Ten years on, with the Premier League still a dream, footage of Leeds United’s play-off final defeat to Watford still takes some watching for many of those involved. Phil Hay reports.
Several of the players responsible for Leeds United’s defeat in the 2006 Championship play-off final tell a similar story of how they actively try to avoid replays of the game. Shaun Derry had not seen any footage of it until a few weeks ago when he and his son were subjected to a five-minute recap on Sky Sports.
That torrid match breathed its last six minutes from time when Derry slid through the legs of Marlon King and conceded a penalty. Leeds were 2-0 down to Watford and a forlorn Derry sat on the turf and fiddled with his hairband, lacking the energy to argue the toss. It was only recently that he saw the incident in slow motion and relived the emotion of it again.
“That was a desperate footballer making a desperate lunge on a desperate day,” he said. “There’s no other way to describe it.”
The consequences for Leeds were desperate too. Ten years ago tomorrow the club were 90 minutes from the Premiership, two seasons after their bitter relegation. At the end of a decade of extraordinary stress they are still pursuing a very elusive promotion. England’s top division has evolved without them and times have changed. On the day after Leeds’ semi-final win at Preston North End, the Yorkshire Evening Post printed a front page article billing the final against Watford as the ‘£30m game’. The recent Championship shoot-out between Middlesbrough and Brighton was estimated to be worth £200m to the winner.
Derry still sees the 3-0 defeat to Watford as the “lowest point of my career”. Robbie Blake, who came off the bench at half-time with United 1-0 down and in trouble, said it was “hard to think of anything more disappointing” in his years as a player.
“There were no words at the end,” Blake recalled. “We had strong characters in that dressing room, big characters, but when you lose a play-off final you know it’s all gone. And for us and the club it really was all gone.”
Memories of that wet and demoralising afternoon at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, the last ever play-off final hosted there, differ from player to player. So do opinions. Leeds’ preparation for the game was largely typical but not without its problems. The club’s manager, Kevin Blackwell, was forced to talk his way out of jury service five days before kick-off. At Thorp Arch he had a dilemma over who to play at left-back after losing Stephen Crainey to a red card in the second leg of United’s semi-final at Preston. His captain Paul Butler was fit after a calf injury but had barely trained. Blackwell stewed on his options before choosing to accomodate Butler in the centre of defence by moving Matthew Kilgallon to the left.
“Paul had been a fantastic captain throughout the year,” said Derry, now manager of Cambridge United. “He galvanised a group which was always being questioned. Let’s get that straight. People doubted us from the start, or that’s how it felt to me. But I was worried about that decision. I didn’t feel comfortable with it. He’d only trained for a couple of days and we were changing an area of the team which had been excellent at Preston. I’m not sure it was the right way to go and Watford’s front two, Marlon King and Darius Henderson, gave us a hard time. But I don’t think you can simply blame that either.”
Blake, a retired striker who now coaches at Portsmouth, understood the decision to start Butler. “He was our captain and if your captain declares himself fit he’s going to play,” says Blake. “If Paul had been left out and we’d lost anyway, that call would have been criticised by everyone.”
When it arrived on 24 minutes, the opening goal was not Butler’s fault. Rob Hulse was caught dreaming for a split second and allowed American international Jay Demerit to ghost around the back of him as Ashley Young whipped a corner into United’s box. Demerit met the ball with full force of his head, smashing it past Neil Sullivan from close range.
Matthew Spring, one of Watford’s midfielders and a former Leeds player, believed there and then that the final was won.
“That as probably the moment when I knew,” he said. “As soon as that goal went in I thought ‘we won’t concede here’. In the semis we’d gone to Palace and hammered them 3-0 in the first leg. We never let them back into the tie and I didn’t feel that Leeds would get back into the final. We were very organised and we were a good team. The Leeds boys will probably remember that in the tunnel beforehand we were very vocal, trying to let them know that we were mentally right. We wanted them to see our confidence, because we did feel confident.”
There is a famous video of United’s players jumping out of their skin as fireworks went off in the minutes before kick-off. It painted a picture, perhaps unfairly, of a line-up riddled with nerves. “It’s like rabbits in the headlights,” Derry said, “but I don’t remember being nervous.” As a substitute, Blake was slightly on the fringes in the dressing room – “geeing people up but not in the same zone as you are when you’re starting” – but said the atmosphere was good.
