This season is reaching the stage where players and managers survive on fumes but no team has experienced a longer run to the play-offs than Leeds United in 2008. In that year the club had the rare distinction of amassing 91 points and failing to win automatic promotion.
Given their many traumas and the sheer weight of a 15-point deduction, it was something of an improbable achievement that Leeds secured a League One play-off spot with one game to spare. “Every department of the club has been fighting to stay alive,” said Gary McAllister. It wasn’t much of an exaggeration.
United cleared countless hurdles in the run-up to their top-six finish, overturning their points deficit in the space of five short games, remaining unbeaten until November and climbing to the top of the table briefly on Boxing Day. By February, Dennis Wise had resigned as manager and McAllister was charged with casting the same magic on Leeds as a coach as he had as player.
Results under him were up and down initially but Leeds hit form around Easter and a 2-0 victory away at Millwall on April 19 put United in a position to seal a play-off position against Yeovil Town the following week.
In keeping with the rest of their campaign, Leeds made life hard at Huish Park, despite scoring early through Dougie Freedman. The striker – a loan signing from Crystal Palace who breathed life into Leeds’ season at a crucial time – was on hand to score from close range after Bradley Johnson’s fourth-minute shot drew a parry from Steve Mildenhall.
United took as few risks as possible, knowing a victory would put them beyond the reach of seventh-placed Brighton, but their Friday night appearance in Somerset became fraught after Alan Sheehan was sent off for a two-footed foul on Lee Peltier with more than half-an-hour to go.
McAllister was furious with Sheehan, slating his challenge as a “horrible tackle”, but delighted to see Leeds hang on for a 1-0 victory. At the same time, he was philosophical about the amount of football his players were still to deal with.
“Everybody’s pleased but it’s a case of not over-celebrating,” he said. “Part of the job’s been done but we go into a really crucial stage now. It’s vitally important that we get focused and tuned in.
“This has been a long-time coming and the supporters have had to suffer for a few seasons but nothing’s been achieved yet. The achievement is minor for the fact that we’re in the play-offs. The big target is to get out of this league.”
Leeds were indebted to Casper Ankergren for an excellent save from Aidan Downes three minutes from the time, with United hanging on and Yeovil pushing for an equaliser.
“It always tends to happen when you score so early – it’s the natural instinct of a professional football to protect what you’ve got,” McAllister said. “But I never felt in any danger. There were a few snap-shots and half-chances from Yeovil but even with 10 men I felt pretty good. When you play with 10 men there’s always that feeling in your head that you’ve got to run that little bit further and close down that little bit quicker.”
Leeds being Leeds, the tension did not ease off at full-time. McAllister and his players travelled home knowing that an appeal by the club against their 15-point deduction – imposed by the Football League before the season began for a breach of insolvency rules – was due to be heard in the days ahead, potentially elevating United into League One’s automatic promotion places. The following Thursday, however, an arbitration panel upheld the punishment.
Yeovil Town 0
Leeds United 1 (Freedman 4)
League One, Friday April 25, 2008 Leeds United: Ankergren, Richardson, Sheehan, Huntington, Michalik, Kilkenny (Marques 85), Douglas, Johnson (Prutton 78), Howson, Freedman, Elding (Hughes 68).
Yeovil Town: Mildenhall, Skiverton, Peltier, Forbes, Peters, Smith, Bircham, Barry (Owusu 83), Stewart, Williams (Kirk 76), Downes.