Leeds beholden to old friend's act of generosity

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The Independent Online
Birmingham City 1 Leeds United 2

A member of Leeds' championship-winning side of 1992 intervened to make them strong favourites to reach the Coca-Cola Cup final after an enthralling semi-final first leg at St Andrew's yesterday. What compounded Birmingham's disappointment was that it was Chris Whyte, now in their colours, whose own goal tilted the balance against the First Division side.

There were 17 minutes remaining when Whyte, making his first appearance since September, headed past his goalkeeper. Tony Yeboah, himself returning after more than a month away with Ghana, earlier put Leeds level after Birmingham had gone in at half-time leading through a magnificent goal by Kevin Francis.

Leeds, who have not reached a Wembley final since their FA Cup calamity against Sunderland in 1973, must be fancied to complete the job on 25 February. By then the other semi-final, between Arsenal and Aston Villa, will have been resolved. If Villa prevail, the prospect of a Second City derby final may yet make Birmingham formidable underdogs at Elland Road.

They were not overawed by their Premiership opponents yesterday. Despite being without three suspended defenders, all of whom will be available for the return, they gave as good as they got in one of the most open semi-finals for years. In Steve Claridge they had the game's outstanding attacker, and the fresh momentum provided when Barry Fry sent on no fewer than three wingers put John Lukic's goal under severe late pressure.

Howard Wilkinson had recalled Lukic after a 10-game absence. Almost his first touch was to pick the ball out of the net in the 27th minute. John Sheridan, another former Leeds player, was involved in the build- up in the first game of his loan from Sheffield Wednesday. His pass, flicked on by Claridge, found Francis racing through the middle. As two defenders converged, the 6ft 7 in striker let fly Yeboah-style from the D, the ball tearing into the net off the inside of a post.

Leeds had opened positively. Gary McAllister directed an early header into Bart Griemink's arms, and as half-time approached sent a snap drive a foot wide. Griemink then spilled a shot by Mark Ford, and when Yeboah put the rebound against the bar when facing an open goal, it seemed to confirm that he and Francis had swapped identities.

Although Yeboah did not know it, he was offside. Sheridan, firing wildly over in the 49th minute following another break-out engineered by the ubiquitous Claridge, had no such excuse. His wastefulness was placed in sharp perspective five minutes later.

Ironically, after the barrage of high balls played towards Francis, it was a headed flick-on by the smallest man on the pitch, Rod Wallace that turned Lukic's long kick into a scoring opportunity. Yeboah, shooting beyond Griemink for his 16th goal of the season, accepted it gleefully.

Wallace was also involved in the winner, feeding Gary Kelly. The right- back's cross found Yeboah heading downwards, only for Whyte, trying to turn the ball over the bar, to divert it over Griemink. Leeds endured some uncomfortable scrapes, Jonathan Hunt and Jason Bowen squandering chances in the final minutes, and it was noticeable that the players did not share their supporter's triumphalist mood at the end.

n The FA, which has put Birmingham under the suspended threat of closure following crowd trouble earlier this season, is awaiting a linesman's report after the Leeds captain, Gary McAllister, was struck by an object thrown by a spectator.

Goals: Francis (27) 1-0; Yeboah (54) 1-1; Whyte og (73) 1-2.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Griemink; Bass, Whyte, Johnson, Frain; Hunt, Sheridan (Bowen, 77), Forsyth (Otto, 65), Cooper (Donowa, 65); Francis, Claridge.

Leeds United (4-5-1): Lukic; Kelly, Wetherall, Beesley, Dorigo; Wallace (Deane, 85), Palmer, McAllister, Ford (Radebe, 90), Speed; Yeboah. Substitute not used: Beeney (gk).

Referee: K Cooper (Pontypridd).

Attendance: 24,781.

Booking: Leeds Wetherall.

Man of the match: Claridge.