Gray guides his Leeds towards the escape hatch
Sunday 28 December 2003
In the conspicuous absence of a goal on the pitch at Elland Road on Friday afternoon, a flurry of classic finishes from the good old days flashed on to the giant screens at either end of the ground at the final whistle. Among them was the Allan Clarke diving header that won Leeds United the FA Cup for the one and only time in their history. It is likely to become a familiar sight this week in the build-up to another confrontation with Arsenal in the grand old knockout competition, in this season's third round at Elland Road a week today.
First for Leeds, though, comes this afternoon's trip to Molineux, where the memories from 1972 are not quite so happy. Two days after that Wembley win Don Revie's men were forced to face Wolves, with their Double hopes on the line. A draw would have earned them the title but they lost 2-1. The championship went instead to Brian Clough's Derby team, who were already on holiday in Mallorca. It left a bitter taste in Leeds and beyond. Revie blamed the Football League for refusing to allow his players more time to recover from the Cup final, and the referee for denying his team three penalties. The Leeds manager himself was accused of attempting to bribe the Wolves players, allegations that were never substantiated.
"No, we don't have good memories of going there," Eddie Gray mused, when Molineux was mentioned in the aftermath of Friday's goalless draw against Aston Villa. Back in 1972, Gray spent the Sunday after the FA Cup final on the treatment table at The Hawthorns before being patched up and sent out to face Wolves the following night; Leeds had so many Wembley wounded, Billy Bremner was obliged to play up front alongside Clarke.
"No, I don't still feel badly done to," Gray added. "That's away in the past. The only thing that concerns me is trying to pick up three points there on Sunday. It would be nice to go there and win."
It would indeed. It would leave Leeds with a nine-point cushion above Wolves and the foot of the Premiership going into the new year - more than they could have dreamed of when goal number six chimed in for Pompey at Fratton Park on 8 November.
The 6-1 slaughter that brought an end to Peter Reid's time at Elland Road was followed by a 2-0 defeat at home to Bolton, but since then the astute caretakership of Gray has swept nine points the way of Leeds. They line up at Molineux on an unbeaten run of five matches, and with an escape route beckoning above them. Middlesbrough, in 11th place, are only four points away.
"We are on a bit of a run," Gray said. "You would really like to win matches, especially at home, but if you're picking up points at least you still have that belief that you're going to be difficult to beat. Against Villa, we didn't play particularly well from an attacking point of view, but the good thing was that we didn't lose.
"I'm just pleased with the way the players have responded. I said when I took over that it's going to be a battle right to the end of the season. In our position, every match is crucial. The Wolves game is no different. We'll be going there to try and win, but if we pick up a point away from home we'd have to be happy."
It is certainly more of a must-win game for Wolves. A draw would be no disaster for Leeds, who have acquired a vital obduracy under the guidance of their legendary left-winger. Today, they are likely to be without their two midfield hatch-battoners. David Batty is suspended and Dominic Matteo has a thigh injury. Eirik Bakke, though, made an instant impression on his return as a substitute against Villa and Alan Smith showed his worth in his new, deeper, role, not least with a crucial covering tackle on Juan Pablo Angel.
For all the clout and cohesion that Gray has instilled on the pitch, Leeds are still in danger of being thrown to the wolves. They have until 17 January to show they can manage their £82m debt. Otherwise, they will go into administration. David O'Leary returned on Friday welcoming the prospect of an inquiry into where all the money went - apart from the £97m he spent on players, presumably, and the £3.7m he is still accumulating in compensation . "I got on with the football side of it," he said. "There was one man there overseeing it all."
It is money coming in that happens to be Leeds United's most pressing concern. Perhaps the video on offer in the post-Christmas sale in the club shop will help raise some revenue. Not that there were many takers on Boxing Day for "Peter Ridsdale: My Leeds United", even at £5.99.
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