By Rob Atkinson
As another grimly disappointing Leeds United season draws, unlamented, to a close, our heroes face opponents on this final day who sum-up our precipitate decline over the past decade or so.
Derby County - the club which used to be our ultimate "rabbit", an opponent we just couldn't help beating out of sight - has become instead a school bully of a team. Every time they see us, they give us a good duffing-up and stroll off, laughing, with their mates. They flick us with wet towels in the showers and trip us up when we're just minding our own business.
The change from hapless victims to unmerciful persecutors took place, as can be seen from this head-to-head record, around mid-way through the noughties, at a time when Leeds United was commencing its long slide into near-oblivion. In other words, Derby have merely taken advantage of our almost terminal attack of financial and moral ill-health in order to thrash us at every possible opportunity. It's just that they've done this rather more effectively than just about anyone else you can name. And now we meet them at former Fortress Elland Road, in the new dawn of the Cellino takeover, with County preparing for a play-off campaign and nothing for them to gain or lose in terms of League position. Is this a chance, then, to stop the Derby rot?
This Leeds United season has followed the pattern of more than one recent campaign, in that it started optimistically, suffered a mid-life crisis that lacked any of the usual fringe benefits - and has since tailed off into a long and unpleasantly drawn-out demise that has seen us longing for the end for a good few weeks now. To be fair, there have lately been a few signs that the patient is not quite as moribund as they have appeared - but only against opponents even more dire than ourselves, and only after a restorative shot of wages arrears that produced a small spike of good health and improved attitude. For the most part though, and against any half-decent team for certain, our beloved Whites have lacked the guile, the ability and the fight to emerge victorious. It seems certain that a complete transfusion of talent and guts, the life blood of any team, will be needed in summer. Probably along with major surgery.
The forthcoming Derby County game, for the reasons mentioned above, evokes memories good and bad. The good ones are considerably older than the other sort, but no less vivid. Just look at the longer-ago portion of that head-to head record - all sorts of juicy recollections spring forward, begging to be relived. The comeback from 0-3 down at Elland Road, to a backing track of Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping", Lee Bowyer finishing the Rams off in the last minute with a sublime left-foot strike at the Kop End. The 5-0 walkover away from home later that season which almost caused Derby's Meccano stadium to be renamed from the misleading Pride Park. Two Cup victories at the Baseball Ground in the same season, the FA Cup tie being another comeback for Leeds, from 0-2 down to emerge 4-2 victors. Between 1987 and 2005, the Rams simply couldn't touch us as, time and time again, we used them as punch bags every time we met.
It was a situation to relish, so it's understandable that, now the boot is on the other foot, the Derby fans should relish their supremacy over the past decade in equal measure. They had more cause than most to hate the very name of Leeds United; the payback since September 2005, when we last beat them, must have been very sweet for each and every County fan. For Leeds, it's a reversal of fortune that rankles; we've never been exactly blessed with opponents that roll over and die for us, due a universal hate for the Damned United that leaves teams motivated to raise their game against us to Cup Final pitch, backed by hungry Leeds-hating fans who wish nothing more than to lower the colours of once-mighty United. Our loss of Derby as perennial whipping-boys has hurt us badly - could the tide possibly start to turn back in our favour this coming weekend?
It's unlikely on the face of it. Derby have been excellent this season under the quality leadership of ersatz Dutchman "Schteve" McClaren. The former England boss has hauled County up by their bootstraps since the dismissal of Cloughie's boy Nigel, after what had been an appalling start. He started off by inspiring them to a 4-4 draw against Ipswich when they had trailed 1-4 at half time. An interval team-talk did the trick that day and, in Derby's next game, they recorded a fine 3-1 win against - guess who? - Leeds United. At the end of his first month in charge, McClaren was Manager of the Month and he's hardly looked back since.
Derby County are a formidable outfit now and must be heading into the play-offs in fine and optimistic spirit. The recent 5-0 demolition of Nottingham Forest was an object lesson in how to dispatch a weak opponent - and there must be a danger that Leeds will be perceived as easy meat to be snaffled up in like manner. We can only hope that such an appearance is misleading and that there is some fight and spirit waiting to be shown in the United cause at Elland Road on Saturday.
Derby will wish to maintain their impressive momentum as the play-offs loom; on the other hand, there is no League table incentive at all, as they can move neither up nor down from their third place. With the most vital games of their season ahead of them, it must be possible that County will be content to play a tippy-tappy possession game, avoiding the more grisly challenges which might cost them dear in terms of lost personnel. If Leeds United themselves are up for the fight, they might even find that they are able to impose themselves on nominally superior opponents - and it's a fact also that Rossco requires just two more goals to reach that magical figure of 30 league strikes for a season; a notable achievement if he can do it.
On the whole, I tend towards the view that Derby will be there for the taking this Saturday, and that Leeds United have the opportunity - for many of the team probably the last opportunity in a United shirt - to go out with a bang. It remains for the team to show us that unquenchable spirit which has typified earlier Leeds teams, and to go for the jugular. If they do that then - Derby's quality and undoubted momentum notwithstanding - Leeds should be able to record what might appear to be an unlikely victory.
And if Ross McCormack, one of our few bright shining lights this term, can possibly snatch that last couple of goals to see him reach the thirty mark - then a season of bitter disappointment might, just possibly, end on a rare high note.