Jon Howe: European Nights

Weekly column.


In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks back on recent events at the World Cup, as well as Leeds United playing in Europe...

Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.

It might not have felt like it at the time, but there were two-fold benefits to Harry Kane hoofing his second penalty into oblivion last Saturday night against France. Firstly, England’s agonising exit from the World Cup was fast-tracked so it wouldn’t totally ruin Christmas – if we hadn’t missed that penalty I’ve no doubt we’d have missed one in even more agonising circumstances at some stage, perhaps even forty minutes later – and secondly we can put all the savage cruelty and injustice of following our nation’s football team to one side a little earlier than expected, and return to the serenity of supporting Leeds United...

And the peculiarity of this season doesn’t end there, because before the intensity of Premier League action resumes against Manchester City at Elland Road on December 28th, we make a tentative return to the relatively tranquil domain of European football. In December. Because of course that’s what you do a week before Christmas. We’ve got a couple of Elland Road friendlies lined up; a chance to reacquaint ourselves with Jesse Marsch and his band of brothers and to see how we measure up against two of Europe’s better sides.

The pre-season fixture against Serie B side Cagliari at the end of July was something of a canter, even if our brief second half brain-freeze put an over-generous slant on the 6-2 scoreline. The two games against Real Sociedad and  AS Monaco over the next week or so should prove to be much sterner tests, and it’s to be hoped we can get a few of our injured players back on the pitch over the next few days to ensure we maximise the benefits.

And if last week’s Elche friendly is anything to go by, Leeds certainly need to be focused. Anchored to the foot of La Liga with no wins from 14 games, Elche belied their troubled status and really took the game to Leeds, going in deservedly 1-0 up at the break. Leeds made plenty of changes in the second half and turned things round, with goals from Joe Gelhardt and a beauty from Mateusz Klich winning the match 2-1, and securing the widely coveted Festa d’Elx trophy into the bargain. But the first half run-around was a warning and Elche looked a far more cohesive and dangerous side than their desperate league position suggested.

Real Sociedad, on the other hand, lie third in La Liga with 26 points from 14 games, although they are already a whopping nine points behind the top two, Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Basque side qualified for the knockout stages of the Europa League ahead of Manchester United, and indeed triumphed 1-0 at Old Trafford in the group-stage fixture back in September. You might recognise ex-Man City midfielder David Silva if he plays at Elland Road on Friday evening, one of the silkiest and most elegant players to have graced the Premier League, and given we need to prepare ourselves for the unleashing of a rested Erling Haaland when Man City come to town, we can at least practice on Sociedad’s own Norwegian striker Alexander Sorloth, on loan from the ubiquitous RB Leipzig, albeit he’s not quite-so prolific but did score the equaliser in a 1-1 friendly draw with Rayo Vallecano this week.

Following the visit of one of Spain’s top domestic sides, we renew pleasantries with AS Monaco on Wednesday 21st, who currently sit sixth in France’s Ligue 1 and are in the Play-Offs for the knockout stages of the Europa League. Leeds fans of a certain vintage will have fond memories of our friends from the French Riviera, as our previous meeting served up a stellar European night back in 1995.

Monaco fielded a side overflowing with budding European greats in the First Round UEFA Cup tie, names which would trip off the tongue in a few years’ time even if some of them were already well-established when Leeds rocked up in the principality; Fabien Barthez, Lilian Thuram, Basile Boli, Emmanuel Petit, Enzo Scifo and Sonny Anderson played in the tie, while a young Thierry Henry came on as a sub in the first leg in Monaco. That was a game completely dominated by the awesome might of Tony Yeboah at his explosive peak. Three weeks on from his stunning goal at home to Liverpool – and 11 days before his other Goal of the Season contender in the hat-trick at Wimbledon – Yeboah struck three goals at the Stade Louis ll Stadium which showcased his diverse and unmanageable all-round ability; an unorthodox poacher’s finish, a skilful, powerful curled finish and a composed, delicate lobbed finish.

Leeds fans were stunned by the 3-0 win and the return leg at Elland Road felt like something of a formality, but given Leeds had only enjoyed a very brief flirtation with European football in 1992/93, this was a first taste of how the other half lived for many, and anticipation was high. That said, a crowd of only 24,501 at Elland Road told its own story and of course, it wouldn’t be Leeds United without an ability to puncture a celebratory occasion with an unrelenting pursuit of the anti-climax. The 1995/96 season would progress in decidedly mediocre fashion and this second leg was a vivid portent of that.

If the first leg was about Yeboah’s devastating hat-trick, the second was about a hat-trick of John Lukic saves which kept us in the tie in a dreadfully low-key Leeds performance. Brazilian striker Sonny Anderson scored the game’s only goal from a deflected free-kick after 23 minutes, but a string of fine saves from Lukic denied French striker Mickael Madar, who later played for Everton, and in the end, the euphoric sheen of the first leg was barely detectable as Leeds meekly proceeded to the next round 3-1 on aggregate.

It’s sure to be a close contest again next week in the last of Leeds United’s mid-season friendlies, and it will certainly be a good barometer to see how Leeds compare to Real Sociedad and AS Monaco, and to see where we are in terms of preparations for the visit of Pep and his Premier League champions. Thankfully, it doesn’t appear like any of the injuries picked up during the mid-season training camp in Spain or the match versus Elche were too serious, and all jokes aside, the six-week gap between Premier League fixtures has brought some benefits and should see Leeds re-start the season with an almost fully fit squad. Although I’m not uncrossing my fingers just yet.

What we can say with a little more certainty is that England’s defeat to France was just one of those things, and one defeat that you couldn’t get too upset about because, by and large, England played really well and on another day could have won it. I didn’t wake up on Sunday morning in a pit of despair wondering where we go from here, or endlessly pondering whether we are good enough. I reserve that kind of agonising for Leeds United. And while I’m going to enjoy the last two blissful Sunday mornings I have remaining before the season resumes; win, lose or draw, I can’t wait for the agonising to start again.

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