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Jonny Howson was not even a twinkle in the eye when a Leeds United
side managed by Billy Bremner appeared in the first series of
Football League play-offs, losing to Charlton Athletic in a replayed
final in May 1987. But it was Howson's two goals that saw United
through to the League One play-off final in 2008 after a
thrilling fightback against Carlisle United in the two-legged
semi final. In the week of the final the midfielder turned
It was United's first appearance at the new Wembley Stadium,
and they were determined to make history as the first Whites side
to win a play-off final after unsuccessful attempts in 1987 and
the 2006 debacle against Watford.
Dougie Freedman had played a major part in United's late run
to the play-offs and his contribution was recognised by Phil Hay
in a preview of the final for the Yorkshire Evening Post: "With
three play-off finals lodged in his memory bank already, Dougie
Freedman does not need instructing on the unforgiving nature of
the game awaiting Leeds United at Wembley on Sunday. A beaten
finalist in 1996 but subsequently victorious on two occasions
with Crystal Palace, Freedman might be tempted to say that second
chances come to those who are prepared to wait long enough. But
in London this weekend, the 33-year-old knows the danger of expecting
the reprieve offered to Leeds by the return leg of last week's
semi final against Carlisle United.
"Of all the lessons taken from a scintillating two-legged tie
... the most valuable may be the warning of what will happen if
the form and confidence of Gary McAllister's players deserts them
against Doncaster Rovers at Wembley.
"United's performance at Brunton Park on Thursday amounted to
their most impressive of the season, produced under the extreme
pressure of the 2-1 deficit they were carrying from the first
leg and the knowledge that their entire campaign rested on one
90-minute fixture. Jonathan Howson's goal in the first minute
of injury time completed the 2-0 victory which saw Carlisle beaten
3-2 on aggregate, and the display witnessed in Cumbria was seen
by both Freedman and McAllister as a direct response of the extent
to which Leeds under-performed in the first leg in Yorkshire.
"Freedman, whose 96th-minute goal at Elland Road turned the tie
in United's favour, said: 'You never have a divine right to turn
up and win games. Carlisle showed us that on Monday. I felt we
were well beaten but the fortunate thing was that we had another
opportunity on Thursday. From the reaction we got there, I think
it was pretty obvious that the players had taken on board the
seriousness of the situation. That was one of the things I said
to the younger lads after Monday - that the most important factor
was learning from the defeat and from their own performances.
We still had the chance to put it right and they rose to the occasion.
A few of the players are at the very start of their careers, and
this will all be a bit eye-opening for them. You can give them
advice about what to expect but they can never understand what
play-off matches are like until they're out there in the thick
of it. The best lesson from the semi finals will probably be that
we won't get a second
chance at Wembley. I'd expect the younger guys to look at the
first leg of the semi final and realise how crucial it is to be
on our game from the word go. You've got 46 League games to get
to the play-offs, but the team who win promotion are always the
team who raise themselves for the last couple of games - and especially
the play-off final. As tough as the semi final was, I do think
it's given our squad the best possible preparation for Wembley.'
"McAllister's decision to retain all 11 of the players who started
Monday's 2-1 defeat during Thursday night's victory at Brunton
Park was a defining moment in the two-legged tie, and United's
manager has another difficult call to make before Sunday's final.
Alan Sheehan missed both matches against Carlisle through a three-match
suspension, but the ban concluded after Thursday's game and he
is available to feature at Wembley should McAllister consider
recalling him. The Irish defender, who has been offered a new
deal at the Walkers Stadium but is likely to be on Leeds' list
of possible signings this summer, is the only recognised left-back
in United's squad, but Bradley Johnson has operated as a makeshift
defender for the last three matches and McAllister may find it
impossible to justify removing any of the players who eliminated
Carlisle from the play-offs."
