Somewhere between Leeds and Manchester on the M62 I was able to truly digest my four-day jaunt back to my native land for the third round of the Carling Cup. Working in football in the United States is a great privilege, and in Pacific Northwest the advent of Seattle Sounders FC has been a revelation for Major League Soccer. However, there is simply no substitute for a strong dose of the English game. As soon as I got off the plane and began preparing for the third round tie between Leeds United and Liverpool old emotions began flooding back.
Long before kickoff all of Yorkshire was buzzing with conversation about this massive fixture. I was reminded of match-ups between these storied northern clubs that took place during my childhood. There were numerous references to Mark Viduka, Tony Yeboah, and other Leeds legends that put Liverpool to the sword in ‘the good old days’. Despite the fact that Leeds and Liverpool had not played one another in five years, the atmosphere on match day was strangely familiar. Leeds city centre was stuffed with United supporters, as many of the old guard came out of the woodwork for this unique encounter. In every pub classic anthems like “In Your Liverpool Slums” and “Only Sing When You’re Stealing” echoed in jubilation, and I had to be careful to conceal my Liverpool leanings. My father and his mates reveled in my discomfort, and after several hours of banter the supporters began boarding coaches for Elland Road.
Predictably, the motorway resembled a car park, and the heavily inebriated Leeds mob forced the doors of the coach open in mid traffic. A sea of white and blue washed over the road, and in the distance Elland Road loomed ominously over the eager supporters. While this historic football ground is revered by the Leeds faithful, away fans approach Elland Road with caution during their respective visits. This was no different for the red and white clad Liverpool horde, and a large police presence was on hand to snuff out any trouble. As helicopters circled the ground with their spotlights aimed at the hooligan element, my large party of family and friends dipped inside the Peacock for one last pint before kickoff.
The atmosphere in the pub and around the ground was simply electric. It was as if the years had been rolled back to reveal a fixture between two of the top teams in England competing for Champions League positioning. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Prior to the match, Leeds United manager Simon Grayson stated that he did not want his side to be distracted from the League One campaign. While this one-off fixture with Liverpool presented a wonderful opportunity for Leeds, Grayson wisely played down the Carling Cup tie to keep his side on task. Leeds are two leagues and forty places below their Scouse counterparts in the English football pyramid, and few were expecting the Yorkshire club to push Liverpool.
Yet as the supporters filed into the ground there was a sense that Leeds were truly up for this big occasion. The Elland Road end was filled with 7,000 Liverpool supporters, as the boisterous Mereysiders stretched from the Lowfields paddock all the way to the West Stand. While these individuals delivered a powerful rendition of “The Fields of Anfield Road”, Leeds United’s supporters refused to be outdone and responded in kind with an overwhelming version of “Marching on Together”. These competing sets of supporters created a cacophony of noise, and Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher hailed the atmosphere as, “One of the best in England.” Leeds routinely draw over 25,000 people to League One matches, but on this occasion Elland Road was packed to the hilt with a capacity crowd of 40,000 on hand. The noise inside the stadium was hair raising, and United’s form on the pitch only increased the fervor.
Unlike many lower league sides that encounter Premier League opposition in cup ties, Leeds did not panic against the likes of Carragher, Javier Mascherano, and Ryan Babel. Liverpool manager Raphael Benitez was even forced to bring on Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson in the later stages of the match, while Fernando Torres eagerly roamed the touchline. Leeds played their usual brand of dynamic football, maintaining consistent build-up through the midfield and feeding the ball to star target man Jermaine Beckford. The Whites attacked beautifully, and on 13 minutes Beckford headed the ball towards Luciano Becchio who placed an attempt into the back of the Liverpool net. With an early 1-0 lead, United supporters shook the stands with their emphatic celebrations. Unfortunately, the center official waived the goal off after the linesman declared both Beckford and Becchio offside. Television replay revealed that this call was inaccurate and that the goal was indeed valid, but Leeds could do nothing to plead their case.
While United mounted several other scoring opportunities, including a point blank attempt on goal by Beckford, Leeds were unable to find the back of the net again. Liverpool withstood the pressure and claimed a 1-0 lead through David Ngog in the 66th minute, sending the away end into raucous scenes of merriment. The Merseysiders retained their lead until the final whistle, but Leeds proved their worth against one of the top sides in the country. Grayson could not hide his admiration after the match, stating, “Nobody expected us to win this game apart from the players in our dressing room and, if you speak to them, they’re gutted.”
The Carling Cup is often viewed as an inferior competition contrasted with league and FA Cup campaigns, but you wouldn’t know that at Elland Road on Tuesday evening. Leeds supporters left the stadium with their heads held high and a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that their side played with the grit and pride that is associated with their iconic white shirt. Liverpool boss Raphael Benitez hailed the home support in his first appearance at Elland Road, and the Anfield manager appeared relived to have claimed a result at the end of the night.
Although I was off to Eastlands the next day to see Manchester City take on Fulham in continued Carling Cup action, the conversation revolved around Leeds’ performance late into the night. At Del Rio’s Italian restaurant in York (a regular finishing point for my football group), United supporters lamented missed opportunities, but ultimately there was a feeling of pride in the club’s efforts. For a side that has been relegated twice in four years and suffered a fifteen-point deduction, this was indeed a good thing.
Leeds supporters are many things but no one can accuse them of disloyalty. As the club anthem states, “We’ve been through it all together, and we’ve had our ups and downs.” For now it seems that the downward spiral may have ended, and if Leeds can continue to maintain pole position in League One, it may not be too long before Liverpool return to Elland Road.