At last, a nice “home” game for me to attend so the eyewatering £34 advance ticket price Leeds charged was counterbalanced by it just being a £4 day bus ticket to get to. I left OMB at home as he didn’t enjoy going to Elland Road earlier in the season. All part of the decidedly retro feel to the surroundings. Fans wearing 1970s style scarves (although depressingly modernly the vendor of the abominations that are half and half scarves had sold out of Leeds/Brentford ones). A stadium that is a symphony in rusting corrugated iron. And a long pre-match video of the golden era of Leeds United which could have been shown before every home game for the last 10 or more years, so lacking in any recent action was it.
Last time Brentford visited Elland Road was in League 1 and we nicked a draw through a goal from Ben Strevens (currently plying his trade at non league Eastleigh). That was a plucky result and the Brentford of those days was happy to have acquitted itself creditably against an obviously bigger club that was temporarily reduced to its level. The feeling this time was very different.
We started in fifth spot and Leeds were just a few points above the relegation zone, albeit having put together a 4 game unbeaten run including a win at Elland Road against top of the table Bournemouth. Back in August when I saw our first away game in the Championship at the Dean Court (OK, Goldsands if you must) I thought we were reasonably closely matched but for them just having that little bit extra quality and experience that having already had a good season in the Championship gave them. since then, both us and them have surprised by being at the top end of the table with us just those few points and places below. So, having seen how clinical Bournemouth have been in front of goal and how we somehow failed to convert so many good chances into goals against Middlesbrough I think everyone expected this to be a tough game. Leeds legend Eddie Gray had fairly summarised in the Yorkshire Evening Post that while he thought we were a good team he expected Leeds to have a good chance of winning the game (he’d also earlier in the season been very complimentary about how we beat them at Griffin Park and more generally about how our style was something Leeds ought to aim to emulate).
The first half was therefore somewhat as expected. Leeds set themselves up to press high up the pitch to prevent Button playing the sweeper keeper and starting moves off by short passes out to defenders. Pretty much every clearance had to be long and this disrupted our usual pattern of patient build up play from the back. However, the flip side of this was that we had unprecedented amounts of space through the middle. Early on Gray ran past the lumbering centre back Bamba and ought to have scored when one on one with the keeper. Jota too had a similar chance go begging after he slipped his man (or men – he was relatively ineffective in the match because Leeds doubled up on him, although this of course did open space elsewhere). Pritchard then had Gray waiting for a through ball but took at step too many and was clattered for a free kick – I suspect that had Gray buried his earlier chance Pritchard wouldn’t have hesitated and made the pass before the defender had a chance to get close enough to foul him.
Second half, Leeds’ manager Neil Redfearn must have decided that he couldn’t keep letting us run through the middle with impunity like that and so changed things so that they weren’t pressing high any more but instead were plugging those gaps. Suddenly we were back to our more favoured way of playing – patiently building out from defence. After about 10-15 minutes of the second half where we had reverted to having midfielder Bees “swarming” around the final third with a lot of short passing and movement I had the feeling that a goal was almost inevitable and also that it would knock the stuffing out of Leeds. Indeed they looked like they had almost given up even before Pritchard had an easy goal from a nice ball played across the area by the typically tireless Diagouraga. I don’t know what they’ve been feeding him but Toumani Diagouraga has blossomed into a great player who, if he could score goals would be a very strong Premier League player on his performances this season. Not quite Yaya Touré but not so very far off as it might have seemed possible even a year ago when he was packing his boots for a loan spell at League 2 Portsmouth.
Somehow though, the goal and the continued pressure didn’t turn into the glut of goals I thought would come. But, apart from repeated theatrical diving from Leeds’ Rodolph Austin which ought to have earned a booking (and perhaps a penalty on one occasion but I haven’t seen the replay) and an almighty goalmouth scramble in the final seconds (much like ours at home the previous weekend against ‘Boro) where Bidwell bravely put his face in the way of a goal bound effort there was neither a real threat from Leeds nor another goal for us. Although Toral did hit a thundering drive against the post which would have been a goal of the month contender. The general all-round excellence of the team can probably be summed up by an outrageous piece of skill by Bidwell who, facing towards goal flicked the ball over his head, spun and took the ball forward. It was so good and showboaty a moment that at the time I was convinced it must have been Pritchard. And when your left back is capable of the skill and flair of perhaps your most creative attacking midfielder you know you have a special team. [edited – I originally misattributed the “faceblock” to Dean, which just goes to show the range of Bidwell’s performance, both amazing Pritchardian skill and Harleean physical courage!]
Now we stand in 4th place on 52 points pretty much guaranteeing safety from relegation, five points off top spot and five points clear of 7th place. Can we really keep this up? Players and management clearly believe we can. So let’s all put on those shades so we don’t get blinded by the dazzling brilliance!