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Freedman: "The first game against Carlisle showed us the danger
of under-performing, but I feel that we had that little bit more
desire and hunger at the end of the day. We scored in the 96th
minute at Elland Road and the 91st minute at Carlisle, and it's
the same old story - if you fight to the death, you get your reward.
I don't think this set of players know when they're beaten.
"Carlisle are a very good team but I'd say we wanted it slightly
more. That's a small difference but a very important one. It needs
to be the same at Wembley.
"I didn't come up to Leeds and leave my kids in London at a young
age to mess about, I came up here for a really serious reason
- to help the team get promotion. It's one thing to play at Wembley
but I don't think you'll remember it with much pleasure if you
don't come away with winners' medals. That's what it comes down
Gary McAllister chose to stick by the eleven men who had been
on duty in the semis and was hopeful they would do the business.
He told BBC Radio Leeds, "We are 90 minutes away from what I believe
would be a fantastic achievement by this group of players. The
players have worked hard to buy into anything we have tried to
get across to them. The work rate and enthusiasm is something
I knew was already here and I haven't been let down by that.
"It's been a very hard season for the players. The 15 points
was a major blow to the lads, and then they've had to get used
to a new guy coming in and they had to buy into that. But I've
never heard one word of complaint from them and they've never
felt sorry for themselves. They've just got on with it. The players
have realised over this season what the ambition of the club is.
It comes with the territory, if you want to be a player at Leeds
this is part of it.
"We have worked very hard to get to this week. So as much as
we have to enjoy it we have to realise Wembley is a place of work.
I'm proud of taking the team to Wembley, but the proudest moment
will be if we get the right result."
Doncaster Rovers, who had finished third in League One, were
United's opponents at Wembley, following a 5-1 demolition of Southend
United in the semi final second leg and were fearsome opponents.
They were widely regarded as the best footballing side in League
One, earning a reputation for neat possession and a wonderful
passing game. They had been in the top three since the end of
January and only a shock defeat at Cheltenham on the closing day
of the League campaign that saw them miss out on the automatic
promotion spot to Nottingham Forest.
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United's fans heavily outnumbered those of Rovers in the crowd.
Rovers had been forced to suspend sale of tickets at their ground
because of Leeds supporters besieging the Keepmoat Stadium in
search of spare tickets after United's allocation quickly sold
out. Doncaster chairman John Ryan: "The situation is both clubs
were given 36,000. We were given too many and Leeds too few. They've
got a fantastic fan base. I think we sold 24,000 tickets, which
is a good effort with us only having average gates of 8,000 this
season. I would gladly have given Leeds the balance, or most of
the balance, but the Football League wouldn't let us because of
segregation issues which is a shame because part of Wembley will
be empty when it should be full, really, of Leeds fans."
It was estimated that the Whites fans had a 10,000 advantage
over their opposite numbers and they made themselves clearly heard
when Football League chairman Lord Mawhinney came out to be introduced
to the players before the kick off. The chorus of whistles, boos
and jeers was ear-shattering as he went along the lines.
Leeds kicked off to tumultuous cheering, but could easily have
been out of it in the first fifteen minutes. Doncaster's players
where sharp early on, though Leeds had the first shot in anger
when Johnson got in a long range effort after Freedman had won
a throw on the right. However, Rovers quickly got their short
passing movements going and started picking holes in the United
Richie Wellens had been forced to leave the field for treatment
during the warm up and United had singled the playmaker out for
some rough handling early on. Douglas was lucky to escape without
a booking when he clattered into him on the left touchline in
the fifth minute, but that only seemed to provoke Rovers into
upping their game.
First Green danced past Douglas on the byline but Price's effort
was blocked at the near post. Then Wellens jinked along United's
right goal line and shot into the side netting with Leeds expecting
a cross. Another smart interpassing combination in the area nearly
put Price in and then Ankergren had to save one-handed at the
feet of Coppinger as the ball came back in. A minute later the
keeper saved United again as Hayter was allowed to run clear on
Rovers' left with the back four
appealing for offside. Ankergren was called into action again
in the twelfth minute as Hayter moved through on their right.
