What had once seemed to be a smooth passage to promotion from
League One for Leeds United stuttered badly when they suffered
a shock defeat at struggling Gillingham on 17 April.
In March and early April the Whites had lost four successive
games, but had got back on track with a 2-1 victory at Yeovil
on Easter Monday. They followed up with emphatic wins over Southend
and Carlisle and when fierce promotion
rivals Millwall lost at Huddersfield on Friday evening, 16 April,
Leeds were left knowing that three victories out of their final
four fixtures would be enough to guarantee promotion.
With a growing feeling of confidence, the United party departed
for Kent the next day intent on bolstering their chances.
Manager Simon Grayson did everything in his power to keep the
players' feet on the ground. He reflected, "In the early part
of the season we played fluid football but at this stage, as much
as you'd love to be winning by getting the ball down and knocking
it around, you'll take any victory however it comes. That's what
we needed after Swindon - a victory to stop the rot.
"I said that we could win seven out of our last seven games and
we've won three so far. It would be a great achievement to win
all seven but what we've done is to turn around a minor blip and
give ourselves an opportunity again. I expected my players to
stand up and be counted - to go out and prove people wrong...
You can sense the confidence in the players now and that plays
a big part in any team in any sport."
United had never experienced victory at Gillingham, albeit from
few meetings. Their previous trip to the Priestfield in September
2007 ended in controversy when, after being reduced to nine men,
Dennis Wise's side succumbed to a late equaliser, bringing an
end to a 100% start to life in League One.
Grayson admitted he was expecting a tough encounter, despite
the Gills' lowly position in the table: "They have a good home
record and we know what to expect... It won't be easy, but it's
a game we are capable of winning."
The game turned out to be every bit as challenging as Grayson
had feared and Leeds were 3-0 down within 33 minutes and being
played off the park.
Richard Sutcliffe in the Yorkshire Post: "It was not only in
defence, either, where Leeds were distinctly second best, with
Neil Kilkenny unable to provide his usual passing spark in midfield
and Jonny Howson joining Robert Snodgrass in being largely anonymous.
"The first goal took just nine minutes to arrive, Naylor's poor
attempted header only reaching Miller who calmly looped the ball
beyond Shane Higgs from 15 yards. Howe then struck the post with
a low shot before the home side doubled their advantage on the
half hour as Leeds again failed to deal with an arrowed cross
from the flank and an unmarked Bentley powered Miller's free
kick into the net.
"Worse was to come just three minutes later as Naylor again got
his angles all wrong, his header flying beyond the helpless Higgs
- though there was a suspicion the final touch had come off Leigh
"Thankfully for the 2,241 fans who had followed their team from
Yorkshire, a lifeline came just seconds before the break courtesy
of a smart turn and finish from Luciano Becchio. Suddenly, belief
was restored and the suspicion, as the visiting players left the
field at the interval to an encouraging roar from the travelling
support, was that the fight back could be on.
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"Ten minutes into the second half and with no further goals,
Grayson thrust Jermaine Beckford into the fray and switched to
an attack minded 3-4-3 formation. However, while Leeds continued
to dominate both territorially and in terms of possession, Gillingham
goalkeeper Alan Julian was still rarely called into action. Instead,
a succession of increasingly ambitious shots from distance sailed
wide of the target as United huffed and puffed with little finesse.
They did pull a goal back five minutes from time courtesy of Beckford
after the club's top scorer had been bundled to the floor by Bentley
inside the penalty area and Alan Wiley pointed to the spot.
"It was, though, a case of too little, too late - though fears
that, on a weekend when much of Europe was brought to a standstill
by volcanic ash, United's promotion hopes had gone up in smoke
were soon eased when news filtered through of results from elsewhere."
Charlton lost at home to already promoted Norwich, while Swindon
were held at the County Ground by Walsall, so no lasting damage
was done. Leeds remained in second place, still in charge of their
Nevertheless, Simon Grayson was furious at the way his players
had let themselves down: "We said to the lads before the game
that this could be the hardest of the four games we had left...
