McAllister can lead Leeds back to big time

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The Independent Football

Gary McAllister took a detour back to his childhood on Friday. It was one that revealed early Scottish passion for the FA Cup, a relationship that was cemented when he collected a winner's medal with Liverpool in Cardiff in 2001. But seven years on from that May afternoon, McAllister takes Leeds United to rural Cambridgeshire today, to Histon.

Even though giants are not meant to roam the second round, Leeds do. And there could be a slaying. It is another illustration of the steep slope of Leeds' decline that they can be in stadiums with names such as Histon'sGlass World. It is not a collection McAllister wishes Leeds to expand.

"November!" he laughed. "I must admit I didn't realise they played the FA Cup in November." It was pretend arrogance. McAllister's realism regarding the job he took over in January means that the tier Leeds inhabit is not called League One. Every time he mentioned Leeds' status he referred to "the third division".

Leeds are seventh in it, and lost 2-1 at Northampton Town on Tuesday. Having been a central part of the last Leeds team to win the "first division", and simply because he is not his predecessor, Dennis Wise, there is a plump cushion of Yorkshire goodwill for McAllister, but losing at Histon would add to the first whiff of negativity which has come this week. Losing at Histon would also colour McAllister's view of a competition he cherishes.

"I've liked the FA Cup since I was a kid," he said, "even though we never got the FA Cup final pictures in Scotland." In May 1977, that was a situation rectified by a McAllister family outing. In those terrestrial days, as McAllister explained, Scottish television broadcast the Scottish Cupfinal, and so those wanting to see Manchester United facing Liverpool at Wembley had to move south for the day. With Liverpool fans on one side and another branch of the family related to Matt Busby, the McAllisters turned their backs on Glasgow and ended up in Moffat, Dumfriesshire, just over the border from Carlisle.

"In my family we had Liverpool fans and Manchester United fans, and those two teams were involved in a lot of Cup finals at the time. The memory I have is of travelling to the Borders to pick up the Cup final pictures there because you could get English TV reception. It was in a hotel, in Moffat."

The nostalgia made McAllister smile. Briefly. Then he was a 12-year-old hopeful, now he is a 43-year-old manager about to embark on anotherunexpected journey. Leeds fans must be weary of sentences beginning "seven years ago", but today is an occasion to justify more. Seven years ago, as McAllister lifted the FA Cup, Leeds were a Champions' League team. Histon were in the Southern League Eastern Division.

Even in 2004, Leeds were still in the Premier League; Histon were still in the Southern League, but won promotion to the Premier Division. That is two levels below what we think of as the Conference. Today Histon are top of it. A gulf of six divisions has become two, and though Histon remain part-time, they did for Swindon Town in round one and clearly possess more than merely the old Cambridge manager John Beck in the background.

Not that McAllister has fretted about Histon. Reminded that Leeds have never lost to non-League opposition, he flashed back: "We want to keep that record intact."

McAllister also commented on upbeat financial figures released this week that showed Leeds made a £4.5m profit in the year up to June. "It sends out a clear message that this club is building on solid foundations again. We are on the road to being closer to where we should be. We know we still have a long way to go. What's happened here the past four or five years, at some clubs it would have made them disappear. Relegations, deductions, administrations. But there's a good feeling here, it's on its way back. At times the crowd figure goes beyond belief – there were over 32,000 for the Huddersfield game a fortnight ago, a third division game. It's a special club."

He sounded certain when he said Leeds have "bottomed out", but confidence can be shaken in Histon. And this is being beamed live across the country, not just in Moffat.

"The cameras are here because they sniff something," McAllister said, def-iance rising. "But there's a lot at stake for us and we want the result – badly. We're going in against a team below us in divisions and we've got to take the initiative. We don't expect to weave pretty patterns, we know we're going to be in a battle. But we're going down there to fight. We're Leeds United."