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After the high drama and controversy of the previous twelve months,
it was almost inevitable that Leeds United would finish the 2007/08
campaign in the end of season play offs, prolonging the tension
for as long as possible.
Gary McAllister's appointment as manager at the end of January,
following Dennis Wise's defection to Newcastle, revived United's
season after a post-Christmas hangover, and a succession of victories
against promotion rivals in the early spring cemented a play-off
Their fifth place finish meant Leeds would face Carlisle United,
who had held runners up spot from 22 March until 19 April, when
their own jitters saw them slide away to fourth. The Cumbrians
had been in the top six all season and were formidable opponents.
They had enjoyed the best home record in League One with 17 victories,
including the 3-1 defeat of United on 3 November which ended Leeds'
unbeaten start to the season. They had also pressed the Whites
hard when losing 3-2 at Elland Road in April.
United had home advantage in the first leg on 12 May, but struggled
to make this count for much. The Whites created more than enough
chances to win the game but they were held at bay by an inspired
display from Carlisle keeper Keiren Westwood, who owed his team
mates something for a less than commanding performance when the
teams had met the month before.
Gary McAllister said afterwards, "Their goalkeeper was excellent
and probably man-of-the-match. We made their keeper work and their
keeper produced. The save in the first half from Jermaine was
particularly spectacular. From our angle in the dugout it was
a goal all the way. It was a fantastic save. He's a keeper that's
obviously impressed a few people over the season and he's lived
up to his billing tonight."
A Leeds victory would have been unmerited. They were always second
best, with the Cumbrians exerting a midfield stranglehold and
leaving the Whites chasing shadows.
Carlisle took the lead in the 32nd minute when a long range effort
from Simon Hackney was deflected in off the backside of Danny
Five minutes after the resumption, Carlisle broke away and combined
cleverly on the left wing to isolate Frazer Richardson and provide
Marc Bridge-Wilkinson with the chance to increase the lead. His
confident finish as he slid in at the centre of the box looked
to have ended the game as a contest.
After 58 minutes Gary McAllister withdrew Jermaine Beckford,
still suffering with an
injured ankle, and introduced Tresor Kandol, but the move was
jeered by disillusioned home fans. The tall target man made little
impact, apart from one long range drive that was almost as high
as it was wide.
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With the match in its fifth minute of injury time, Kandol's lumbering
presence unsettled the Carlisle defence when a long punt forward
from Paul Huntington fell into the heart of their penalty area.
Dougie Freedman, in a rich vein of form after his arrival on loan
from Crystal Palace, swept the loose ball home to give United
a glimmer of hope and sent the Leeds fans away with something
Asked if the goal had given Leeds the psychological edge for
the return leg at Brunton Park, McAllister insisted: "I think
it's got to. It puts a different perspective on the whole game.
I said it would be a game of 180 minutes and I've got a feeling
this tie will go to the final minutes at Carlisle.
"We got done with some of their counter-attacks. They played
some nice football. I was impressed by Carlisle. They came here
and played well and possibly deserved their victory, but it's
still game on. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be exciting
"Many people saw us as favourites at Elland Road, but with Carlisle
now having a goal start they will be seen as favourites. It means
we will go in as underdogs. They have the expectation and pressure
of the home fans, which we had the other night. The roles are
reversed and we will see how they cope with that. Pressure can
make a player's decision making and touch be a little bit out.
It is the same with a choice of pass. Our performance on Monday
did surprise me, but that first leg is out of the way now.
"We have seen in the last few days that the home teams in these
games are feeling under a bit of pressure. That is to be expected.
We have relinquished that now. We are going away from home and
the shackles are off. The pressure is on Carlisle. The onus will
be on the home side and the weight of expectation is on them.
We have to take advantage of it.
"It is half time, but the fortunate thing from our point of view
is that there are 90 minutes left and not 45 to get the goal back.
We do not need to go gung ho. We have to play with our heads.
It is not a case of flooding people forward, what we need to do
is recognise the situations when we should commit men forward.
And be brave enough to do it."
Dougie Freedman: "We do finish very strongly. We've shown that
in the last eight or nine games we've a never say die attitude.
Having said that, I thought we performed well throughout, but
it's that attitude that has kept us in it. Credit to Carlisle,
they played well, passed it, and gave us a good game. It's 2-1
though and it's game on.
"The whole atmosphere changed inside the ground with the goal.
It showed the belief we have, and the manager said the attitude
was there again.
"I enjoyed it on Monday. You want to play in front of big crowds
in big games and there's no game bigger than Thursday night."