You can't start the way we did and expect to win a game. We didn't
do the things we'd done at Carlisle a few days before. We didn't
match them physically... We didn't play to our shape as we have
done and we were too open. We didn't defend the ball coming into
the box for the first one and for the first two, two people were
nowhere near the players they were supposed to be picking up.
"We can do all the preparation we want, but players have to take
responsibility in situations like that and be tight to people.
The third goal summed up our first half performance. It was a
calamity. Sometimes you can't work out how they can go from a
professional performance on the Tuesday to a shambles like that
In the circumstances, the home game with MK Dons on 24 April
assumed 'must win' status.
The manager had to consider whether to make changes to his line
up following the second half contribution of Jermaine Beckford
at Gillingham. He had also been given food for thought by the
display of United's second string during the week, when they had
moved within touching distance of top position in the Totesport.com
League East Division by beating leaders Middlesbrough 2-0 at Elland
Road. Ben Parker, Bradley Johnson, Aidy White, Tresor Kandol and
Mike Grella all featured.
Grayson: "Of course you think about it, but at the same time
you don't want to make too many radical changes for the sake of
it because you want consistency. Maybe you go down the line and
give the opportunity because one or two didn't do what we wanted
last weekend. That's why we had a strong reserve team out, plus
they were playing Middlesbrough, who were strong, and it was important
to keep fitness levels up. One or two have done well and put themselves
into contention... And Jermaine did well when he came on last
Saturday, it was a great penalty strike, and he has worked really
hard in training. There's three games left and he wants to play
"Jermaine is trying to score the goals that will get us promoted,
whether he is starting games or coming on from the bench. We have
stressed all along that we are not a one-man team. His goals have
obviously helped but we dropped him for a reason... Jermaine is
looking lively and sharp, which gives me a decision to make on
Saturday, but I have other decisions to make regarding the team
"I just hope everyone realises what's at stake. I'm sure they
do. The crowd are very intelligent and they understand what we
want to achieve and what the players are going through to achieve
it. I'd definitely prefer to have two games at home than two away
from home. The opposition might find it intimidating, as they
did earlier in the season, and I'm expecting a great atmosphere
In the eventuality, Grayson made three changes to his starting
eleven, though Beckford was left on the bench. Ben Parker, who
had come on as a second half substitute at Gillingham, was given
his first start since August, Bradley Johnson was recalled in
midfield and Sanchez Watt, on loan from Arsenal, was given his
full debut on the left flank after three appearances as substitute.
The players omitted were Leigh Bromby, Jonny Howson and Michael
Doyle, missing just his fourth League One match of the campaign.
MK Dons arrived at Elland Road without a permanent manager, Paul
Ince having resigned his post a week earlier after the club's
failure to reach the Play Offs. He had been told that the club
would have to cut back on its costs and he just could not stomach
presiding over such a scenario.
Ince would remain in nominal charge until the end of the season
but was banned from the touchline after being found guilty by
the FA of two charges of improper conduct.
Karl Robinson, the Dons' assistant manager, was acting up in
the absence of Ince.
He had just seven senior players fit enough to train on Thursday.
"If you don't smile you'll cry," he said. He wasn't joking.
The game at Elland Road marked the second game of Ince's five-match
touchline suspension, though he was nowhere to be seen at the
game. Having agreed to stand down as manager, his tenure had ended
to all intents and purposes, and he left Robinson to do what he
could with a paper thin squad.
There was a welcome surprise for the Elland Road faithful before
kick off with former favourite Lucas Radebe making a guest appearance.
The former United captain was besieged by autograph hunters. He
was in the UK on a brief visit from South Africa to collect a
Merit Award at a PFA dinner a couple of days later.
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The Leeds fans had already had the chance to pay tribute to another
former United great.
