A fitting end to a decade for Leeds United, the club to which everything happens - Graham Smyth's Verdict
If ever a game was a fitting conclusion to a decade for Leeds United it was their 5-4 win at Birmingham City.
It had everything you might expect from a 10-year period when you’re the club to which everything happens and yet ultimately, mercifully and perhaps against all expectation, defying a collective pessimism, there was a happy ending to both the match and the 2010s.
In 96 minutes at St Andrew’s there were ups, downs, wobbles, calamity, scarcely believable drama and, in almost un-Leeds-like fashion, a measure of hope and faith restored.
Emotions were as varied as they were abundant. Worry, alarm, panic, surprise, fear, anger, despair and joy all played a part.
The latter was, thanks to a 95th minute own goal, unconfined. It prevailed long after the final whistle, as captain Liam Cooper gathered his troops for a huddle, before a show of mutual appreciation in front of a packed away end.
The result put Leeds top of the Championship, nine points clear of third place, in what can only be called a commanding position going into the final four months of the season.
It did not quell the gnawing worry that eats away at many Whites, the ever-present concern that something will go wrong, that the squad isn’t good enough or big enough to do over the next 21 games what they’ve done for the last 25, that the January transfer window will not strengthen the side but maybe even weaken it.
With Pablo Hernandez out for a month, a number 10 with vision and the quality to break lines with clever passes is needed badly, so the emergence from the team coach of Tyler Roberts was a sight for sore eyes.
So too was the presence of Eddie Nketiah in the starting XI for the very first time in the Championship, brought about by an injury not thought to be serious enough to keep Patrick Bamford out for long. A dead leg meant he was on commentary duty while Nketiah filled the lone-striker role.
Maybe it came just at the right time, maybe it will sway Arsenal and Nketiah in the direction of the status quo, resisting the urge to withdraw from Elland Road and spend the rest of the season in pastures new. Maybe it is too little too late and the salute he gave as he was substituted on 81 minutes was a farewell wave.
All will become clear in the coming days and, according to Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds still don’t yet know which way it will go.
But if nothing else, Nketiah played a part in a game for the ages and, if anything was to change a mind already made up, it was the feeling the visiting players must have had as they celebrated at full-time.
It all started so well and there was no sign of the drama to come when Leeds, aided by Nketiah, raced into a 2-0 lead.
Birmingham City had just enjoyed their first real spell of possession and territory when Leeds United showed how dangerous they are on the counter attack.
Jack Harrison went haring away from a Birmingham corner on 15 minutes, held off Dan Crowley and fed the run of Helder Costa, whose pace took him into the box and allowed him to shoot across Connal Trueman and into the net.
The second arrived six minutes later, Nketiah playing a big part in the build-up by holding it up on the right and finding Stuart Dallas, whose cross dropped to the feet of Gjanni Alioski, the North Macedonian teeing up Harrison to fire home via a deflection.
So far so good – Leeds were cruising and results elsewhere had them top, 11 points clear of third place, as the Championship stood.
But six minutes after that, they hit stormy water and all control was washed overboard, never to be seen again.
Central to Birmingham regaining a foothold was the endeavour and determination of Maxime Colin on the right, but he was helped on his way by some wet defending, Leeds players sliding off the Blues man who found Jude Bellingham in the middle, the teenager doing the rest with a smart finish.
The Whites wobbled. More than that, they were floundering quickly in a sea of inaccuracy and 50:50 battles that never needed to happen, against an opponent well equipped to win those battles.
It was Bellingham, at just 16 years of age, who led the way for the hosts, his contribution and demeanour more hardened veteran than tender rookie, throwing himself into tackles and headers, charging into the Leeds box and drilling in a shot that had to be deflected wide by Ben White.
Leeds couldn’t get going, resorting to long balls up to Nketiah that didn’t stick, waves of Birmingham attacks coming back at them, one of which resulted in three successive shooting chances, the last of which was knocked over by Lukas Jutkiewicz.
The second half brought a change from Bielsa, Kalvin Phillips dropping into a back three, but still Leeds couldn’t regain control.
It was therefore no surprise when Birmingham won a corner and, despite an initial save from Kiko Casilla, Lukas Jutkiewicz headed in an equaliser.
Leeds’ players looked shell-shocked, but one man was quick to exhibit the body language that was needed in such a stern character test.
Luke Ayling didn’t have his best game defensively, not by a long chalk, but the way in which he refused to let this game go was key to the victory.
First, he took down an Alioski cross, cut inside a defender and walloped a shot in off the far post to give Leeds a 3-2 lead.
It lifted the Whites, they attacked again and came close a couple of times.
But disaster was never too far away and, with seven minutes left, the Blues were level again, a poorly defended free-kick headed over Casilla and into the net by Jeremie Bela.
Once more Ayling gritted his teeth and drove Leeds forward, literally, running through the middle and playing the ball left to Harrison, who sent it back for Ayling to turn into the path of Dallas, a first-time shot sweeping into the top corner to make it 4-3.
Leeds don’t do easy – the last 10 years have proved as much – and a minute into the six added on by referee Keith Stroud they conceded yet again, a cross from the right tucked home at the back post by Jutkiewicz.
You could almost hear the sigh that must have left the lips of Ayling as he realised he would have to do it again. And he did.
Leeds won a corner, it was half cleared and when Gaetano Berardi made a crunching tackle, Ayling darted to the byline to play the ball across the goal, the kind of cross you just can’t defend, and defender Wes Harding knocked it into his own net.
All is well that ends well.
Leeds’ 514th and final game of the decade and their 208th win will live long in the memory.
A decade that began with an FA Cup win over Manchester United ended with something that could turn out to be far more significant.
It wasn’t their best performance, not by a mile, but it should at the very least send Whites into 2020 with smiles, even if they are of the wry variety, even if between 3pm and 5pm they aged a full decade.
Happy New Year, here’s to another 10 years of Leeds United and all the drama that naturally entails.