When the draw for the 3rd round of the FA Cup was made, I was hoping for Arsenal. I had previous guessed we’d get them at the Emirates, more out of hope than expectation I grant you but for once, my premonition came to be. Once again Leeds would get the chance to compete with one of the best teams in the world, and from a ‘day out’ point of view, the chance to play them at their ‘new’ stadium was an exciting one.
The day started very early, 5am. The coach departed at 6am and by the time we got to Elland Road, the queues were already long and to top it all, it was freezing and inexplicably wet. After mumbling about having to wait and why it was taking so long for the coaches to be pulled forward, the stewards came and asked for people traveling in a three. By chance we’d managed to skip most of the queue and were fast-tracked on to the next coach. Not a bad start.
As usual, the coach stopped at one of the rubbish service stations which didn’t have any sort of fast food joint and instead had an imaginatively named eatery, I think it was the ‘eat and drink company ‘or something equally shit. With barely any change from a tenner for a couple of hot drinks and a paper we were heading to North London.
Arriving at Finsbury Park, we followed the stream of Leeds fans heading towards the Emirates. It was a shortish walk but unlike other away games, there was no uneasy feeling about the surroundings or indeed the opposition fans. Heading through the terraced streets, past the old Highbury ground which has been turned into very lush looking apartments, we arrived at the Emirates. High and exposed, the ground is indeed very impressive on the eye. Adorned in a banner displaying past and present players with huge glass windows displaying the bars, it is undoubtedly a structural triumph; but not necessarily a ground which will turn into a classic venue.
Inside, the unfamiliar refreshments available included dishes from a noodle bar and unfortunately, no alcohol. Instead we feasted on their ‘hand crafted’ pies which, even at £4 a pop, were extremely impressive. I give you the chicken balti:
Not a treat on the eyes as much as the pallet..
After chucking away a few quid on what turned out to be useless bets, we took our positions in the stand. Not a bad view…
Oddly, the stadium felt smaller than it looks on the television but it is nonetheless an extremely impressive looking arena. As the fans trickled in, the warm ups finished and the players took to the pitch. After a few minutes spent waiting for ITV to finish one of their gazillion ad breaks, the game got under way.
With Arsenal fielding a relative ‘2nd XI’, Leeds’ strongest line up greeted their Premier League hosts with a familiar edition to the starting line up. Sanchez Watt had been given special permission by Arsene Wenger to play against his parent club and proved he was determined to take his chance.
The game is a bit of a blur now if I’m honest. Arsenal attacking and Leeds defending was pretty much the gist of it. Attack after arrack reigned down on the Leeds goal but Arsenal’s front two of Nicolas Bendtner and Marouane Chamakh showed just why they have been in the periphery for the Gunners as they wasted chance after chance to put the home side ahead.
No more than half a dozen defensive headers were won by the Leeds defense as Chamakh and Bendtner towered over Leeds but despite the space and aerial superiority, they failed to trouble Kasper Schmeichel in the Leeds goal.
Simon Grayson’s troops were valiant in their efforts, with a five man midfield which continually frustrated Arsenal, Leeds soaked up the pressure. Schmeichel saved early on from Andrey Arshavin who found himself one on one with the Leeds keeper and Arsenal sent shot after shot towards the Leeds goal but the excellent Alex Bruce and Andy O’Brien were doing everything to repel the onslaught. Skipper Jonny Howson clawed one off the line as Schmeichel denied Bendtner again and Denilson before half time.
It was an absorbing game and the minutes disappeared as Phil Dowd blew for half time. As the whole of the middle tier of Arsenal fans disappeared into the bars, we took our seats for the first time. Very comfy and with plenty of leg room, an unfamiliar comfort – I could’ve quite happily fallen asleep.
The second half started in much the same fashion as the first and as the 8,500 Leeds fans continued to out-sing the timid home fans, Leeds were still more than in the match. Despite the pressure on them, it was Leeds who took the lead; Max Gradel’s jinxing run into the box down the Leeds left was clumsily halted by the hapless Denilson; Dowd had no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Rob Snodgrass immediately went in search of the ball; there was no doubt over who was taking this penalty, despite the fruitless attempts of Luciano Becchio to get the ball off him. The tension was unbearable, surely he’d miss, or something. I could barely look as Snoddy stepped up, I thought the keeper had saved it but the power was enough to take it beyond Wojciech Szczesny and the Leeds end erupted.