During the week, the statue of Billy Bremner which sits on the
corner of Elland Road, adjacent to the East Stand, had been restored
by Frances Segelman, who had created the tribute in 1999. It had
been returned to its original colouring after suffering from a
decade of harsh weather conditions. The sculptor spoke of her
pleasure that the statue meant so much to so many people and revealed
that she planned to start coming back periodically to recolour
it, telling the Yorkshire Evening Post, "I'm not going to let
it get dowdy and dull."
After the customary riotous welcome from United's supporters
and the obligatory pre-match huddle, the 2010-era United heroes
kicked off the match in a stadium bathed in warm spring sunshine,
intent on sweeping away their opponents. They enjoyed most of
the early pressure and within twelve minutes got the breakthrough.
Sanchez Watt, who had started well, dispossessed right-back
Mathias Doumbe and slipped the ball through smartly from the left.
Luciano Becchio made no mistake, collecting the pass before sliding
a shot incisively past keeper Willy Gueret.
If home supporters thought that would open the flood gates, they
were mistaken; six minutes later the visitors equalised. From
Peter Leven's free kick into the penalty area, Dons captain Dean
Lewington took advantage of slack marking to poke his team level
and silence the expectant crowd.
United were undeterred by the setback and were instantly back
at their opponents. They caused problems with a couple of set
pieces and promised much, without quite fashioning any clear openings.
They had to wait until the 33rd minute for their dominance to
Goalkeeper Gueret was forced into a save when Max Gradel chased
down a long ball. As the Dons tried to break out, Neil Kilkenny
intercepted a stray pass from Leven and then Watt won possession
with a determined challenge on the edge of the area. He fed Gradel,
who made no mistake, scoring with an accurate left-footed finish
past the keeper.
Matters got worse for the visiting team as the game neared the
break. With two minutes remaining, Gueret landed his defence in
more hot water with a poor throw out and Watt went outside Doumbe
for the umpteenth time. The frustrated defender felled Watt with
a lunging high challenge. Referee Michael Oliver was very quick
to whip out the red card for the offence; it seemed a somewhat
harsh and hasty decision.
The position might have become even more embarrassing for the
Dons in the seconds before the interval. Gueret slipped in his
attempts to collect a nothing pass and Gradel seized on the ball.
As the wide man looked for the third goal, Gueret appeared to
catch his feet and send him sprawling. The referee, perhaps regretting
his earlier decision and feeling a twinge of sympathy, ignored
the appeals and waved play on.
In first half injury time, Gueret atoned for his errors by using
his legs to block an effort from Robert Snodgrass.
Leeds were first to show attacking intent after the break and
Gradel got in two early crosses which were safely cleared.
As the game reached the hour mark, Dons substitute Lewis Golbern,
a replacement for Baldock, tested Shane Higgs but the goalkeeper
was up to the task.
Seconds later there was a moment of rather greater concern for
Leeds: the luckless Ben Parker caught his studs in the turf and
had to be withdrawn, holding his knee and clearly in some distress.
After such a long time on the sidelines, it was a bitter blow
for the left-back. Jonny Howson was summoned from the bench to
take his place.
Gueret was in action again after 63 minutes as Leeds continued
to impress. He denied Watt's effort after Gradel manufactured
the opportunity. Then Richard Naylor's header cleared the crossbar.
After 76 minutes, Simon Grayson made his second change, calling
on Jermaine Beckford to replace Snodgrass in an attempt to put
the Dons to the sword. Released from his leash, United's leading
goalscorer was determined to prove he
could still have a major say in the outcome of United's season.
The change paid off quickly; after some good combination work
by Watt, Becchio and Johnson, Beckford finished off Becchio's
delicious cross with an acrobatic flying volley.
Gary McSheffrey came on to replace Watt after 81 minutes and
the Arsenal loanee went off to thunderous applause for an impressive
display on the left flank.
