By Rob Atkinson
He’s a pretty downy old bird, Brian McDermott. You get the feeling that he doesn’t miss a trick in the business of getting the very best out of the resources at his disposal, and it’s a safe bet that he’ll be bang up to date with any factors that might affect his team’s chances of success. The last time he operated in this league, his Reading FC team recovered from a dodgy start to scorch through the pack and leave the rest of the division breathless in their wake as they clinched the Title. On the face of it, there’s no reason he can’t do the same at Leeds – as long as he’s fully aware of one vital fact. Everyone raises their game against Leeds United. We are everyone’s Cup Final. What this means, in effect, is that – more so than most clubs – our players have to be prepared to face a very stiff challenge almost every week.
When the fixtures come out, fans of every other club in the league dive to examine the list, looking for one game: Leeds at home. Those fans will leave their club and team in no doubt in the weeks and days leading up to their Cup Final – we must beat Leeds, or die trying. So many times since we dropped out of the Premier League – and even before that – I’ve seen teams put in gut-busting, lung-bursting performances to pull off a great result against my hapless heroes in White. So many times I’ve noted that this team’s next game produces a limp and pallid display as they struggle to a draw or defeat. But, no matter – as long as they did it against Leeds United, their fans and their manager are happy. We’re the scalp they all want, the potential feather in everyone’s cap.
This is particularly so when you look at the other teams in Yorkshire, for whom – you get the unmistakable impression – beating Leeds really is the be-all and end-all. Your Huddersfields, your Barnsleys, your Sheffield teams. Doncaster, even. All those Hovis and cobblestone outfits. They all have this chip-on-the-shoulder, urgent NEED to do it against Leeds. Their fans demand it, motivated by a hatred for which they’re not even sure of the reason – summat to do with what their dad said about the sixties and Don bloody Revie. But they simply must beat Leeds – do that, and avoid relegation and it’s been a good season. Look at opposition message boards after Leeds have beaten their favourites. The grief and bitterness are palpable, it’s something they just can’t cope with. It’s the same for the managers. Remember the amusing sight of Darren Ferguson on the very edge of tears after defeat at Elland Road?
Brian McDermott, you feel, will be thoroughly aware of this – of the local derby factor, and of the feeling further abroad which inspires the likes of Forest and Derby, Millwall and Leicester to raise their performance levels against us. If anyone can make this deep-seated hostility work FOR Leeds, you can bet Brian is that man. He’s building his squad, and he’ll be building an attitude as well, the us-against-them solidarity that served him so well in this league at Reading. Leeds is a horse of a different colour, of course, but the wily Brian will have it figured out, and he’ll want to use the other lot’s hostility against them. We supporters will have our part to play too. The fans just have to make Elland Road a cauldron of hostility again, somewhere that other teams and opposition players hate to play, because they know they’ll be facing 11 motivated and buzzing white shirts and 25000 12th men, screaming abuse at them the whole game through. That’s how we handled it in 1990 under Wilko, and this guy can get the same thing going, if anyone can.
46 games is a long, long haul – the original football “marathon not a sprint”. The advantage the other clubs will have is they’ll only face two Cup Finals in the season, maybe a couple more for those with local rivalries. But for the other clubs, Leeds is The One, so we’re going to have to be up for it – bang up for it – each and every week. If Brian McDermott can foster that attitude and that fighting spirit, and if we can win enough of those 46 Cup Finals as a result – then maybe, this time next year, we’ll be poised at the gates of the Promised Land.