THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

In their third year in League One and having lost in the play-offs for the last two seasons, Leeds were desperate to claim promotion at The Valley against hosts already guaranteed a top-six finish. Barney Ronay reports

This was supposed to be a Leeds United promotion party. That was the idea, or at least the mathematical possibility, at the start of a balmy late-spring afternoon in the Kentish London suburbs south of the River Thames. By the end of a match that started at chest-jabbing, off-the-ball-bust-up speed and just sort of took things from there, it still felt like a Leeds United promotion party; that is, a painful, soul-searching, but still aggressively defiant type of party. A party attended, perhaps, solely by feisty, gin-swilling, leopard-print-clad divorcees continually on the verge of a Gloria Gaynor party piece.

In retrospect this was always likely to be just another kink in the parabola of pain Leeds have been set on throughout the last three seasons of trying to escape from League One. But it was also a moreish spectacle and by the end of an afternoon when Charlton outplayed their angst-ridden visitors it was even harder to remember why exactly it is that you’re supposed to dislike this team in white with its garrulous away support and its sense of reduced circumstances boisterously borne.

There was a bank holiday-ish feel about the afternoon all the way through. Charlton were safe and in play-off cruise-mode, concerned only with landing an early psychological elbow to the kidneys against a team they might meet again in more fevered times. Leeds began the afternoon in second, just needing to stay ahead of Millwall over their final two games to limp home in the second promotion spot. These teams last met at The Valley six years ago when both were in the Premier League. They still have an air of having fallen far and fast, still not quite sure if this is all some kind of terrible misunderstanding or a new and enduring reality.

On the train from London Bridge lager-gargling Leeds fans chatted with families in red replica shirts in an atmosphere notably bereft of any kind of tension. But then, this was a train to The Valley, home of the most companionable of London clubs. I must declare an interest here. The Valley was the first place I ever went to watch football, in the early Lennie Lawrence days, when the old stadium was excitingly decrepit, the hillside location making it feel like a quarry or a geographical fault, a naturally occurring half-empty concrete bowl.

Derek Hayles was pretty frightening, but the rest of it was almost bizarrely mild. Charlton had another useful function in south-east London in the 1980s. If you ever got cornered by casuals at the bus stop and they asked who you supported, you just had to remember to say “Charlton”. It was pretty much a get-out-of-jail-free card, more likely to draw a snort of pity than a headlock, like announcing that you’re a eunuch or that you have a terrible debilitating heart condition.

The Valley remains pretty much the same, still nestled in its comfortable suburban hillside, but quite grandly fitted-out after the prosperity of the Curbishley-Premier League interval. The club would today draw in its biggest crowd of the season, 23,198, boosted by a bulging Jimmy Seed stand full of bulging shirtless Yorkshiremen. A respectful mob-handed police presence mooched around looking gooseberry-ish, a succession of obsessively cautious PA announcements punctuated the afternoon (“Stewards! Adopt standard crowd exit procedures!”) and much fussicky attention was poured upon the unusually large contingent of press types.

Out on the pitch, as the players did their sideways jogging and their star jumps and – in Leeds’ case – their smashing the ball repeatedly into the practice goal as hard as they could, it felt like a demob-happy Valley. The Charlton fans chattered and chuckled among themselves. Only the Leeds end radiated the usual portable fudge of anguish and ambition. I saw these two teams play in October, when they were first and second in the table and there was an assumption that this was how things would stay. In the event a mind-numbing 0-0 was the beginning of the end of all that. The same day Norwich won 5-1 and commenced their surge. For Leeds the months have brought a sense of entropy and stilled momentum, albeit capped by a run of gritted-teeth victories.

Of late Simon Grayson had got full value out of dropping Jermaine Beckford, scorer of 30 goals this season, but rumoured to be off to Everton on a free wherever Leeds end up. Beckford was on the bench again at The Valley, with the nimble Max Gradel partnering the more traditionally lumbering Luciano Becchio up front. And as Charlton kicked off in gentle sunshine it was Gradel who immediately had a chance to score, the ball gifted to him by a woefully scuffed backpass from Sam Sodje. Alone in a sea of green Gradel approached the Charlton goal with some purpose, then suddenly seemed to become a little embarrassed, stopped, rearranged his feet and scuffed a shot straight at Darren Randolph, who, to his credit, did “make himself big”.

