Jon Howe: Having fun the Leeds United way
In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe reflects on the Emirates FA Cup and looks ahead to this Saturday's tie away at Accrington Stanley.
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.
There are a number of reasons why Leeds United fans will have been quite content with Accrington Stanley prevailing in their Emirates FA Cup third round tie against Boreham Wood on Tuesday night, despite Accrington’s loftier status in English football’s much-revered pyramid structure. It is much easier to get to Accrington for a Saturday lunchtime kick-off, the pitch and facilities should be less of a “leveller” and be more to the liking of Jesse Marsch and his team for the fourth round tie, and, given Leeds United’s largely estranged relationship with the FA Cup in most fans’ living memory, it tends to hurt less if you haven’t got as far to fall. And hence, as giant-killings go, Accrington’s League One status mitigates against the severity of the potential fallout compared to non-league Boreham Wood, but then of course, Leeds United have decided that this season the FA Cup is going to be fun.
Fun, FA Cup and Leeds United are not words you would ordinarily associate with each other, unless it’s for the benefit of other people. But since half-time away at Cardiff City, Leeds have used the world’s oldest cup competition as a surrogate confidence booster. So in that sense, we would quite like this journey to continue, quite apart from the fact that, not one but two generations of Leeds United fans have been spared a single opportunity to get familiar with the FA Cup’s latter stages.
For Accrington Stanley, their victory via an extra-time penalty against Boreham Wood took them into the fourth round for only the fourth time in their history, and while it might feel like our record isn’t much better, setting up a first ever visit from Leeds United was evidently a significant motivation.
Our paths have crossed before as it happens, and on two occasions in which some long-forgotten names and some much more cherished personalities made the headlines. In December 2009 Leeds beat Accrington Stanley 2-0 in the Johnstone’s Paints Trophy at Elland Road, with goals from Hogan Ephraim and Neil Kilkenny. Only 12,696 were attracted by that first ever meeting, and there weren’t much more in attendance (13,407) five years later for a round one League Cup tie. Leeds won again, 2-1 this time thanks to two first-half goals from Souleymane Doukara, in only his second game for the club. I vividly remember thinking Doukara looked like the kind of absolute beast that could set the Championship alight with such thunderous goal-scoring. Meanwhile, in the 89th minute another summer signing, Gaetano Berardi, was sent off on his debut for a bizarre and seemingly unprovoked throat-high karate kick at an opponent. I vividly remember thinking Berardi looked like the kind of absolute beast who wouldn’t even last five minutes at a club like Leeds United. History proved my judgement was as razor-sharp as ever…
Some of our more hardcore fans may have ventured across to Accrington’s Wham Stadium, yes that’s what it’s called, before Saturday though. In September 2020 a young, inexperienced and COVID-affected Under-21s side went down 7-0 to Accrington Stanley in some weird, inter-age-group competition called the Papa John’s Trophy, but we obviously don’t count that as a competitive fixture. So Saturday will be our first grown-up visit to the Wham Stadium and it remains to be seen whether Jesse Marsch will throw on some young guns for valuable experience or stick with the gun-slinging bad boys who cut loose against Cardiff in the third round replay last week. And while that’s quite enough Wham references for now, this does present an interesting conundrum.
For me, Leeds got the balance just right in the Cardiff replay. It was a game we had to win for various reasons, so we started with a strong line-up, blitzed the first-half and then rested key faces while giving recovering players and fringe players some much-needed minutes to see the game out. It seems likely that Jesse Marsch will take a similar approach to Saturday’s fourth round tie, and while he was hampered by injuries in his selection options in South Wales, it appears the club have learnt some valuable lessons from the near-exit salvaged by Sonny Perkins’ injury-time leveller.
One of those lessons is that winning football games is a really fun thing to do, and needs to be encouraged. So any opportunity to do so should be seized upon. The feel-good factor that came from the 5-2 win over Cardiff was like paracetamol for the soul. The Premier League has provided sparse reward for our dedication in recent times, so wins in any format are very welcome, and there can be no doubt that Leeds now have the squad resources to take the FA Cup more seriously.
We all know why the BBC were so keen to televise our fourth round clash on a prime lunchtime slot, before they even knew who we would be playing. I’ve no doubt they were praying for a Boreham Wood victory in the delayed third round replay tie this week, in the hope that Leeds would play into their hands in the same way they did at Sutton United, Newport County and Crawley Town in recent seasons, all games broadcast live on TV. Our crime sheet in the FA Cup is long and gruesome and traverses pretty much any era you care to think of in Leeds United’s history, which is why the Cardiff win was a refreshing change and bucked the trend in a manner which made you stop and think.
People who survive and prosper in the FA Cup say it is foolish to get ahead of yourself and dream, and you just need to take each round in isolation and beat what is in front of you. In Leeds United’s case, I haven’t entertained any FA Cup dreams since the 1998 quarter-final defeat to Wolves stopped me in my tracks like a runaway freight train. Never again would I let the FA Cup draw me in and spit me out, and thankfully, Leeds United have since been quite obliging in that respect.
So right now, we just want to have some fun, and let’s see where it takes us, in this competition and the other. It could be so important for our season and the next stage in our modern history, and in the midst of all the commotion that involves supporting, and talking about and worrying about our football club, we quite simply haven’t had enough fun recently.