The long road to Cardiff
By Chris Lawton
I was probably one of the first to set off for Cardiff – leaving my flat in Voorhout (Netherlands) at around 09:00 UK time on 18th May. After the better part of a thousand miles, seventy-eight hours, five countries, two weddings and a Leeds fan I arrived at my seat in the Millennium Stadium with ten minutes to spare.
Unlike many fans I had little time to savour the build-up to the big day. The combination of work, travel and visiting old friends barely gave me time to think – let alone get nervous before the match. Not that the playoffs had gone unnoticed. My wife, and probably the neighbours as well, got quite a shock as I erupted out of seat one Saturday lunchtime as Ashley Young curled in his free kick at Selhurst Park.
I had been hoping for Preston in the final. It would have made for a certain symmetry to the season – the only live match I watched was the first match of the season at home to Preston (also the day after a wedding). In the end I got my symmetry: Henderson being both our first and last scorer of the season. From a thumping header in front of the Rookery after nine minutes of the season to a cool penalty in front of the North Stand, Henderson, and Watford, evolved from relegation favourites to promotion hopefuls and eventual playoff winners.
After an epic journey to get to Cardiff I expected more: more passion, more risks and more skill. What unfolded was ultimately rewarding – yet disappointing as a spectacle. Our previous playoff appearance against Bolton had been a sparing match, a tactical battle defined by a couple of moments of skill. Our second appearance is defined by the fact that one team simply failed to turn up.
The result, for me, was obvious from the opening moments. Leeds had opted for 4-5-1. If our four man midfield could hold their own we would win as Leeds tactically would have nowhere to go and we would eventually win. And so it turned out.
Almost from kick-off we seized the moment. A swift surge forward and a corner. As Young's corner swept into the box Henderson only half committed and the defender was able to deflect the ball away for another corner. The pattern for the day had been set. Corners and set pieces were to be curled in at pace from all angles and by the time Mackay's late header was cleared off the line late in the day the Leeds defence had long since conceded aerial supremacy.
There is an old saying: "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog." Leeds, if we believe the pundits, players and fans, are an enormous, pedigree dog which all should stand aside for and allow to plod merrily back into the luxury dog pound where it belongs. Watford, as seven years ago, as twenty-five years ago, are that small, annoying, mongrel dog – no pedigree but a great fighter – which we would rather someone else looked after. Already it was evident which dog was going to have its day.
For all that, the opening exchanges cried out for someone to put their foot on the ball and pass it around. Watford, one man short in the midfield, pressured and harried and moved the ball forward quickly; Leeds looked for the defence splitting pass. Crucially we held our own and began to assert a positional superiority.
The goal, when it arrived, was unexpected. When did we last score from a corner? A number of corners had been flung in deep and from a lofty vantage it was clear that if we attacked the far post when Young's corners came in then there was a chance. As the corner came over it hung in the air asking to be headed in and Jay obliged by launching himself at the target in way Henderson had failed to do in the opening exchanges. It was a great power header from a defender on top of his game.
Leeds huffed and puffed for the remainder of the half. Their only real chances game in injury time where, for the only time that afternoon, we collectively switched off. Foster was fortunate not to concede a penalty and on another day it might have been level at half-time.
Second half and Leeds made the inevitable change to 4-4-2. It didn't work and was never going to. Having lost control of the midfield with 4-5-1, 4-4-2 just gave more time and space to Mahon and Spring to launch a series of swift counter attacks.
From one such break a thrown in was gained on the nearside. At normal speed it looked like a certain Watford throw, replays suggest otherwise and this was the moment that sealed the game. As the long throw from Mahon was flicked on, it fell to Chambers who turned and scuffed the ball goalwards (if I say the turn was better than the shot then you probably get the idea). It ballooned off the defender and looked to be drifting wide.
Sullivan was slow to react and half scampered-half dived across his goal line to reach the ball. He was a fraction of a second too late and the ball was already past him as he hit the ground. In a final twist of fate the ball hit the middle of the post, bounced onto Sullivan's arm hit the ground, took the spin and, after what seemed like an age, crawled into the goal. Fifty-seven minutes gone and the game was over.
Leeds changed a few things around and briefly mounted a repost. As a corner came over Stewart's reflexes (and his boot) was the difference between a nervous finish and seeing out the clock. As the game progressed another swift break saw Spring set up King. As he dragged the ball back to shoot on his favoured right foot, Derry slid in took away his left leg. Penalty.
So it fell to Henderson to seal victory. Just like the opening goal on the first day of the season, his firmly struck penalty low to the keeper's right released a burst of noise and emotion – like a long shaken champagne bottle finally being relieved of its cork. Aidy knew, the players knew, we knew – we were going up.