The Danish goalkeeper was putting on a great exhibition and his
saves in that opening quarter of an hour marked him out as man
of the match.
At this stage, United just couldn't get out of their own half.
They started to find some of their long passing across the defence
and midfield but as soon as they tried to make more aggressive
forays into the Doncaster half the Rovers defence were swallowing
the ball up easily.
Finally, after the game reached the fifteen minute mark, Leeds
managed to work their way into the contest and centre-back Mills
became the first name in referee Andy D'Urso's notebook when he
hammered through Jermaine Beckford on the edge of the area as
the forward held the ball. Kilkenny's free kick was into the wall
and ran clear, with Huntington heading weakly wide when Howson
lifted the ball back in.
In the 18th minute a loose ball out of defence by former Leeds
trainee Sam Hird only found Beckford. The striker made ground
to the edge of the area but his shot was easily gathered by Sullivan.
Wellens was continuing to feel the full force of United's tackling
and first Kilkenny and then Richardson left their marks on him
as he tried his tricks on the left wing.
Jonny Howson brought the ball out of defence after 21 minutes
and found Beckford, but with two men moving wide down the right
the forward picked the wrong ball, to Douglas on the left, and
his pass ran tamely dead.
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Leeds were having more joy now, though Rovers were always confident
with their neat and controlled short passing game, patiently playing
through and round United, seemingly always with more direction
Freedman weaved his way through the defence on the half hour
but Rovers cleared as the ball reached their box. Then Johnson
picked the ball up on the left and cut in to play a one-two with
Beckford in the area. The ball ran back to the striker who shot
as he was falling, but Sullivan fielded the weak effort.
When Jonny Howson won the ball and passed to Beckford on the
edge of the area. Freedman made space by dragging defenders across
to the left with his decoy run. This gave Beckford a clear opening
but he fired wide. Moments later both Beckford and Howson tried
to dribble through but ran into defenders.
As if to remind Leeds that they were still in the game, Rovers
broke a couple of times in the five minutes before the break,
Hayter turning and shooting well over and then receiving a long
ball into the area, but allowing it to run wide and giving Ankergren
the chance to kick away for a corner.
United broke away sharply after the flag kick with Johnson and
Beckford combining cleverly down the left. The striker held the
ball up well in the zone between penalty box and corner flag and
fed Kilkenny who shipped it on to
Howson on the edge of the area. He attempted to curl it into the
top corner, but it faded just too late and went over.
It was probably the best movement of the half and certainly merited
a goal, but it was the last chance before the break.
United had come back strongly into the game after Rovers' opening
blitz and had enjoyed some decent possession, but Doncaster had
finished back on top and could count themselves unlucky not to
go in ahead at half time.
Gary McAllister spent the interval encouraging United to keep
up the football that they had managed to find late on, but he
was gutted when his men almost instantly let Doncaster in.
In the first ten seconds of the second period, Michalik sent
Stock crashing to the ground as he made his way to the edge of
United's area. Coppinger's free kick was blocked and the follow
up was deflected for a corner, but Rovers made the most of their
chance. James Hayter was left unmarked on the penalty spot as
he dived to head home the dropping ball with Ankergren and Kilkenny
unable to get a block on it. United were 1-0 down with barely
90 seconds of the half gone.
That was always going to make it difficult for Leeds, and Doncaster
had the perfect containing game, setting up two banks of four
and retaining possession to keep their opponents at bay. It might
have been a critical misjudgement, but they started holding a
deep line and inviting Leeds on to them, waiting to catch them
on the break. United lacked the penetration to find the chinks
in a packed midfield and final third and they started to look
laboured and anxious.
In the 49th minute Howson found Beckford in the area but he couldn't
get any power into his shot and Neil Sullivan collected. Nine
minutes later Douglas and Howson combined well to allow the youngster
break away from defence. He played a one-two with Freedman round
the edge of the box but saw his shot deflected over. Then Freedman
pressed the defence down the left and a poor back pass let Beckford
in, but his fierce shot was straight into Sullivan's midriff.
