Flashback: Why goalkeeper Neil Sullivan proved to be shrewd signing for Leeds United

Neil Sullivan.
Neil Sullivan.
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AS footballing soap operas go, the goalkeeping saga at Leeds United Football Club is one that seems to have been running for an age.

The club are busy installing their next custodian of the lead role, with Chelsea loanee Jamal Blackman seemingly the man chosen to take the drama out of proceedings ahead of the 2018/19 campaign.

Neil Sullivan with his YEP Player of the Year Award in 2005.

Neil Sullivan with his YEP Player of the Year Award in 2005.

Among the men playing one of many supporting roles is former Scotland stopper Neil Sullivan, who is charged with handling the up-and-coming charges in his position as academy coach.

A calm, assertive man-mountain of a man, Sullivan re-joined Leeds United on this day five years ago.

Brought in as senior goalkeeping coach, it was the latest episode in his journey with the club, one that had seen him rack up over 100 first-team appearances between 2004 and 2007.

Signed from the depths of a Chelsea squad revolutionised by the billions of Russian Roman Abramovich, he quickly developed a rapport with the Elland Road faithful.

Experienced with well over 200 Premier League appearances under his belt, his steely eye for danger brought calm to a Leeds side still reeling from relegation, his presence in the dressing room a huge factor in rebuilding a Kevin Blackwell side that would go on to reach the play-offs in 2006.

That Blackwell and Leeds had managed to attract someone of his ilk and experience at a time when the club was very publicly shedding highly-paid stars was a testament to both the club and Sullivan’s character.

This didn’t go unnoticed. At the end of his first season with the Whites and after a string of impressive performances, Sullivan took home the player of the year award.

Blessed with a knack of saving penalties at crucial times, it is often forgotten that it was these imperious performances that kept future England international Scott Carson out of the side. Carson, sold to Liverpool after that season, would later admit that he learned a lot from the more experienced keeper.

Sullivan’s second outing with Leeds was somewhat more eventful.

Blackwell, a former goalkeeper himself, had assembled a style of play and a spine to the squad that competed in the upper echelons of the league for the entire season.

Falling away as spring drew in, his side were faced with the lottery of the play-offs, any momentum lost surely foiled by the presence of experienced sages Gary Kelly, Paul Butler and Sullivan himself.

It wasn’t to be, of course, and Leeds were soundly beaten in the final by a better equipped Watford side.

It was in that damaging 3-0 defeat that, cruelly, one of the most memorable snapshots of Sullivan’s time remains, James Chambers’ scuffed shot spinning into the post, only for it to tamely ricochet off the big Scot’s back and across the line.

As is the fickle nature of football, Sullivan’s playing tenure with the club was perhaps doomed from that moment on.

An injury picked up in the opening throes of the 2006/07 season saw Tony Warner and Graham Stack brought in to challenge for the number one shirt.

In a messy exchange, new Leeds boss Dennis Wise told the press that Sullivan had put on weight and that his performances in training had nosedived.

Sullivan was shipped off to Doncaster, where he spent seven happy years marshalling their defence, becoming the Football League’s oldest active player in the process.

Retiring from football in 2013 after a brief spell back at AFC Wimbledon, it was at Thorp Arch where he once again found a home. His role in the development of the talented Bailey Peacock-Farrell ensures there is plenty more mileage in the Leeds United goalkeeping storyline.