I’ve been meaning to blog about Leeds’ promotion since it happened, various celebrations/university assignments and so forth have come in front of it but it seems like a good a time as any to look back and reflect on yet another heart-attack inducing season; just another in the regular life of Leeds United. It seemed so simple, on paper at least but it’s just never that easy with Leeds, there always seem to something which ruins what should be the defining moment and with our ‘destiny in our own hands’ – a sentence I hated pre-match, we only had to win. If we did, it didn’t matter about the rest, the Millwall’s and Charlton’s who had caught us up as we slumped from match to match. We had to win.
It was quite a day for the 38-or-so thousand fans inside Elland Road; for those who had actually been there for the most part it was a culmination of so many emotions from three years in League One. For the 17,000 or so who had just come for the day and probably hadn’t been since Tottenham came to town, it was probably just another day to stick on a jester hat. The truth was this match against Bristol Rovers was for many, a make or break. Leeds just don’t do well in the play-offs and a loss was unthinkable but a very real possibility, such was the occasion.
The pre-match nerves were more than I have ever felt before; I felt sick, at various points throughout the match I felt like my lunch would adorn the seats in front of me. After arriving at Elland Road, most of the time was spent in the club shop purchasing the first decent looking Leeds kit we’d had in years. By the time 2.45pm came, I was in my seat.. standing and feeling as apprehensive; my Dad next to me was confident, but being an eternal pessimist, I was certainly not. My mind was a mush of constant thoughts of success and failure and I knew I was not alone there; Elland Road was packed but an air of trepidation hung over the ground.
As the names of the starting eleven seeped over the tanoy, I was almost shocked to hear neither Jonny Howson nor Richard Naylor were amongst them. It gave me a lift; I later learnt Naylor was injured and it so transpired Howson was our ‘hero’.. What do I know eh? Well not a lot but from what I and thousands of others have seen this season, neither have been outstanding, far from it but true to type, Howson came off the bench to deliver one particularly good performance which he only seems to come up with every couple of months… But they do always seem to come at the right time. That said, 40-odd performances like that and we might not have been in the position of blowing the chance of automatic promotion which we’d been nailed on for. Ifs, buts and maybes. The other significant change, for more than one reason saw the prolific Jermaine Beckford restored to the starting line up and more importantly, as captain in what was no doubt his last game for the club.
The sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you know something awful is about to happen occurred with around 35minutes gone. In fact it was a funny couple of minutes and not funny ‘ha ha’ either. One minute Beckford had the ball in the net – cue short lived euphoria, the next minute, there was a bit of handbags and a lot of confusion. The referee seemed to brandish the red card to two players, including Max Gradel, but then proceeded to only send Gradel off who thought it’d be a good idea to stay on the field and thrust his arms around furiously as he refused to leave the field. It was safe to say that it felt like the whole season was about to go down the pisser (if you’ll excuse phrase). It got worse after half time as Brizzle went ahead and it really did feel like the final nails were being hammered into our coffin.
Thankfully Simon Grayson threw caution to the wind and sent Howson on who had the most lovingly immediate effect, sweeping the ball around the Brizzle keeper and restoring what little belief any Leeds fan had left by this point. Then four minutes later, Beckford did what was written, pouncing on a loose ball to prod home sending Elland Road mad, simply bonkers. It didn’t matter about anyone else now, if it stayed like this, we would be up. In the Championship… It was the longest 25minutes of my life, bar none. That sickening feeling where it all might go wrong had resurfaced and as chances came and went, the clock ticked down and at times seemed to stand still as an announcement for a member of the crowd stayed on the screen for what seemed like an eternity.
Then as 90mins ticked by, no one knew how much was added on, it seemed the 4th official was already down the tunnel with his board as he sought to escape the inevitable pitch invasion and then it happened. The whistle went and as the Bristol players, staff and the officials sprinted for their lives towards the tunnel, Elland Road simply erupted. An out-pour of utter relief as we realised we’d done it. We were promoted. Almost as soon as the whistle had gone, the pitch was flooded with fans as stewards milled hopelessly, powerless to combat the emotionally charged masses.
I admit it, I cried. Having suffered play off heartbreak, year on year, the feeling was just overwhelming. Alien in many ways. I simply stood there, whispering to myself, ‘I can’t believe we’ve done it. We’ve actually done it.’ I was interrupted on countless occasions as complete strangers and those around me who I’d got to know over the past three seasons embraced me. As my Dad had to leave early, for a few minutes I was there, alone but not alone.. As the scenes of joy unfolded in front of me, that fuzzy feeling in the tummy took over, and no I wasn’t about to vomit or anything. I was then joined by my long suffering friend, Adam (and by that I mean because he’s a Leeds fan, as oppose to having to put up with me…) and it was so surreal as the picture below demonstrates.
You could see what it meant to so many of the players and of course the fans and Andy Hughes in particular as seen above and as much as I love Bradley Johnson, I was a bit disappointed his equally exuberant celebrations out-did Hughes’ on the back.. and front pages of the papers.