United had been surprisingly poor in the first leg and no one
would have blamed McAllister for ringing the changes, but he stuck
to his guns and sent the same starting eleven out in the second
game, with Bradley Johnson continuing to deputise for the suspended
Alan Sheehan at left-back.
Carlisle were widely regarded as bankers for an appearance in
the final at Wembley but it was clear that the first goal would
be vital and it was Leeds who got it, after ten minutes.
Carlisle had some early pressure, but United were clearly in
a better frame of mind than had been the case in the first leg
and showed their sharpness on the break. They were determined
not to be outplayed in midfield, quick and strong in the challenge,
and uncompromising in defence. They could have been struggling
if referee Alan Wiley
had penalised Lubo Michalik in the eighth minute for a risky challenge
in the area on Scott Dobie, but any doubts were dispelled soon
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Casper Ankergren's long goal kick drifted across to David Prutton
on the left. The midfielder nodded it to Jermaine Beckford in
the centre. He challenged for the dropping ball and flicked on
to Jonny Howson, bursting through from midfield. Howson played
it out wide to Freedman on the left and the Scot instantly cut
the ball back to the centre of the box where Howson, continuing
his run, chested it on and slotted home left-footed to bring Leeds
back on level terms. It was a hammer blow to Carlisle, whose confidence
was visibly shaken.
The goal served to settle Leeds, who warmed to their work with
the midfield quartet in outstanding form. Jonathan Douglas gave
a real captain's performance, providing splendid protective cover
for his back four. Freedman and Beckford were always a handful
for the Carlisle centre-backs and offered mobility up front. It
was a combination that made United difficult to penetrate and
always likely to create a chance.
After thirteen minutes, Beckford was weak and wide with a header
from a looping Johnson cross, but United soon offered a more meaningful
There was some neat United interplay round the edge of the home
area before Neil Kilkenny fired in a shot which Westwood held
and then a Johnson cracker cannoned clear off a defender. Beckford
was adjudged offside in a tight decision, though the keeper blocked
his effort anyway. Then Westwood had to parry a Freedman shot
after Carlisle defender Evan Horwood's headed back pass was short.
The home men had a couple of chances as the half drew to a close.
They broke away and Johnson had to be brave under pressure in
getting his head to a Simon Hackney cross before Scott Dobie fired
wide from a Danny Graham knock down. Just as the half was ending
Ankergren was forced to use his legs to block a shot from Marc
Bridge-Wilkinson had been a real thorn in the United flesh at
Elland Road, but he was never allowed to have the same degree
of influence in the second leg, while Simon Hackney was rendered
a passenger on the left flank, wasting what possession he did
get with aimless crosses. Carlisle's supply line was snuffed out
by a Leeds midfield that finally seemed to realise they were playing
for promotion. They were outstanding, erasing the memory of their
dismal display in the first leg.
It was a classic away performance and the United players had
and space than Carlisle, who seemed to sense that the task was
beyond them. The game opened up in the second half, but Leeds
always looked to be the side more likely to score with Neil Kilkenny
pulling the strings in midfield. Both full-backs offered attacking
options and the strikers provided an outlet for the long ball.
Keeper Westwood was called into action a minute after the break
to catch a fierce shot from Freedman after he cut in on his right
foot, though the Cumbrians had the best chance when Graham had
a clear header in the 50th minute but could only nod it into the
hands of Ankergren.
All evening Huntington and Michalik had swallowed anything pumped
down the middle and United were winning most of the second balls
in midfield as Carlisle grew frustrated with their inability to
fashion a clear opening. When Hackney finally put in a decent
cross after 67 minutes, Bridge-Wilkinson's shot was blocked by
a defender, and in truth they never looked like getting the breakthrough.
United were in control of the game, but seemed content to contain
the home eleven, reluctant to throw too many men forward. In one
smart move after 71 minutes there was close and patient United
interplay in and around the Carlisle area before Prutton's fierce
cross shot from the edge of the six-yard box was blocked by defender
Carlisle broke back and Bridge-Wilkinson hooked a decent chance
well wide of Ankergren's right hand post.
In the 76th minute Freedman and Beckford combined sweetly on
the edge of Carlisle's box for the Scot to get in a fine shot
which Westwood was happy to turn round a post. The resultant corner
was swiftly followed by another and Johnson was unlucky when his
running header struck the outside of the post. It was all Leeds
now and they were playing with cool assurance.
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With eight minutes remaining Jonathan Douglas fired in a fierce
effort, but a deflection saw it balloon over the bar with the
goalkeeper rooted to the spot. It could have gone anywhere.
