Football: Leek's week of total football

Stephen Brenkley follows the incredible journey of Mike Pejic and his marathon men; Six games in eight days... the captain breaks his leg, the manager loses his voice but joy abounds
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The Independent Online
ON the touchline Mike Pejic grew anxious and hoarse. It was the middle of a gruelling week and if his emotions were being stretched that was nothing to what was happening to his vocal cords. The players at whom he barked instructions, encouragement and chastisement in roughly equal measure did not wilt. Or, at least, not so many that they failed to continue an admirable rearguard sporting action.

Leek Town have been fighting for their lives in the Vauxhall Conference, the so-called Fifth Division of the Football League. It has been a struggle all season, their first in such exalted company, and it came down at the last to playing six games in eight days, the last three in three. All of them were likely to be crucial to their survival.

It was the sort of timetable which not only rather diminished the claims of overwork by certain Premiership football teams but was also designed for specialists in curing football managers of laryngitis. Pejic, a former England international and a player and coach for 30 years, was called in to save Leek three weeks ago. He knew the climax to the season was tough and when the heavy April rains came it got tougher with the sudden postponement of yet two more matches.

This is how it unfolded...

Saturday

Pejic has been delighted with what he has seen so far. Two verbal coaching sessions and a practical one were followed by a victory over Rushden, 20 places higher. But now there is catastrophe. The first match of the long run-in sees Leek take the lead through Wayne Biggins, 38-year-old veteran of several League clubs. Then, the defender Dale Hawtin has to be helped from the field in a collision which shatters his elbow. His season is finished. Leek hold out and look safe when Welling have a player sent off. Leek's captain John Diskin is badly hurt in a tackle, his leg broken. Welling score twice in the final 13 minutes to win. To compound matters, fellow stragglers Telford have won. Leek are third bottom.

Monday

Just before half-time, Leek go ahead at Stevenage. The joy in the camp is short-lived. They fail to re-group properly and Stevenage equalise immediately. Not only that but the defender Jeff Parker goes down under a heavy challenge. His ligaments are torn. Three significant players are now out. In the 89th minute Matt Beeby is sent off. Pejic's looks are reminiscent of those of Freddie Mills, the former light heavyweight world champion, though some would say that in his days as a full back Pejic handed out more punishment. Now, however, he is not only hoarse, he is distressed. He has to galvanise his troops for the morrow, aware that in spells as coach of Port Vale and Stoke City and as a manager, briefly, of Chester and in Kuwait he has never experienced such a concentrated run of matches.

Tuesday

At least half the team did not arrive home until 3am this morning. Most have had to work half a day. Two cannot get the time off work to travel to Slough, though one of those also has baby-sitting duties at home. Pejic confesses that this hurts his professional ethos. Perhaps not so much, however, as another lead thrown away. Bertie Biggins gives them the lead on the stroke of half-time and they hold out well. The equaliser arrives from a dodgy corner. The protests continue and Steve Tobin disagrees so much that he, too, gets his marching orders. Telford's win at Southport keeps them in the clear by two points.

THURsday

Two wins from three matches will do it but Pejic is aware of his side's tendency to go to sleep. Hardly surprising given the schedule - but under Vauxhall Conference regulations the season has to be finished by Saturday unless Leek care to extend it a week by paying the wages of every single contracted player in the league. Half an hour has gone when Ray Walker's 25-yard drive is as sweet and crisp as a Crunchie, noteworthy in any circumstances, remarkable here. He limps off with a hamstring injury 15 minutes later, his season also over, but not before Hugh McAuley has increased the lead with a penalty. It looked a shade harsh but Leek deserve the luck. Pejic has shouted himself to a whisper as usual but pats each and every one of his players on the head or shoulders. They are well worth it. Lou Macari, an old friend, comes in and asks, given the injury list, if he can make his playing comeback. Do not be surprised.

Friday

Still, it is not over. Leek take the lead against high-flying Morecambe. Steve Tobin's goal compensates for his sending of earlier in the frenetic finale. But a minute later they fall prey to their habitual failing and concede the equaliser. Survival now depends on the last day of the season - Saturday.

Saturday

A goal behind after 19 minutes at Hayes. Telford meanwhile are about to take the lead at Rushden. Leek, astonishingly resilient, equalise before half time. But tiredness tells. Goals after 63 and 88 minutes condemn them to defeat. It matters not. Telford have conceded two in a minute. They go down. Leek have been bleak, weak and meek this season but now c'est magnifique. Amid the euphoria Pejic insists he's leaving. He couldn't cope with his players' baby-sitting arrangements.

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