Pain relief – the day Leeds United finally escaped League One

Latest column from author and fan Jon Howe

Celebrating the 10th anniversary today, in his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe reflects back on our 2009/10 promotion season from League One.

Howe is the author of two books on the club, 2015 hit ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.

Jon Howe

Promotion is hard enough without trying to pitch it in the realms of fairytale. A straightforward first or second-placed finish is still a 46-game slog through the highways and byways of middle England, where you need plenty of things to go your way. And if you’re Leeds United, you have to work twice as hard because the weight of the world and seemingly every operational force of Mother Nature is stacked up against you.

So this is no time for giving yourself a handicap, and no time for trying to stretch credibility. Just get the job done, with a minimum of fuss, and we can all celebrate and move on. That was the task facing Leeds United on Saturday May 8th 2010 as they prepared to play Bristol Rovers in the last game of the League One season. Alas, the mischievous hands of fate had already been at play.

This was a third successive campaign in the third tier for ‘mighty’ Leeds, and one they had led at a canter at the halfway stage. But their lead had slowly ebbed away and the last day scenario saw four teams with a chance of grabbing the second automatic spot behind already-champions Norwich City, and one of them was the pantomime villain and recurring irritant of Millwall. So there was already potential drama, and on top of that you had romance; with boyhood Leeds fan and ex-player Simon Grayson at the helm, and top scorer Jermaine Beckford playing his last game before a dream move to the Premier League.

As an occasion, the intertwining narratives already seemed far-fetched, but as the day unfolded events became increasingly implausible, to the point where a dream-like quality took over proceedings and it felt like an out-of-body experience in slow motion.

We know what happened. A hot-headed Max Gradel got himself sent-off in the 34th minute, and half-time was spent in an uneasy silence as pie, beer and toilet queues shuffled along in an unspoken agony. Then three minutes into the second half Bristol Rovers – a mid-table team with nothing to play for except a carefree opportunity to cheer the nation – took the lead through Darryl Duffy. Tears welled up, bottom lips trembled and the stony hush was heavy enough to drag you into the fiery pit of hell. Where we all wanted to be.  

Leeds were only behind for six minutes. But those six minutes were a microcosm of the previous six years. Many thoughts raced through the mind; was this all worth it? Are there things more important than this in my life? How can this be happening again?

It was just when you concluded that nothing could actually prevent things like this happening to Leeds United forever, that everything changed. We hadn’t even noticed Morley-born, boyhood Leeds fan Jonny Howson come on as sub, but from deep inside our crushing vortex of doom we caught a glimpse of him curling home a delicious 25-yard strike to level the scores. And it had actually happened, it wasn’t just how we had fancifully imagined life could take an Elysian twist right about now.

From there, captain-for-the-day Jermaine Beckford stroked home the winning goal nine minutes later and Leeds safely navigated the remaining 27 minutes to finally end their League One purgatory. It was far more intense and theatrical than that of course, but how do you sum it up in words? Just watch the footage for yourself, scour the internet for the countless YouTube clips showing Beckford’s goal and the unimaginable crowd reaction from about 20 different angles, just as I and probably all of us spent the next week doing.     

The final whistle brought a mixture of elation and relief. This wasn’t the unexpected bonus of a cup final triumph, or finally earning our ‘rightful’ place back in the top flight, like in 1989/90. This was righting a wrong, in fact it was just the first stage in righting a lot of wrongs. It was something that simply had to happen. Leeds United ‘had’ to get promoted that day. The consequences of not doing so were too dire to contemplate, and so the reaction was a kind of release from a slowly engulfing sense of dread.

No one revels in misery more than Leeds United fans, no one finds such a strange sense of strength and unity at their lowest ebb. But after three years of carousing in the black comedy of our worst ever plight, the humour had dried up. The joke was over and Leeds had to start the long climb back, and that day they did.

Despite enduring the best part of half an hour protecting a narrow lead, every seed of doubt and paranoia had been expelled by the spectacular turnaround. It never felt like Bristol Rovers were going to get within a mile of our goal; the Elland Road crowd simply wouldn’t allow it. They roused themselves to act as not only the 12th man, but the 11th one too. It recaptured the spirit of epic European evenings, and Alan Smith ganging up with the crowd to chase Roma defenders until they snapped and got themselves sent off. It was only ten years previously, but it felt like a lifetime.

That was a former life we left in ruins, one proliferated with players on huge contracts that we had to keep paying even after they had left, and agents bleeding the club dry. Now we had an honest, earthy bunch of players who had learned the game the hard way, who came not for money but to play for Leeds United. A solid band of brothers. And so we couldn’t deny Jermaine Beckford his chance at a higher level, because he deserved it, and because he did what we paid him to do; get Leeds United promoted.

It sounds simple, but we know it isn’t. Leigh Bromby – another boyhood Leeds fan – nearly ruined the fairlytale when he hit the post with a towering header late on. It would have been 3-1. It would have robbed Beckford of his crowning moment. And it is perhaps concrete proof that these things are meant to be, and while Leeds United had undoubtedly made a meal of escaping League One, and had even made a meal of a 2-1 win over Bristol Rovers, we could at least reflect over a cigar and an after-dinner Brandy, and agree what a fantastic meal it was.