Referee Wiley had signalled there would be just one minute of
injury time as United picked up a loose ball on the left and started
to play their way through midfield. Kilkenny pushed a pass forward
to Freedman, just outside the penalty area, and he laid it off
left to Howson. The young midfielder shifted it further left into
space and then clipped a shot back towards the bottom corner.
The keeper saw it late and could not reach it as the ball ran
on inside the post to put United ahead.
The crowd went into ecstatic celebration as the players rushed
to congratulate an overjoyed Howson.
Carlisle had time to restart the game, though there was little
conviction in their
long ball forward, which Ankergren claimed calmly and United played
out the remaining 41 seconds to secure a memorable victory.
Gary McAllister paid tribute afterwards to the travelling United
supporters: "I know what 40,000 of them sound like. I've been
in front of them before and tonight again they were fantastic
and the Leeds fans know that. That was for them tonight. The players
would be first to admit that. It was a bit of a damp squib on
Monday night at Elland Road, but I think the fans got the reaction
"I'm very proud of the players and pleased for them. Everything
that's been put in front of them they've dealt with and I've not
heard one murmur of complaint. We move on again. I don't want
to be a killjoy, but nothing's been achieved yet. We've still
got to go and try and win a game at Wembley.
"The ugly side of our game was missing the other night. We didn't
win any headers or tackles or ugly bouncy balls, Carlisle were
first to most. But we reversed it tonight. And you know what I
feel about Jon Howson. He's been an ever-present since I arrived
and he's a young man with great potential. We keep drip-feeding
him information so as not to try and stifle him. He's got a lot
of raw energy and power, so we're just going to try and protect
him and make him progress as a footballer."
Howson: "If Gary McAllister had put me on the bench, I would
have had no complaints. The other night I was way below my standard
but I can put it down to being one of those games. As soon as
I found out I was starting, I thought 'I have got to repay him'
because he kept faith with me.
"The thought that he would drop me had crossed my mind a few
times because I had been nowhere near the performance I was capable
of. But he had a word with me, said I wasn't good enough on Monday
and that I needed to up it.
"I was very confident we could go to Carlisle and win. The first
goal was always going to be important so it was great to get that.
And when the second one went in the net, I didn't know how to
react. It was a brilliant feeling. We have been through a lot
as a team this season but, in a funny way, everything that has
happened has brought us together. If I was not playing for Leeds,
I would have been at Carlisle as a fan or watching it on television.
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"Going to Wembley is a massive achievement but we can't settle
for that. I have never been before. I did go to Cardiff a couple
of years ago when we got to the play-off final but this will be
something else. All I will have to do now is find enough tickets
to go round. I had a few requests before the game from my friends
asking if they could have one if we got to Wembley. I will do
my best for them."
Asked how qualifying for the play-off final ranked among his
footballing achievements, McAllister modestly replied: "It's definitely
up there, but it's not about me. It's about the players."
Chairman Ken Bates was fulsome in his praise for the manager:
"Gary's a natural manager and a natural leader. Those were the
qualities we were
looking for when we asked him to take over at a difficult time
... He's due a lot of the credit for the fact that we're in the
play-off final. His leadership's been inspirational and being
at Wembley is the result of a lot of hard work from everyone involved.
"Football clubs don't rely on one or two people. The successful
clubs are the ones where every single person plays their part.
I like the way Gary goes about his job - there's no fuss and no
drama. He gets on with it quietly and thoughtfully. I don't think
he can be faulted.
"We not only won the game but we won it with style and a bit
of class. The players are responsible for that but I do think
it's a reflection of the manager as well. We've become a very
"I wouldn't want to sound over-confident, but in my own way I'm
quietly cocky. I'd expect (the final) to
be a very difficult game, but we're going into it on the back
of a classy performance at Carlisle. I've got a lot of faith in
Gary and his squad.
"I've said before that I'm immensely proud of these players,
not just for reaching the play-off final but for the way they
approached this season and the way they've fought back from an
unjust 15-point deduction. They've been tremendous.
"One big difference between this season and 2006 is the age of
our players. If you worked out the average age of Gary's team,
you'd be quite surprised by how low it is. We're younger and fresher
this time round. We also deserve to be promoted after the season
we've had, and I think the players know that. We'll see on Sunday
what I have to say to the players afterwards but they've already
earned an awful lot of credit for what they've done."
The performance had been outstanding, one of the best of United's
season; and this was one of the most enjoyable days experienced
by the club since its Champions
League exploits in 2001. The smile was firmly back on the
face of Leeds faces and they had every reason to be proud of their
achievements. Whatever came next could never change that fact.
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