By Andrew Butterwick
The magic of the FA Cup was weaving it's potent spell as we caught the train North for our 3rd Round clash with the Black Cats of Sunderland. All the pre match media hype was about some match 42 years ago that Sunderland managed to win but we were concentrating on the here and now as we assessed Leeds' chances of progressing to the 4th Round draw.
"We can't play any worse than we do in the league" the Happy Chocker piped up as the train rattled past Durham but I was already in potential cup shock mode as the alcohol dulled my memory of our woeful showings against Derby and Wigan. By the time we arrived at the Stadium of Light we had convinced ourselves that Sunderland were there for the taking and this was going to be yet another pleasing foray into the FA Cup competition...............well conveniently ignoring the likes of the Rochdale and Histon catastrophe's.
Before the game there were strong rumours that Redfearn would be making wholesale changes to the line up and when the team sheet was announced he didn't disappoint. There were 7 changes to the Derby line up with the likes of Del Fabro, Montenegro, Barardi, Murphy, Austin, Charlie Taylor and Sloth all coming into the starting line up. Wow that was either very bold or very stupid but after the recent poor showings by the regular starting eleven I could understand the logic. I just hoped it wasn't going to backfire spectacularly against Gus Poyet's first choice Premier League eleven?
The conditions and the view from the Gods of the Stadium of Light were very similar to "that" day in 2010 when we made all the 3rd Round headlines after beating the Salford Yanks in their own back yard. Maybe we could do the same to the Black Cats? The game kicked off with the 5,400 away fans lifting the decibel levels to new heights as they urged the mighty whites forward but it was the Premier League team that settled the quicker as they controlled the opening quarter. Leeds two new full backs, Barardi and Taylor, were given a torrid time by the Mackem's wide men as they sliced through some weak defending time and again. Redfearn had deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation but this seemed to leave the flanks vulnerable as Sunderland pushed forward.
Alvarez so nearly put the home side ahead after ten minutes as his stinging shot rattled Silvestri's bar as Sunderland built up a head of steam. Murphy and Austin had started well in midfield for Leeds though and were showing some fight in the midfield battle. Fletcher spurned a good chance on twenty minutes as he sent the ball high into the stands after another raid down the Leeds right flank resulted in a dangerous cross into the heart of the Leeds defence, New Captain Cooper and his new partner Del Fabro were coping well with the Sunderland attacks though. Leeds couldn't retain possession long enough to pose any real threat to the Sunderland back line. The longer the half progressed the more Sunderland took control. The Leeds players were standing back and allowing their Premier League hosts to dictate the play which was only going to result in one thing.........defeat. The goal when it came was a simple one. Once again Sunderland attacked the Leeds right flank where the overlapping full back, Van Aanholt, found himself all alone in the box with ample time to pick his spot and drill a low shot past Silvestri into the corner of the net. 1.0 Sunderland.
The goal gave Sunderland a lift and Leeds were in danger of conceding again as the half time whistle approached but the Leeds defence held firm with a mixture of good luck and dogged defending under a deluge of corners. Just before the half time whistle went Leeds actually won a corner. That was as good as it got for Leeds in the first half. As the players trooped off for their half time cup of tea the prospect of any cup shock for the mighty whites seemed a million miles away.
It was a different Leeds team that appeared for the 2nd half. This one had decided they would press their hosts and attack them more directly and just 2 minutes into the half it so nearly paid dividends. Antenucci won the ball back from the cumbersome Sunderland defence before releasing Adryan who hurtled into the box one on one with the giant Pantilimon in the Black Cats goal but his shot cannoned off the big goalie's knees for a corner. This was better but seeing as we hadn't scored from a corner for 57 games expectations were a tad low from the resulting corner kick. This fired both the team and the fans and finally we had something to shout about. Montenegro was next to have us anticipating a goal as he hammered at low shot at Pantilimon's goal. Sunderland looked dangerous on the break though and Fletcher thought he'd doubled the lead as he steered the ball past Silvestri with the linesman's flag fluttering away to his left.
Leeds now had some momentum and it was Sunderland who were unnerved. On 50 minutes referee Mike Dean produced yet another in a long line of poor decisions this season by referees. Leeds attacked the Sunderland right and as Taylor went past by Larsson he was brought crashing to the ground. Mr Dean blew straight away for the foul and the massed hordes of away fans started to celebrate a penalty...............only for Mr Dean to give a free kick on the edge of the box when the foul was clearly committed a yard inside the box. Even the Sunderland players turned away expecting a penalty. Why do ref's do that? Do they bottle the decision or are they just bloody incompetent?
The free kick was in a dangerous position but with Austin pulled back on the edge of the box we all knew the ball would be rolled to him and end up in row Z. It did. Sharp replaced Adryan on the hour as Leeds continued to press for an equaliser leaving themselves exposed at the back. Cooper and Silvestri were holding the fort well though and I started to think that we might just sneak an equaliser. Montenengro then blasted a decent chance high and wide before being replaced by Doukara. Not the most inspiring player to bring on when you're chasing the game?
The home fans nerves started to jangle as the game entered the final 5 minutes. Silvestri denied a Wickham header but most of the final action was at the other end of the pitch. Sharp got a shot away that Pantilimon dropped on gratefully. Leeds summoned up one last push as 4 minutes of added time began. The ball was moved swiftly wide right releasing Murphy who swung a teasing cross into the Sunderland defence where Cooper rose magnificently only to see his header hit the post with Pantilimon motionless. Bollox! That was the last throw of the dice for a Leeds side who had fought back well in the 2nd half after a poor first 45 minutes. The game finished 1.0 to Sunderland.
Austin had one of his best games for Leeds with some aggressive ball winning mixed with a good percentage of successful passes, as ever he was let down by some awful shooting. Murphy started well but faded badly with a lot of misplaced passes frustrating the travelling fans. Both full backs struggled with Taylor continually let down by some strange final balls after good approach play. Del Fabro and Montenegro both had decent games whilst Adryan once again showed lots of potential but didn't quite convert it into passes or shots that hurt the opposition. Captain Liam Cooper was outstanding at the back. Leeds were poor in the first half and left themselves a lot to do in the 2nd period but they did have a stonewall penalty denied and were so unlucky with Cooper's late header.
The journey home was a familiar one debating what went wrong and what went right. After the initial disappointment of losing we came to the conclusion we were a tad unlucky today and that the five lone Sunderland fans on the opposite side of the Metro platform were "Just a shit One Direction" At least we can now concentrate on the league!
Bolton Wanderers away next. Who if anybody will Redfearn retain of his new starters? Del Fabro? Austin? Will there be some new blood in the squad by then? Another bumpy January ride on the Leeds rollercoaster on the way. I think the seat belts fastened sign needs switching on.