Football Commentary: McAllister's magnificence in an age of change

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HARK the Elland angels sing - Gary McAllister will be 29 on Christmas Day. Judging by the influential wiles of thirtysomethings like Waddle and Hoddle, Beardsley and Wilkins, he should peak just in time for the World Cup finals. . . in 1998.

Fortunately for Leeds and Scotland, and to Arsenal's chagrin after their 2-1 defeat, we do not have to wait for McAllister to come good. With their captain in irresistible form, the Leeds dream of eroding Manchester United's lead in the Premiership still belongs in the realm of the improbable rather than the impossible.

Scoring a sublime goal, McAllister had Howard Wilkinson searching for superlatives and George Graham swallowing his disappointment to join in the praise. He was also involved in the winner, ensuring that Leeds began a festive schedule which includes Old Trafford in good heart.

As much as his part in the goals which earned Leeds only their second win in 14 attempts against Arsenal, McAllister's vision and the range of his passing stood out. For Wilkinson, his display vindicated the work club and player have put in since a pounds 1m move from Leicester in 1990. For Graham, it was an uncomfortable reminder of what he has already admitted: Arsenal badly need a playmaker.

'Macca works hard at his craft, and people who worked with him before have noticed a big change since he came here,' the Leeds manager said. 'His attitude has always been terrific, but he used to have a fairly limited view of his role.

'He recognises now that it's not enough to indulge yourself at the team's expense. You've got to do things that a player with your ability might not want to do.'

When he signed McAllister, he got 'someone with good technique, who liked a one-two and got a goal'. Arsenal fans would kill for a midfielder with those attributes - on Radio 5's 606 phone-in, one even suggested bringing Liam Brady out of retirement - though Wilkinson implied that he had required re-educating.

Despite his aptitude for the modern hurly-burly, the beauty of McAllister is that he is a throwback, the inheritor of a mantle which belonged to the watching Johnny Giles. According to Wilkinson, changes in society mean 'tanna ba' players now hone their skills in their mid-20s rather than as boys kicking a tennis ball against a tenement wall. McAllister was ultimately too streetwise for Arsenal.

Had his boss seen a better midfielder this season? Wilkinson hesitated, perhaps reflecting on the fact that Leeds have yet to meet the champions, before replying in the negative. Like his most plausible rival, Paul Ince, McAllister has grafted a steely willingness to work off the ball on to his undoubted style on it.

His refinement was all the more conspicuous for the fact that, on the eve of a World Cup draw bereft of UK teams, nearly 38,000 spectators were absorbed by a contest definitively British in its frenzied athleticism; total commitment rather than total football.

Yet it was Arsenal, playing the ball forward quickly to exploit Leeds's lack of pace in central defence, who had the better early openings. Unfortunately for Graham, they fell to Kevin Campbell on his wrong feet rather than to Ian Wright.

Instead, they trailed when McAllister, flicking the ball deftly round Ian Selley as Tony Adams drove the Gunners out in search of an offside flag, maintained control and composure before angling his shot into the only available space between the onrushing David Seaman and the far post.

'If we'd seen that on a Sunday afternoon, we'd have thought it was from another planet,' Wilkinson drooled, alluding to the galaxy called Serie A. It was no idle hype: leading the Scots in Rome recently, McAllister was eclipsed only by Roberto Baggio - and Baggio belongs to the stars.

Campbell promptly equalised with a glancing header. But Gordon Strachan, eight years his skipper's senior, switched from the left to his natural habitat on the right after the break and, immediately, Leeds looked better balanced and reinvigorated.

Gary Kelly, the only player on the pitch with a chance of playing in the United States next summer, was tantalisingly close to his first goal. Cometh the hour, however, a more seasoned defender showed the 19- year-old Irishman how it was done, Adams nibbling fatally at McAllister's wickedly flighted free-kick.

Sadly for those who fear the Premiership may become a procession, neither side is good enough to challenge United. Arsenal, having spurned a plethora of available passing talent from John Sheridan through Garry Parker to Micky Hazard, are in danger of letting the season deterioriate by default.

Wilkinson insists that professionalism will keep Leeds pursuing a lost cause, although he was effectively conceding the title. 'If you're a runner who does a personal best but finishes second, you shouldn't throw yourself off a bridge. Someone's got to be second, and if it's us, I won't be committing suicide.'

While the imagery was a trifle melodramatic, the logic was, well, logical. And where there's McAllister, there has to be hope.

Goals: McAllister (22) 1-0; Campbell (28) 1-1; Adams og (60) 2-1.

Leeds United (4-1-3-2): Beeney; Kelly, Wetherall, Newsome, Dorigo; Fairclough; McAllister, Hodge, Strachan (Rocastle, 86); Deane, Rod Wallace. Substitutes not used: Sharp, Lukic (gk).

Arsenal (4-3-3): Seaman; Dixon (Morrow, 90), Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Jensen, Limpar, Selley; Wright, Smith (Parlour, 50), Campbell. Substitute not used: Miller (gk).

Referee: K Burge (Tonypandy).