We were in dreamland again; just like at Old Trafford the year before, we had been pounded on for the whole game yet somehow we were in the lead. We couldn’t pull off a shock, not again…? Everything was a bit hazy.
As the Gunners pressed in search of an equaliser, Leeds weren’t done yet and Szczesny had to be alert to keep out a powerful Becchio header. Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas had entered the fray almost unnoticed as they chased the game. Snodgrass sent a free kick just wide as Leeds looked to finish the unthinkable.
Ten minutes later, Theo Walcott had also been thrown on and Leeds were really under the cosh. As Fabregas sent ball after ball over the Leeds back four, Leeds were sitting deeper and deeper and spent the rest of the match camped on the edge of their own box. With Leigh Bromby sent on in place of Watt – who received an ovation from both sets of fans, it was clear Grayson wasn’t risking anything.
Attack after attack broke down and chances were missed by Arsenal and amongst the away fans, the thoughts of victory which had scarcely been dreamed of were now coursing through the stands, would it be our day? Would we hold out?
Suddenly, it all seemed over. Walcott was sent tumbling in the box – something he later admitted was caused by him throwing himself to the ground; Dowd blew for a penalty and as confusion reigned, Dowd hadn’t noticed his assistant flagging for an offside and Leeds escaped. From the replays, the offside shouldn’t have counted as it came after Dowd had blown for the penalty, which also ‘shouldn’t have counted if it had’ because Walcott dived – something he later admitted.
Momentarily it seemed we had got away with it but in Walcott and Fabregas, Arsenal had managed to grab a hold of the game and right at the death, as Walcott danced past Ben Parker, Parker’s rush of blood to the head saw him grab Walcott’s arm and despite managing to get a shot away, Dowd had again pointed to the spot. This time there was no reprieve and Fabregas took the responsibility by smashing the penalty home, they were level.
With four minutes of injury time, there was still an opportunity for Bendtner to waste another chance and for Schmeichel to pull off the save of the game as he somehow clawed away Denilson’s rasping drive. Leeds held out though and the replay which neither manager wanted would now take place.
As the home fans trudged away, Leeds stayed to applaud their players heroic efforts; once again we had matched Premier League opposition, held out against monumental pressure and come away with a result. Make no doubt that if Fabregas and Walcott had been on the pitch for the whole match, Arsenal would’ve won by a sizeable margin but their team contained players who would grace most Premier League’s first XI’s. The likes of Arshavin, Bendtner and Chamakh really struggled and were frankly shocking but take nothing away from the Leeds players who battled, believed and fought for their lives.
The MOTM award for me, went to the formidable Bruce. As Wenger quipped afterwards, the names of Bruce and Schmeichel are destined to forever cause him problems and both excelled for Leeds. After the last couple of games where Neill Collins has been falling over his own backside on numerous occasions, the worry was that he would be facing Arsenal but Bruce was brought back into the side and was clearly determined to show he wants to stay there. Despite an early knock which looked like bringing an end to his afternoon, Bruce soldiered on; imperious in the tackle and commanding in the box, Bruce was rarely at fault. There was little he could do about Bendtner and Chamakh’s aerial superiority but the fact that none of their headers caused any real moments of worry was partly down to Bruce being a constant thorn in their sides. And the fact they’re just not very good helped as well.
Parker struggled against Walcott but having been out for so long with a succession of injuries and with Walcott being pretty quick, it is neither surprising, nor a criticism. Parker will hopefully continue at left back and be back on top form before long. Lets face it, if Andy Hughes had played the full match in his position, he’d be in A&E now still being untangled.
In midfield, Bradley Johnson had one of his best games in recent months alongside Howson who was his usual self, battling, strong in the tackle and generally found himself in the right place at the right time whenever Leeds were in trouble. On the wings, Watt did himself no harm in getting himself back into Grayson’s good books as he made several good runs with a determination to outwit his Arsenal friends. Gradel had a quieter match while Becchio battled away up front on his own, feeding off the long balls Leeds were forced to play as Arsenal constantly pressed.
Ultimately, any sort of result was of course, a massive achievement which has delighted the fans but I doubt it surprised Grayson, or his players. There’s a belief in them when we play higher class opposition, like Man Utd, Tottenham and Liverpool last year, there was almost the stronger will to prove to the footballing world that we are on our way back to the top; we’re making inroads and tests like these just go to prove that the Premier League is surely not too many years away.
All in all, a great day out, a great result and a great match in prospect a week on Tuesday/Wednesday.
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