Grayson’s glorious achievement hints at return to classic values
Leeds’ powerful statement of footballing intent shows that they have not lost sight of club’s heritage
However you want to debate the enduring appeal of the FA Cup – 10 years after it was sold out when the holders, Manchester United, were urged by the FA and Fifa to compete instead in some wretched, money-grabbing World Club tournament fiasco in South America – we have to accept that some time ago it became a matter of convenience.
It is something to be used when deemed necessary.
However, it is important to take the stupendous performance of Leeds United at Old Trafford yesterday out of the equation. You should do this because, strictly speaking, it wasn’t so much about the magic of the oldest and most romantic club competition in football, the one that could hardly draw flies in places like Wigan and Middlesbrough and Milton Keynes. It was mostly to do with the unbreakable allure of football, the one which will always carry the hope that the next match will be the one when everything changes.
The appeal, this was, of a game which sooner or later has a tendency to return to classic values.
Whether Leeds continue to perform heroics in the competition that has been betrayed so many times by the sheer weight of pressure to chase the rising financial rewards that can be so precisely measured league by league, TV contract by TV contract, was certainly something left in the margins of a brilliant victory.
What Leeds were exemplifying was not any inordinate love of competing for the old silver – indeed, the star of the show, Jermaine Beckford, may well be dressing himself in new colours long before the end of this month’s transfer window – but the ability of players, with the right handling and proper leadership, to respond to the greatest challenge of their lives.
When Peter Lorimer declared 48 hours ago that he saw a lot of the young Don Revie in Simon Grayson, the 40-year-old manager who handled the greatest triumph of his career with such superb composure and easily drawn perspective, there may have been an understandable inclination to indulge the old hero in a little bit of hubris.
He had, after all, watched the club he once represented with such power and pride, go into one of the most vertiginous descents in the history of organised football. And now he was about to visit an old hunting ground to cheer on a uniformly committed team who had brought his old club away from the abyss of bankruptcy and, as runaway leaders of the third tier of English football, given at least the promise of a new dawn.
He couldn’t resist drawing the Revie parallel because of the way this Leeds team played, with such tremendous vigour and professional intensity. He had, after all, been reminded of those days when Leeds simply refused to give quarter.
He was hearing echoes of the past and yesterday anyone who knew anything of that old Leeds team would surely have heard them too.
“This,” said Lorimer, “could be a huge milestone. It can fill the club with new belief.”
No, United were not at their strongest. The defensive weight and assurance that is left on the sidelines when Rio Ferdinand and Nemenja Vidic are missing remains profound, but by the end of the match Alex Ferguson had thrown a formidable battery of talent at the team who, when the pressure was applied most clinically, were supposed to become no more than white-clad ghosts of the past.
Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen all had chances and when Antonio Valencia appeared he brought some clinical touches which threatened to undermine Leeds. But the point was this new Leeds, like the old new Leeds, could not be undermined.
Indeed, in the end the margin could have been three goals, with Beckford almost grazing a post and Robert Snodgrass, a young Glaswegian footballer who seemed more than anything like a throwback to those days when either of those descriptions was guaranteed to earn a high level of respect, smashed a free-kick against the woodwork.
It wasn’t the fact that Leeds somehow survived a lead created so beautifully by Johnny Howson’s perfectly flighted pass and Beckford’s killer finish. Such things happen; more powerful teams are trapped in misadventure and rising pressure, and sometimes their opponents find salvation only with the help of a platoon of guardian angels.
This was not the Old Trafford scenario. What was impressive was not the result Grayson’s team achieved, but the way they played. Lorimer is right about Grayson, at least this is the instinct here. When Revie brought Leeds into the First Division they were far from the finished article. They had demonstrably major players, of course. Bobby Collins, the godfather, and John Giles, who had vowed to make Matt Busby rue the day he sold him off for £30,000, was an increasingly brilliant lieutenant. There was the young scrapper Billy Bremner, also, and the reformed and re-dedicated Jack Charlton, but when they challenged the football establishment – when they lost the title to the United of Law, Charlton and Best, on goal average only, and surrendered the FA Cup to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in extra-time – they were still very much a work in progress.
Their most vital quality was that they refused to accept the concept of defeat. They ran the feet off their opposition. They didn’t know when to quit – and so it was yesterday when, in the end, it was Grayson’s team who were doing the most significant running, and presenting the greatest threat.
Reading were Leeds’s suddenly pale rivals in the matter of the result of the weekend. They drew with Liverpool but, fine effort though it was, in the end you sensed that they were ready to settle for that, even when Liverpool again disappeared into the vortex of lost confidence and rhythm they have been creating for themselves more or less all season.
United were far from cohesive but they didn’t drop their heads; they didn’t yield the impression that they would be outraged by the impertinence of defeat by a team two divisions below them in the rankings of English football.
The Leeds roll-call of heroes was full but long after you extolled the fight and the nerve of men like goalkeeper Casper Ankorgren and his resolute co-defenders Patrick Kosnorbo, Richard Naylor, Andy Hughes and Jason Crowe, and the wit of Beckford and the strength and willingness of the big Matthew Johnson, you were left with something that ran deeper than a collection of fine individual performances.
You had the extraordinary resonance that comes when a team fulfils all its objectives. This wasn’t just another Cup upset. It was a statement about the future, from a team who so plainly are on the move.