After which Leeds pressed and harried and jostled and visibly perspired, exerting a nebulous kind of pressure on the Charlton half rather than the Charlton goal. It was their best period of the game, although it also emphasised all the things that stand out as being slightly wrong about them. This is a muscular and fierce-looking Leeds team. But it isn’t a very good Leeds team. They had no real craft or guile, just a raging physicality and a lust for free-kicks and throw-ins.

As the afternoon wore on, and the sky clouded over steadily, Charlton’s more measured approach took the game away from Leeds. This was Charlton team denuded for the first time of its teenage star Jonjo Shelvey, who has been signed by Liverpool. It’s a shame Shelvey had to go. He’s a nice player, an un-English playmaker-type, careful with the ball and prone to what might be called “prompting from deep”. Six years in the Anfield reserves and three losing Carling Cup ties should knock all that out of him. Charlton did still have guile, not to mention two yellow-booted dandies in the right-winger Lloyd Sam, the game’s outstanding player, and Cape Verdean midfielder José Semedo. This is a distinctive Charlton team, with the hyperactive Nicky Bailey in midfield, a strangely old-fashioned looking tugboat of a player, and a species of ravaged, rough-hewn primitive man who looked a lot like, and in fact was even called, “Christian Dailly” thrashing around in defence.

Even with Charlton passing the ball nicely almost nothing happened in the first half, beyond one minor shirt-grabbing dust-up between a posse of instantly outraged players in the centre circle. This ended with the now-common practice of a pair of team-mates on each side pushing and shoving each other and bellowing in each other’s faces like hammy actors in an overblown American action film telling each other to calm the hell down and get a goddamned grip.

The only event of any significance occurred 300 miles away – news that Tranmere had scored at home to Millwall brought a great rippling cheer from the Leeds fans, just as people had already begun to trickle away for a half-time mill around The Valley’s network of meccano corridors. So as the players trudged off the game was set up. Leeds needed to score to be promoted. This was their mission. Win 1-0 here and that would be it. The season done, the exhausting emotional scenes of defiant celebratory vindication could begin.

Except Leeds didn’t take it like that. Instead they started the second half anxiously. At one point four consecutive passes were comically miskicked, the last of them going out for a throw and prompting a bicep-flexing, badge-jabbing rant from Richard Naylor. It had no effect, as Charlton took over the rest of the game. Oddly, Leeds did still keep throwing on strikers, even as they defended frenetically deep inside their own half. By the end the players putting in last-ditch tackles and wildly hacking away the red-shirted promptings included the groovy-looking Arsenal loan striker Sanchez Watt and even the great Beckford himself.

As The Valley was drenched in horrible skirling rain, the Charlton fans had become pretty noisy by the end, although without any great urge to taunt their visitors. In fact there seemed to be sympathy more than anything else. The roar from the away end when it emerged Tranmere had got a second echoed faintly around the whole ground. At one point a south London voice behind me shouted “Bloody hell Leeds this is useless” in a tone of great exasperation, as the Charlton subs Kyel Reid and Akpo Sodje both had tempting late chances to win the game.

Finally, with the Leeds fans singing “We only want one goal”, one goal finally arrived. A bout of aerial ping-pong in the Leeds six-yard box ended up with Akpo Sodje leaping powerfully to head the ball goalwards. It was going in even before Naylor headed it up and into the roof of his own net. “Akpo’s claiming it,” Phil Parkinson would later insist. Sodje’s protracted shirt-rippling, knee-sliding celebration by the corner flag seemed to suggest as much, but in the end an own goal seemed somehow more symbolically appropriate and so it would be.

“We are going up,” the Charlton fans chanted as the whistle blew and, thanks to a second-half performance of clenched and nerve-addled ineptitude from Leeds, five other clubs would have the same outside shot going into the final weekend. To their credit the Leeds players looked not so much drained as energetically defiant at the end, applauding the away fans (still shirtless, still making lots of noise) and visibly bracing themselves for another week of anxiety.

Afterwards Grayson looked hollow-eyed and exhausted as he insisted his team had “dominated the game”, as he must at this stage. It was with a sense of evident longing that he joked he would be “giving the players a week off” as preparation for the season’s finale, when a late Beckford goal would ultimately send Leeds up, but only after the familiar-seeming farrago of going behind and having a man sent off. Leeds will have the summer to rebuild, refine and recruit. But the experience of being Leeds, with its exhausting sense of both joy and pain defiantly and unconditionally borne, looks set to continue unabated.

From WSC 280 June 2010

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