an early QPR goal at the weekend. The travelling support isn't abashed enough to deny this suggestion the derision that it deserves.

Leeds move the ball around quickly and sharply. One long pass-and-move spell comes to a close with Oster running out of space on the left; then Deane spots half a gap and clouts a vicious shot narrowly high and wide from thirty yards. "Deano for England!" suggests the home crowd, to more derision which is only accentuated when Deane's next headed opportunity goes out for a throw in.

Eventually, things calm down a little bit. Watford remind the home side of their threat with Ardley and Darlington linking up neatly to cover the length of the left flank before forcing a corner which comes to nothing. Then Ardley makes a rare dash between two markers and is hacked down, a panicky challenge by teenager Walton for which he is booked and stamps around in frustration at, furious with himself. The free kick is rolled right to Cox, who clouts it hard and low with similar venom to Ardley's earlier effort, but less accuracy.

We're back on the offensive; Chambers' galloping progress on the right is halted with a crude hack, but Gunnarsson picks up possession and sends a divine ball right for the overlapping Jack Smith. Gunnarsson makes it to the area to meet Smith's cross, but his finish is somewhat less inspired, over the bar from ten yards.

As the half ends the home side have another little spell. Deane sends another header towards the corner flag. "What shape is his head?" asks someone. "How did he score four on Saturday?" asks someone else. The retort, that on Saturday he didn't have Sean Dyche's elbow in his ribs, is flippant - we have no idea what's going on in Watford's area from our vantage point half a mile away - but many a true word and so forth. The next Leeds set piece is delayed as Deane and Dyche get a bit of a talking to.

Lee comfortably tips over an awkward, looping header and then makes a confident low stop to deny Healy cutting in from the left, and the half ends.

Lucky half time chocolate: A king sized Mars Bar.
Reason: We're going to need another substantial performance in the second half.
Level of success: The team look great. But I feel a little nauseous.

We're now kicking towards the packed Revie stand, with Leeds heading into the empty end to the Watford fans' left... a consequence, it seems safe to assume, of Sean Dyche's tendency to force visitors to kick away from their support in the second half. They're doing so without Brian Deane, however, withdrawn (injured, it later transpires) in favour of Joachim leaving Leeds' attack without an obvious focal point.

For a while, the vigour of the first half is retained. After Healy has contrived to put a decent chance a long way over, a generously awarded free kick on the left is sent into the box by Ardley; the flick-on appears to have come from a Leeds head before Paul Butler heads over his own bar. Then Helguson, who's been quieter since a first half booking put the brakes on a little bit, picks up a deep left wing cross on the right of the box, turns and chips a ball across for Sean Dyche, of all people, whose thunderous header away from the keeper looks destined for the back of the net until Sullivan pulls off the save of the game to claw it wide.

Leeds break quickly; Joachim is scythed down by a challenge from each side but the ball breaks to Wright whose deep cross is only delayed en route by Cox. Healy is waiting for the ball at the far post but his unchallenged header back across goal lacks power, which allows Lee to make another fine stop. An outswinging corner is then headed back into the melee on the edge of the six yard box where Lee pounces on it only to get a kick from Butler. Many aggressors would have been given the benefit of the doubt here, but Butler has a long way to go before being awarded such courtesy by a Watford crowd.

Lee recovers and the game enters a quieter spell, the only noteworthy feature of which being Sean Gregan's tiresome attempt to get Helguson a second yellow when the Icelander does no more than stand his ground in competing for a high ball and Gregan spralls theatrically. So it was a real shame that it was Gregan and Butler that combined to present us with the opening for the second... Gregan's short pass back to Butler on the defensive line bizarrely overstruck and bouncing wildly off the defender's knee. Bruce, who has charged around in uninterruptable straight lines all evening, seizes onto it, advances to the edge of the area and surprises the helpless Sullivan by taking the chance early, slapping the ball confidently low to the keeper's left. Pandemonium in the away end, followed by "Brucie for England!" and, a little inevitably, "We're gonna win 6-1".

For a while, Leeds look punch drunk. "Champions League - never again" sing the Watford fans, a little cruelly and, one suspects, not terribly originally; the ref awards Leeds a random free kick in apparent sympathy.

With ten minutes to go we look good for the points; Leeds have had possession, but haven't really turned us around and without Deane, lack much of a threat in the box. One dart into the area is interrupted by a trip by Smith, whose booking is harsh given that more aggressive, deliberate hacks on Chambers and Joachim had earlier gone unpunished. As Leeds' pressure increases we sink backwards, Lee is called upon to take a couple of balls into the box and the defending becomes less controlled. For the first time in the game we're giving possession away, with Smith particularly culpable during a nervous ten minutes.

A right-wing Wright ball into the box is punched clear by Lee, but only as far as Oster on the Leeds' left. With Lee off his line, Oster attempts a lob and makes a good job of it... the shot is accurate and punched rather than floated, but Neil Cox is on the line and heads clear. No such joy next time round though; Wright gets a second chance at a cross from the right and finds Carlisle, muscling his way in at the far post to head home a late equaliser.

So another draw to add to a growing collection from games in which we've played well against capable opponents... and left exhilarated but slightly rueful at the knowledge that points were there for the taking. In the face of such spirited, honest football it's churlish to level criticism; this was a good point taken from a confident team.

As for Leeds, the words "at least" a point in Kevin Blackwell's post-match summary betrays that he thinks the home side should have won; whatever else United have to cope with, you'd think they'd be better served by a more honest appraisal of performances. To their credit, Leeds fans both on 6-0-6 and on websites today seem prepared to offer that. Whilst Lewington is understandably keen to calm any exaggerated expectation, it's becoming increasingly evident that there aren't six teams that are significantly better than us in this division.