“There was no negativity or anything like that,” he said. “I don’t think that was a problem. It comes down to the football at the end of the day and we created nothing in the first half. When the game started, we didn’t show up.”
Watford’s players were as surprised as United’s by the on-pitch pyrotechnics. “I walked past a firework just as it went off and almost s*** myself,” Spring joked. “You know what it’s like, there’s anticipation and adrenalin, you’re in a bit of a bubble and then all of a sudden this huge bang snaps you out of it. No-one warned us or told us to expect it.”
At half-time, and with Leeds’ trailing to Demerit’s header, Blake’s introduction in place of Frazer Richardson – used by Blackwell on the right of midfield – was an admission that all was not well. United’s manager had weapons on the bench in Blake, David Healy, Eirik Bakke and Steve Stone but held them back until the second half.
“With no disrespect to Frazer, he’s always been a full-back,” Blake said. “I felt that I or someone else might have been better there. The way we were set-up, maybe it was too defensive. Maybe we invited pressure from Watford. That might have been our undoing but it’s only my opinion. At the same time, as players we have to say that none of us played well. None of us showed up for the thousands of fans (far in excess of 30,000) who expected us to do the business. I wonder too if we should have gone down to Cardiff earlier in the week to get used to the surroundings.
“But I’m coaching now and I’ve seen management from the other side. Suddenly it doesn’t look so easy. The team Kevin picked will have been picked by him because he thought it was the best team to win on the day. I’m more understanding of that now than I was at the time.”
In Derry’s words, Leeds “whimpered to a 3-0 loss”. There was little more to the final than the goals themselves. Watford scored a second on 57 minutes when James Chambers’ shot deflected off Eddie Lewis, came back off a post and trickled into the net via a deflection off the back of Sullivan. It was recorded as an own goal. Blackwell threw on David Healy but with six minutes left, King broke away from an exhausted Leeds defence and wrong-footed Derry as the midfielder threw himself at the ball. Darius Henderson stroked the penalty under Sullivan’s right hand.
“The frustrating thing is that we knew how Watford would play,” Derry said. “They were a good team but one dimensional. We were always a confident group. Were we too confident? Perhaps. I suppose it’s easy to say that when you lose as we did.”
On a crushing day, Derry was considered to be one of the few Leeds players who had earned pass marks at full-time.
“That meant nothing to me. The only thing that mattered was that we’d missed the chance to get a big club, a proud club, back into the Premiership. Up until a few weeks ago, I’d never watched the game back. Me and my son caught a few minutes of it on Sky. That penalty – I think it says it all.”
Spring had left Leeds in the summer of 2005 to move to Vicarage Road, ending what became an unhappy spell at Elland Road. He now works as a personal trainer and plays in non-league with Hemel Hempstead Town. Like Derry and Blake, the implications for United of that single result in Cardiff shocked him. Leeds were relegated to League One and declared insolvent the following season.
“It’s pretty obvious that Leeds are the bigger of the two clubs,” Spring said. “They had the bigger stadium, by far the bigger fanbase and had they gone up, they’d probably have gone on to bigger things than Watford did.
“But we deserved that win. We’d finished third in the league and, over the course of the play-offs, we scored six goals and conceded none. It was a one-sided final.”
Blake agrees with that: “The one thing you wouldn’t have heard at the end was anyone arguing with the result. We were all just devastated. And from there we went from having a great, tight dressing room to having friction at the training ground, animosity between players and staff and, in the end, we got relegated. I don’t really want to go into all that but it’s amazing how things turn on one result.”
As the two clubs had agreed beforehand, Leeds, as losing finalists, took home all proceeds from the game in Cardiff while Watford took the pot of gold. Blackwell was philosophical at full-time.
“We deserved to lose,” he said. “We lacked a spark.” He sent his players off on holiday and readied himself for some delayed jury service.
“Woe betide anyone who comes up in front of me,” he joked. Blackwell, like his squad, planned to come again.
“Everyone expected us to come again.” Derry said.
Ten years later he and many others are still looking for that day, painfully aware of what might have been.