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FA Carling Premiership, 3/10/99
Leeds United
We shouldn't be satisfied
By Ian Grant

Sunday matches are rubbish, and that's all there is to it.

It's nothing to do with having to fill a blank Saturday - hell, I've got so much to do at the moment that I'd happily support a campaign for an eight day week. I'm looking forward to the blank weekend almost (emphasis on "almost") as much as I'm looking forward to filling the following one with a trip to Old Trafford. It's just one of life's basic rules - Saturdays are for doing stuff, Sundays are for not doing stuff. Simple as that.

Hence the general sense of lethargy around Vicarage Road during the first half of this, theoretically one of the most attractive fixtures the Premiership has to offer. Your mind's telling you that you're at a vitally important football match; your body's taking an afternoon nap in front of the telly.

The nature of our opponents doesn't help matters. Sandwiched between Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, it's easy to see Leeds as something of a respite. It has as much to do with not seeing their shirts on every high street and their absence from the intolerable hype of the Champions League as anything. Above all, they're still recognisable as a football club (fans that sing, quaint stuff like that) rather than the entertainments arm of some giant multinational - although the imminent share purchase by Sky will soon put paid to that. You get three points if you beat them, but you don't get to parade around the office on Monday morning.

Which, bearing in mind that they appear increasingly credible as title contenders, is a bit daft. Our other opponents may be more illustrious, yet Leeds are seriously in form right now, appear considerably less susceptible to the "get in among 'em" tactic that did for Liverpool and Chelsea, and are rapidly suggesting that last season's youthful promise won't remain unfulfilled for very long.

And still we continue to match these teams, only losing out by the slimmest of margins. Apart from twenty dejected minutes after Kewell's winner, we were right in this. Not the best of performances, perhaps, but still worthy of a point and capable of snatching all three. It's a fine line, blah blah blah.

Debates about team selection will continue to dominate, but were nearly forgotten in the first minute. The continued selection of Dominic Foley, certainly not as hopeless as his numerous critics suggest but equally certainly not Premiership material at this stage, raised a few eyebrows. The return of Des Lyttle at the expense of Nigel Gibbs did more than raise a few eyebrows. Yet for a moment we were in "GT masterstroke" territory as Ngonge headed Page's free kick down and Foley was in boy wonder mode, turning instantly and unlucky to find Martyn alert to save with his first touch.

From then on, it was tit-for-tat. Bridges curled a shot at Chamberlain; Wooter drove at Martyn. Bridges headed tamely at Chamberlain; Hyde shot weakly at Martyn. Smith broke through, was pushed wide by Lyttle and couldn't beat Chamberlain; Ngonge cut inside and forced himself into a shooting position, but couldn't hit the target. Defences on top, a familiar picture.

Perhaps one day Allan Smart will get the recognition he deserves from Watford fans. Because, not for the first time, he was badly missed. Without him, our attacks were all fumbles and mis-controls - Ngonge may be a more exciting player to watch, but his limitations as a target man were keenly felt. We left too much to chance, only very occasionally tipping the odds in our favour rather than hoping for a Leeds mistake. Quality of opposition duly noted and usual work-rate duly applauded, we can and must play better.

So, prior to the last five minutes, the first half yielded just two more close calls after Foley's early effort. The first from Kewell after twenty-five minutes was just pure class, cutting past Lyttle like a training session traffic cone and clipping a cross with the outside of this left boot that drifted past Smith's stretch and a couple of yards wide of the far post. The second from Ngonge after thirty-four was rather more basic, glancing a near post header wide from a Kennedy corner.

But when the game did finally come alight, it did so with style as well as drama. Mark Williams' opener was a gem, controlling Hyde's perceptive free kick on his instep and swivelling around his marker to sweep the volley past Martyn. Just the icing on the cake after an absolutely tremendous two months at his new club...but what icing....

We had to hold on until half-time, and we didn't. Ultimately, we only have ourselves to blame for that. Sure, Bridges' precise strike after he'd broken the offside trap from a returned Chamberlain clearance was one of gleaming quality...but the defensive lapse that allowed him to get goal-side and then to have the space and time to pick his spot was appalling. The substitution of Lyttle, replaced by the warmly-welcomed Gibbs at the interval, tells you whose lapse it was - the full-back's habit of getting caught upfield, huffing and puffing in a vain attempt to get back and relying on his defensive colleagues to cover for him, has finally cost us a goal.

Like an elephant stirring briefly before going back to sleep, the game returned to its former state after the break. For a few scary moments, Leeds continued from where they'd left off - Hopkin shot across the face of goal, Chamberlain saved from Kewell at his near post - but their threat soon subsided. At the other end, both Foley and Ngonge were unable to make the most of good crosses - Foley, undecided whether to volley or head a skidding centre, ended up doing neither; Ngonge's acrobatic attempt at a far post volley from a superb Page pass was no more convincing.

Lethargy set in once again. While it was always apparent that Leeds had something in reserve, there seemed little likelihood of them using it as the minutes ticked by. In the final third, they were considerably more dangerous - particularly the live-wire Kewell, who was foiled by a staggering saving tackle by Gibbs in the eighteenth minute - but were struggling to get the ball into the final third enough to make that advantage count. It was a laboured, rather heavy game and it was heading for the draw that most of us would've settled for.

The arrival of the rotund Charlie Miller for his Watford debut lifted our spirits. Or it would've done, had Leeds not scored while he waited to come on and we sang his name in expectation. Kewell's drive from distance was well struck but purely speculative, Alec Chamberlain will know that he should've saved it with relative ease - somehow, whether by slipping or misjudging, he was down too early and couldn't stop the ball with his left hand as it flew over his body. An uncharacteristic error, heads in hands all around.

We don't often look like a beaten side, and it's not a pretty sight. For the remaining twenty minutes, all our hit-and-hope attacking amounted to nothing, while Leeds went on the rampage down at the Vic Road end. If the scoreline had previously reflected reality - two sides scrapping it out - then it rapidly started to flatter us.

Leeds carved out numerous opportunities and should've scored more. Within two minutes of the goal, substitute Huckerby had flicked the bar with a shot after Robinson had misjudged a long clearance from Martyn and been horribly outpaced. The striker, far too selfish to make the grade at the highest level but still fabulous to watch as long as he's not playing against your team, was instrumental in virtually everything from that point. His wriggling run from the right wing went past numerous yellow shirts until Gibbs finally intervened to boot clear, and he did the same from the left before being blocked when he should've squared the ball to the waiting Smith.

Whatever we did, Leeds waited patiently until we finished and then broke with awesome pace. When Miller mis-placed a pass on the halfway line with five minutes remaining, they were away again - Huckerby passing to Kewell, who shot across the face and a yard wide. A minute later, it was the same story with roles reversed - Kewell sprinting forward, Huckerby's drive parried by Chamberlain and Hopkin crowded out on the rebound. As a team, we've learnt to deal with most things...but throwing men forward in search of an equaliser while also defending against the Yorkshire sprint relay team proved to be too much.

For all that, however, we didn't concede. Once again, pressure from a top class strikeforce didn't result in any goals. So we should be kicking ourselves this morning. We might've conceded any number of goals...but the two that we did concede were very, very avoidable. It's getting a little repetitive.

A stormy last minute, during which the referee twice denied Ngonge's claims to mass fury from the stands, didn't disguise the fact that we were still unable to create anything in the final third. The players are capable of it, although some of those who are most capable of it are in the treatment room, and they will know that they have to start delivering it.

To the outside world, a narrow defeat against Leeds is probably a creditable performance. But we know our own potential and we shouldn't be satisfied.