In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks ahead to Monday's fixture with Crystal Palace.
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.
Leeds fans look at upcoming fixtures with a range of hopes and expectations as wide as the Equator, careering irregularly from supreme optimism to outright dread, and with a fair selection of misguided standpoints in between. Our impending fixtures against top six clubs over the next few weeks perhaps don’t inject us with the same level of fear as they did prior to our recent upturn in results, but they do make us mentally brace ourselves for a higher than average likelihood of incoming pain. A trip to Selhurst Park, meanwhile, on the face of it, should find us skipping down the M1 in breezy anticipation of a decent result, and yet Leeds fans of a certain vintage can’t help taking an involuntary sharp intake of breath through gritted teeth at the prospect of another arduous voyage to South Norwood.
You can largely ignore what I’m about to say of course, because my fatalist paranoia is something I’ve written about many times and essentially has little baring on how Leeds United actually perform on any given day. In reality, Leeds are approaching Monday evening’s game versus Crystal Palace in a good place and it is arguably a very accommodating moment in which to play them. We are unbeaten in four games, with two recent away wins under our belt, we have key players back fit, while Palace could be feeling flat after their FA Cup semi-final defeat and given they are safe in the table could have one eye on the two-hour queues to get through security at the airport, if not the beach itself.
But recurring waves of fear and dread keep wrestling with my blossoming cheeriness and can’t help reminding me that Selhurst Park is something of a bogey ground for Leeds, and it’s important to note, this is not just fixtures against Crystal Palace, but fixtures at Selhurst Park.
During the decade-or-so spanning the mid-1980s to mid-1990s it felt like if Leeds weren’t playing away at Boundary Park against Oldham on any given weekend, we were playing away at Selhurst Park against someone or other instead. And we rarely came away from either of them with anything to cheer.
To explain, for a period of time spanning 1985 to 2003, Crystal Palace ground-shared Selhurst Park with Charlton Athletic and then Wimbledon. Our record against Palace at Selhurst Park from 1980 until today reads 22 games, five wins, seven draws and 10 defeats. For large chunks of this period, of course, Leeds have been, shall we say, a lesser force in English football, so this kind of record at a particular away ground is not too unusual, and you could argue the list of bogey clubs we have amassed at various times since 1980 reads like a Who’s Who of English football.
But then we played Charlton twice during their tenancy at Selhurst Park, losing 4-0 in a league game in 1985/86 and then losing 1-0 in the first leg of the 1986/87 Play-Off Final. We played nine games against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park, winning once, drawing three times and losing five times. Not only that, we only scored in two of those nine games, making a trip to one of English football’s most notoriously difficult grounds to reach an exercise in knowingly inflicting ritual pain upon oneself. Some away grounds are somehow dressed with a cloak of inevitability, and one that is mostly inexplicable in terms of form, stature and the league table, like Millwall’s New Den, as an example. For reasons unknown, Selhurst Park is another.
The one win against Wimbledon, of course, was a glorious one; the sunny day when even Carlton Palmer was bewitched by a footballing force of nature, as his 25-yard curler perfectly complemented Tony Yeboah’s sublime hat-trick as Sgt Wilko’s men ran out 4-2 winners and disorientated Leeds fans had to routinely check they had not stumbled into some kind of virtual reality.
For balance, I’ll mention some of the wins against Crystal Palace over the years also, although even some of those are retrospectively darkened by unhappy memories. We had the 2-0 win in 1997/98 through goals from Rod Wallace and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, which was most memorable for, then of Crystal Palace, Tomas Brolin’s comedy interlude when he reappeared after injury wearing a badly constructed head-bandage, which was then mercilessly removed from his head right in front of the baying gallery of Leeds fans via a well-struck volley from Gary Kelly, which ‘definitely’ wasn’t aimed at Brolin’s head deliberately. That was a rare afternoon of undiluted and unsullied joy at Selhurst Park.
On the flipside, our 2-1 FA Cup fifth round win in 2003 was Terry Venables’ last win as manager of Leeds, and set-up a 1-0 defeat to Sheffield United in the quarter finals, one of the most thoroughly depressing experiences of a thoroughly depressing period in the club’s history. In March 2006, Leeds won 2-1 through Robbie Blake and Rob Hulse, to take up a commanding position in pursuit of the automatic promotion places in the Championship, but after that we didn’t win for eight games and ultimately slumped to Play-Off defeat in Cardiff while Sheffield United went up at our expense.
Our first defeat of the 1991/92 title-winning season came at Crystal Palace. And my personal experience of Selhurst Park very much follows this thread. In March 1996 I even went there as a neutral fan and hated it. With a Saturday afternoon to spare the day before our League Cup Final v Aston Villa, we went to watch Crystal Palace v Portsmouth. If I tell you Dave Bassett was the Palace manager and the game finished 0-0, you might not be surprised to learn it was one of the worst games of professional football ever staged.
Records are there to be broken however, and bogey teams and bogey grounds aren’t evil spirits bedevilling our progress forever. Everything changes for the better eventually, although Patrick Bamford’s armpit hair being ruled offside by VAR in last season’s hugely unkind 4-1 defeat at Selhurst Park is not offering much help in persuading me there’s been an exorcism of sorts in South London.
What is helping though, is that Leeds have suddenly found the ability to spring surprise results. And if we can win convincingly at West Ham, and come back from the dead versus Norwich and at Wolves, then we can knock the hinges off the doors at Selhurst Park as we ride into town with confident gusto on Monday, and get a result. And if nothing else, the margin and nature of last season’s score-line should serve as ample motivation for this squad to settle some scores.
Winning against the odds has suddenly become our party piece, and it’s a fine talent to have. Selhurst Park might have afflicted many different Leeds teams and different Leeds managers over the years, but it’s the same Leeds fans making the trip, this time, helpfully, on a Monday night. Those Leeds fans are walking in well-trodden footsteps, but recent form has taught us to expect the unexpected, and in that sense, a good result at Selhurst Park fits the story perfectly.