Monday, 19 May 2008

With Great Expectation...

Monday 19th May: So, two weekends in a row without a musical night out, no new CD purchases and finishing two more SF Masterworks which, being honest, just weren't that exciting, has left me with little to write about.

Except football...

A week ago tonight was the first leg of the League One play-off semi-final. A game which saw nearly 36,000 fans heap expectation on Leeds United when they took on Carlisle at Elland Road. Your could almost hear the scorn reverberating around the stadium - "OK, so we haven't got the 15 points back and we are going to have to get promoted the hard way but you are only Carlisle and there's no way you're going to stop us!!" Imagine the reactions of the few handfuls (not able to sell all their tickets??) of Carlisle fans when the weight of that expectation caused the Leeds players not only to look nervous and play poorly but to concede two goals.

Still Leeds have done nothing this year if not prove that they are a team who will continue playing right to the final whistle. It was in the 96th minute that on-loan Dougie Freedman scrambled the ball into the Carlisle goal, past a keeper who had excelled himself all game, pulling off three or four top class saves, including one that looked impossible.

So, 36,000+ fans left Elland Road feeling happy - the few Carlisle supporters because they were in the driving seat for the home leg to come and the Leeds fans because one goal had changed the whole complexion of that up-coming tie. That must have been the first time that a 2:1 loss was treated almost as a win.

And so, three days later, three of us left work early to set off for the Cumbrian hills and the away leg. Yes, we'd managed to get tickets (long story, ask me sometime...) After Monday night's performance I had told a couple of people that my ideal match would consist of an early goal (to Leeds, obviously), followed by free-flowing, end-to-end football, with a match ending "like the away game at Oldham". For the uninitiated, we won that game 1:0 with pretty much the last kick of the game.

We arrived at Carlisle early and from the wrong exit off the M6, meaning that we had to drive through a town centre which, judging by the number of police in full riot gear, was expecting something akin to a civil war. Damn that Leeds reputation. Anyway, after finding the ground and parking up, we failed to get a beer, enjoyed a bacon roll and headed towards our barrier in the terraces. Vaguely surprisingly, Gary Mac had named an unchanged team, despite most people saying that Johnny Howson had been so bad on Monday that he should be dropped. Once again, Carlisle had failed to sell all their tickets - they really shouldn't be allowed to compete in such "big" games!!

Now, I can't remember all the details of the match (I generally can't do that as I walk away, let alone a few days after) but, bizarrely enough, we scored the opener, through Johnny Howson, after ten minutes. So far, I was half right with my "ideal match" scenario. After that the football, at on Leeds' part, was much improved. It now seemed as though Carlisle had the weight of expectation (although, given the number of fans, it was a fraction of the weight) and it looked as though it had affected them as it affected Leeds at Elland Road.

For the next eighty minutes, the football was free-flowing and attacking - we worked their keeper, we hit the woodwork, they forced us to make one save. Then, as the minutes ticked away and the end of the match moved inexorably closer, I began to think that, just maybe, my ideal match would have consisted more of three or four early goals. I was getting more nervous and, as the fourth official indicated just one minute of added time, it looked as though we were heading towards extra time. Then the ball fell to a certain 19-year-old Howson at the edge of Carlisle's penalty area. His left foot swung and with a somewhat less than clean shot, he put the ball into the back of the net for the second time that night. A quick glance at the scoreboard behind us (while celebrating, obviously) showed that we were into the 91st minute. Surely the local lad had propelled Leeds into the Wembley final.

The referee allowed Carlisle one more attack, which petered out, before blowing the final whistle and sending the 1,600 travelling fans into ecstasy. Yes, we were kept in the group after the game had ended and the home fans departed. Yes, it was a two-hour drive home. Yes, we still didn't manage to get a beer.

But it was all worth it. Wembley here we come.

To be continued...

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