That was fairly typical of this period with United pressing but
the final ball found wanting. After 68 minutes they kept possession
well round the edge of the Doncaster box but Johnson lost patience
and boomed his shot high, wide and handsome with Prutton in space
on the left. Seconds later, it was Prutton who was withdrawn as
McAllister introduced Tresor Kandol his first change.
United were throwing everything into attack now and there was
always the chance of a Rovers breakaway. In the 70th minute Coppinger
sprang the offside trap down Doncaster's right and it required
a desperate chase and last ditch tackle from Douglas to save the
day and allow Ankergren to collect the ball.
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After 71 minutes, Doncaster brought striker McCammon on for Wellens,
who was suffering with a recurrence of a stomach injury. The move
was as much to introduce someone who could compete with Kandol
in the air as to protect Wellens.
The arrival of Kandol led to some route one football from United
with the inevitable goalmouth scrambles, but former Leeds keeper
Neil Sullivan was faultless in his handling and composed under
pressure. There was simply too much anxiety about the United thrusts
as they felt time slipping away. On too many occasions they either
ran up blind alleys or made
life easy for Sullivan with aimless high balls.
The introduction of Hughes for Freedman after 77 minutes was
seen as a retrograde step, but the midfielder brought some much
needed urgency if little composure down the right flank. He found
some decent space, but his driven crosses were normally easy enough
for Sullivan to cope with.
United's best chance came after 85 minutes when Michalik's presence
in the area caused panic after a throw from the left. The ball
ran out to Douglas on the edge of the area. Space was limited
but he sailed into a fierce shot, only to see it swing narrowly
wide of Sullivan's left hand post.
Michalik was almost an auxiliary striker now, with Howson defending
alongside Huntington while Richardson and Johnson constantly overlapped.
The young midfielder was cautioned in the closing minutes for
a desperate late tackle when it looked like substitute Lewis Guy
was going past him down the wing with no cover behind him.
Time was ebbing away but in the third of four injury time minutes
a headed back pass to Sullivan offered a slight chance to Beckford
but the keeper held the ball despite a wild swing from the striker.
That was the final opportunity and the waves of clumsy United
attacks simply broke on the rocks of a well organised Doncaster
defence when they managed to evade smothering midfield cover.
The thousands of Leeds fans never abandoned hope but were left
ruing another example of their favourites coming up short on the
big occasion when the referee whistled to end the game.
It had been a remarkable season, but Leeds United were condemned
to another year in League One.
A reflective Gary McAllister commented: "We huffed and puffed,
and we gave it every ounce of our energy. But in the final third,
our final ball or effort on goal lacked quality. I didn't think
we chose the right execution of crossing, passing or shooting.
"It goes without saying that it's very disappointing. But what
I've tried to impress on the guys in the dressing room, who are
obviously very low, is that each of those individuals should be
proud of what they've done. Myself and the coaching staff are
very proud of what they've achieved, and I think the Leeds fans
are as well. To start a campaign with such a hefty handicap and
to get right to the final play-off match deserves to be applauded.
They've continually got up and got on with it, and it's quite
simple - that group of players won 27 games, gained 91 points
and barring the handicap they would have been promoted.
"I've got to say that I think the players have got the stomach
to come back. They'll go away this summer and regroup, and there's
going to be a hardcore of these guys back at Leeds United next
season. It's going to be busy for myself and the chairman over
the summer trying to recruit people that can make us better. I'm
better off myself after 20 games at this level of football.
"We've got to go into next season positive. I know it's difficult
to say that at the moment, but we will.
"The fans here are superb. They are second to none, they have
backed us all season long ... Our average crowd is over 26,500
and there were well over 36,000 at Wembley, and that speaks volumes.
We'll be back."
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