By Matt Rowson
Leeds. Population, around 700,000. A large business and financial centre.
Watford. Population, around 80,000. Not a large business and financial centre.
Leeds United. A squad that cost, conservatively, six and a half million in transfer fees. Nineteen players with Premiership (not Premier, not a ship) experience. Two hundred and twenty seven full international caps.
Watford. A squad that cost £1.75m. Four players with Premiership experience. Including Les Ferdinand. About a dozen or so international caps. Not including Les Ferdinand.
On paper, this should be no competition. And that's certainly the take of the large tranch of the mainstream sports media who only pay attention to life below the top flight when it comes to noting who they'll have to patronise, and which manager they'll need to remember the name of next season. "Oh yes, Leeds. Remember them."
According to a particularly witless article in the Yorkshire Evening Post Leeds' fortune is even written in the stars (although I'm not sure that identifying Ken Bates' takeover as the spiritual birthdate of United will please many of their fans - their "charismatic" chairman, indeed, will be on holiday over the weekend and several thousand miles from Cardiff).
One would have thought that, even setting aside that Leeds were evidently so irked by Billy Davies' premature air-punching after the first leg of Leeds' semi-final was drawn at Elland Road, the Yorkshire side and their supporters would be savvy enough not to be presumptuous about Sunday's game. It's not as if there's no recent precedent, warning against taking us for granted after all. But there's little sign of humility, and little caution on Leeds' messageboards. Perhaps a Champions' (sic) League semi-final five years ago is just too high a pedestal to step down from, whatever's happened since. Leeds should pay heed to Nottingham, however, where Forest's two European Cups and the heightened expectations they provoked have done them few favours since.
Bollocks to paper, frankly. Because on paper, we shouldn't have finished three points, two places and twenty goals clear of the Whites either. But we've more than earned the right to compete on the same level as Leeds United. There are countless anecdotes, statistics, and revelations that reflect our very dramatic success this season, but for me none inspires as much as the fact that it's so very difficult, after forty-six league games and two play off semi-finals, to rattle off more than one or two where we've actually played badly. Such a list certainly wouldn't include our fractious encounter with Leeds at Elland Road on Valentine's Day; with the notion of "owing Palace one" evidently a motivating factor in our terrifyingly focused semi-final victory, Leeds should perhaps be a little more prudent. We owe them several.
Ours can't have been the only living room in Watford in which cheers mixed with laughter as Richard Cresswell stupidly got himself dismissed at the second attempt in the closing minutes of the victory at Deepdale, leaving Kevin Blackwell with two names missing on Sunday due to suspension. The other is left back Stephen Crainey, who doesn't seem to have covered himself in glory at Elland Road but has been first choice since the turn of the year in a problem position for the Whites.
Neil Sullivan will play in goal, again one of Leeds' most reliable performers if with the charmless trait of raising a threatening boot every time he collects an aerial ball. Ian Bennett, another experienced stopper, will be on the bench if the Whites name a substitute keeper.
There are a number of alternatives for Crainey's vacated slot, none of them entirely satisfactory. Matt Kilgallon played at left back at Vicarage Road in October, but despite his pace he's never looked entirely comfortable out wide with nervous, hurried distribution a noted failing. Additionally, his employment here would leave Sean Gregan in the centre with Paul Butler, out for almost a month with a calf injury. Neither is the quickest at the best of times, and on the large and sapping Cardiff pitch Butler seems unlikely to be risked.
Former Brighton fullback Dan Harding and Danny Pugh, signed from Man United in the Alan Smith deal and linked with the Hornets several times in the last twelve months, are both orthodox left backs in the squad but neither is thought to be match fit, and neither has impressed in the first team of late. Harding is quick, and Pugh tenacious, but both have a tendency to get caught out of position; Harding has yet to feature in 2006.
The other option on the left is right-sided Frazer Richardson, who missed the first few months of this year but impressed in a role wide on the right of midfield in the Deepdale tie, scoring Leeds' second goal that finished the contest. A drawback to fielding him on the left, however, is the loss of an attacking right-sided outlet which has been another weakness of the squad this season, with fullback Gary Kelly the main threat on this flank. The Irish international, with Ashley Young to think about, might do with some support on the right hand side.
With Richardson at right back, the experienced Steve Stone could play on the right of midfield; however he does lack pace, and probably the match fitness to last ninety minutes having managed just one start for the Whites this season due to injury. David Healy has also been fielded wide on the right, where much of his attacking threat has been limited. No such dilemma on the left, where Eddie Lewis has been an automatic choice. The thirty two year old American has already spent time with his national squad in preparation for the World Cup, rejoining Leeds earlier this week.
Kevin Blackwell has favoured a narrow three in midfield with two wide men supporting the front striker. Shaun Derry, who ended Betty's playing career whilst at Notts County, will certainly feature alongside Manchester United loanee Liam Miller. The third place will go to either Blackburn loanee Jonathan Douglas, or "six pounds plus" Eirik Bakke, whose commitment to the cause has been questioned.
Up front, pantomime dame Rob Hulse is likely to plough a lone furrow; he has been suffering from hip problems since the start of the year and his stamina too will be tested. Robbie Blake, scorer of two goals against us at Elland Road, is another possibility whilst Jermaine Beckford, who turned down the Hornets and reportedly half of the clubs in the country to sign for Leeds, could provide a pacy option on the bench.
A play-off final is always going to be tough; these two sides wouldn't be here without something about them. But Betty's steely, unshakable belief now runs through the Watford team and no Hornets supporter, nor anyone who's actually been paying attention, will doubt that we are more than capable of doing this. As Betty warned after the Elland Road encounter, "You haven't heard the last of us".
Bring it on.