x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

For Leeds, a return from the wilderness

Today's Cup visit to Arsenal is a reminder of a glorious past - and a taste of a promising future for a great club.

Leeds United’s Bradley Johnson is mobbed by fans celebrating promotion to the Championship.
Leeds United’s Bradley Johnson is mobbed by fans celebrating promotion to the Championship.

Nostalgia can be contagious. It certainly was in a harrowing decade at Elland Road. Leeds United's descent from Champions League semi-finalists to members of League One for three successive seasons meant the Noughties contained a cruelty. These were the years when they truly were the Damned United.

Rejuvenated and reinvigorated, they are now a club with upward mobility. Unusual optimism is in the air in a place where pessimism can prevail. But now Leeds can look back with pride at two previous FA Cup campaigns that have a particular pertinence now.

As they visit the Emirates Stadium today, it should stir memories in west Yorkshire

Infamous for falling a step short during Don Revie's 13-year reign, their sole FA Cup triumph came against Arsenal in 1972. The legendary poacher Allan Clarke sniffed out another opening to head in a cross from his strike partner Mick Jones.

Arsenal had won the double the previous year, but Leeds were the most feared force in English football. Now, fifth in the Championship, just one rung below the Premier League, there are signs that their exile from the grandest stages in the game is ending.

This time last season, they went to Old Trafford. In Leeds' best day for many a year, Jermaine Beckford's goal and a valiant team display earned a 1-0 win against Manchester United. Simon Grayson's team then took Tottenham Hotspur to a replay in the fourth round.

A first visit to Arsenal's palatial home means trips to three of the top four in the last year. This, for Leeds, is both familiar and new.

It is almost like being back in the big time and yet sufficiently novel that there was a deluge of applications to attend the game.

Leeds are always a well-supported club, but even with a 400-mile round trip from West Yorkshire required, more than 13,000 requested one of the 8,500 seats when Leeds closed the deadline three and a half weeks ago.

Such matches can mean more to the lower-division sides. Arsene Wenger will make "many changes", resting Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie (and, presumably, much of his first XI) and announcing that Kieran Gibbs will return.

Leeds, meanwhile, face the same dilemma they encountered 12 months ago. Chasing promotion then, Grayson's full-strength team took on Manchester United and Tottenham twice, but suffered a dip in their league form. Going for a second successive upgrade, a Cup run could be deemed a distraction.

Not, though, for their manager. Said Grayson: "Can we emulate Man U? Who knows? There is a difference from last season. You can sense that in the build-up and there isn't the same rivalry with the fans but it's still a major, major game."

Belying the stereotype of dour Yorkshiremen, Grayson's team are the Championship's great entertainers. A defence that has been breached 43 times can be too generous, but they are a guarantee of goals at either end.

Luciano Becchio was Beckford's sidekick before the latter's move to Everton but is now the sole spearhead of a side configured, like Arsenal, in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

The personnel are not of the same calibre, but there are stylistic comparisons to make with their hosts. Jonny Howson, the 22-year-old captain who came through the ranks, is a player in the mould of Cesc Fabregas in the middle of the park; the razor-sharp winger Max Gradel is their answer to Theo Walcott, and the gifted scorer Robert Snodgrass, a lower-league Nasri.

The recently converted might not appreciate the historical significance of a fixture that has brought 13 Arsenal goals in its last three outings.

But, as Wenger said: "For a long time, they played at the top, so of course they are missed in the Premier League."

Leeds ended the Frenchman's debut FA Cup campaign in 1997, and fiercely competitive meetings with Leeds teams managed by Arsenal greats, in George Graham and the Al Ahli manager David O'Leary, were features of the first half of Wenger's career in England.

That, and much else, is in Leeds' torrid past. This, then, is both a time to look back and one to look forward.

 

sports@thenational.ae

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