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In the 84th minute, Beckford wrapped up the points. After negotiating
his way skilfully beyond the last defender, he was dragged down
in the area by David McCracken as he bore down on goal. McCracken
was the second man to be given his marching orders. Beckford took
the penalty kick himself, but had to wait some time before he
United's top scorer had missed high profile spot kicks on a number
of occasions in his time at Leeds, but there was no hint of failure
this time. Beckford fired unerringly into the bottom left hand
corner of the net, beating the dive of keeper Gueret, who had
gone the right way. It was the striker's thirtieth goal of a productive
Two minutes from the end, Beckford was inches away from a hat
trick when his glanced header slipped wide of a post.
The home team continued to press hard and Howson saw his shot
cleared off the line.
As the visitors lost what little discipline they still possessed,
there was a chaotic finish. In the second minute of injury time,
the referee reduced the Dons to eight men when he dismissed Peter
Leven for a disgraceful assault on Neill Collins.
Seconds later the final whistle sounded to confirm a victory
that left United within touching distance
The impressive 19-year-old Watt said afterwards: "There is still
a lot of work to do and a lot is riding on the last two games
as we have to go out and win them. But I personally can't wait
for the Charlton game. I am from London and this is a big game
so I want to get a lot of my people to the game. Footballers are
entertainers so we should enjoy the spotlight and be confident.
It is our job to show people what we can do."
Phil Hay in the Yorkshire Evening Post: "Watt's involvement in
the opening goal was the first act of a fine full debut, justifying
Grayson's feeling that Saturday was the perfect time to make full
use of his teenage loanee from Arsenal. It was a risky decision
on Grayson's part and not a little brave.
"The scale of the occasion at Elland Road was never likely to
hinder Watt; his debut for Arsenal was made earlier this season
in front of a crowd of 56,000 at the Emirates Stadium. He needed
no encouragement to involve himself in the contest, and his bubbly
performance was only cut short by a series of minor injuries that
eventually persuaded Grayson to replace him with the game effectively
won. He left the field with two assists to his name."
The victory ensured United remained second in the table on 83
points, with Millwall's defeat of Leyton Orient keeping them a
point behind. The Elland Road goal fest had restored parity between
the two teams' goal difference, a matter that could yet prove
decisive. Elsewhere, Charlton and Swindon both drew, leaving them
on 79 and 78 points respectively. With two games remaining, the
final promotion place seemed to rest between Leeds and Millwall.
Simon Grayson: "We've done well today and played exactly how
I wanted us to play, a little more attack minded because goal
difference could still be a big factor.
"We'd love to come back here in two weeks already promoted, in
front of 37,000, but if it means coming back here needing to get
a result, we'll take that... I would love to be promoted now but
we have a lot of work to do... We have a belief and are on a decent
run, having won four out of five games. It has been a good season
but now we want to finish it off by getting
"It was a game that had everything... You'd got goals, sending
offs, a penalty, and plenty of goalmouth incidents. We'd started
well and really took the game to them. We did concede a sloppy
goal, but we worked the ball around well after that and that told
in the end. We could have had eight, but you can't complain when
you win 4-1. We kept going, and it was important in terms of the
The manager heaped praise on Beckford for his late brace: "I
dropped him for a reason and he's responded in the right manner.
I hope we'll get more goals from him before the end of the season.
He has had criticism and maybe it has motivated him to do better...
He is like any player - he can't play well all the way through
the season and he was always going to have a dip in form. All
our players have had one and he had it in the four or five games
before we dropped him.
"Jermaine realises what it is all about. The reception he got
when coming off the bench shows he is loved... Jermaine has shown
patience and worked hard. He just got on with it. He scored two
against MK Dons but could have got three or four. It is great
for a team to have someone with 30 goals to his name on the bench,
it makes opposition teams nervous.
"Thirty goals is a great achievement, especially after the barren
run he went through. He is a natural scorer. Like every other
player, he has flaws but the one thing he does is score goals."
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