Leeds United 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1: By the end, there were plastic bags and crisp bags skittering across the turf of a club which has long since been cast out of the big time and onto the Premier League’s refuse tip.
But that was the only rubbish on view. This was a day when Leeds simply didn’t flinch in the face of a fixture with history which, to quote their manager Neil Warnock’s observations beforehand, “runs off the tongue naturally”.
For his Tottenham counterpart Andre Villas Boas there was the substantial gamble of starting the game without any recognised striker – a risk which he is willing to take with the remainder of the Premier League campaign, judging by his declaration last night that Tottenham will not be bringing in new players. But the minimal chances his side created made the absence of Jermain Defoe or Emmanuel Adebayor a theoretical concept, even though Defoe might have done better with the chance that the rookie Jonathan Obika squandered at the death.
The most decisive factor in Leeds’ progress was actually the Premier League side’s inability to deal with the long balls which caught them so desperately flat. It is the kind of tactic for which sophisticates of the game like Villas Boas have little time but it frequently caused him and his high defensive line problems when he managed Chelsea. Perhaps Neil Warnock sensed that, because it was the factor which put Tottenham out of the FA Cup.
Warnock has always been willing to employ the unfashionable methods which others might discard and El-Hadji Diouf’s integral role in this victory revealed the rewards. It was a gamble bringing Diouf across from Doncaster Rovers after an English career blighted by the controversies which famously led Warnock to brand the Senegalese a “sewer rat”.
But Warnock told The Independent earlier this season that he was the team’s “matador” and that much was certainly true yesterday. He was at the crux of both his side’s goals and in his partnership with the 26-year-old Scottish striker Ross McCormack, whose curled finish proved the difference between the sides, there was something Tottenham could never match.
For Tottenham, Scott Parker displayed the type of bite which Dave McKay used to in a Tottenham shirt, in the days when he and Billy Bremner would slug it out. Aaron Lennon, who started on the right, switched to the left and drifted inside, was buoyed enough by his return to the club where he played 45 times before his £500,000 move to White Hart Lane, to show that he is now the finished product.
But these individualists sorely lacked partners. The reason given for Jermain Defoe’s omission from the squad was a knock to the hip, though Villas Boas’s acknowledgement that he will be fit for Norwich on Wednesday suggested that Premier League considerations came into an equation. Warnock certainly thought so.
Leeds’ lead at the break did not feel like another morality tale about a Premier League side’s complacency. Spurs had played the better football by then. But Warnock had taken a gamble with his strikers too – deploying Luke Varney instead of Luciano Becchio, the Argentine whose refusal to accept a new deal clearly rankles. Varney has had his moments this season but he displayed the calmness and presence of mind to provide the finish which sent his side ahead.
Michael Brown’s flick up and volleyed punt from his own half, helped on by Diouf, was only speculative but Kyle Naughton was leaden and Varney was liquid, racing into the penalty area and clipping the ball right-footed past Brad Friedel just as he reached the six-yard box.
Spurs allowed no immediate sense of optimism for a Championship club who led Chelsea 1-0 at half-time in the League Cup earlier this month and wound up losing 5-1. Bale’s solitary first half excursion past his full back Lee Peltier, putting the ball through the defender’s legs and following it, felt like a premonition – though a tame cross followed. But Diouf and the strikers he operated just behind looked like the ones with the plan. McCormack gave and went, racing onto Diouf’s return ball which he eased back behind Steven Caulker and, after looking for options on the edge of the box and finding none, bent a left-footed shot past Friedel to double Warnock’s money
Warnock had said his defenders were looking forward to “pitting their wits” against Bale but the two men billeted to stop his left foot launching a grenade couldn’t prevent the cross from which Clint Dempsey’s looping header halved Leeds’ lead within eight minutes.
But thereafter Brown marshalled a rearguard in which 22-year-old centre half Tom Lees stood particularly firm. Resilience was written through the spine of the team. Obika, running onto a lofted ball a minute from time, was crowded out by Paul Green but it was McCormack – racing behind Benoit Assou-Ekotto again – who had the better chance to extend the scoring. The strong right hand of Friedel repelled him.
The good old days feel like a long way off for Leeds. The new owners, GFH Capital, have endorsed the widely held view that they are experiencing an “acute lack of cash.” The fans’ frustrations were clear last night in the way Warnock lamented their sarcasm towards the players. “The glass is often half empty, never half full, in Leeds. Maybe that’s a Yorkshire trait, that,” Warnock said.
But they were kings for this day, at least, and well deserved their coronation.