“It keeps us in the tie,” said Gary McAllister, and a 96th-minute goal from Dougie Freedman did just that. Freedman as much as Jonny Howson was the pivotal factor in the fascinating play-off between Leeds United and Carlisle United seven years ago.
Greg Abbott, the ex-Leeds academy coach, was Carlisle’s assistant during the 2007-08 season and he spoke about the events of that two-legged semi-final while commentating on United’s league game at Sheffield Wednesday last month.
“It was all about Jonny in the end,” Abbott said, “but Freedman’s goal changed everything. It changed the tone. If we’d gone back to Brunton Park 2-0 up…”
Carlisle thought that advantage was theirs after 95 minutes of the first leg at Elland Road. At the end a League One campaign in which the clubs gave each other no quarter – Carlisle inflicted United’s first defeat of the season after 14 matches while Leeds shaded a five-goal clash in Yorkshire four months later – the energy of John Ward’s players appeared to have put daylight between them.
A crowd of over 36,000 saw optimistic signs from Leeds initially and Keiren Westwood’s fingertip save from Jermaine Beckford was a top-drawer reaction but either side of the interval, Carlisle began to cut loose.
Danny Graham drew first blood on 32 minutes when Simon Hackney’s shot deflected into the net off his back and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson produced a more purposeful finish five minutes into the second half, striking from close range after Carlisle pulled apart the right side of McAllister’s defence.
In desperate trouble, Leeds toiled through the remainder of normal time without threatening a goal of their own.
McAllister was contemplating a hard return leg at Brunton Park when, with 95 minutes played, Tresor Kandol met a high, hopeful free-kick with a downward header which Freedman pounced on and hooked into the net from six yards out.
Freedman had been McAllister’s masterstroke; an astute signing brought in from Crystal Palace at a time when United’s manager needed inspiration from somewhere.
Freedman had secured a precious win over Carlisle a month earlier with two second-half goals – a result which helped Leeds finish inside the top six – and his scrambled tap-in in the first leg of the semi-final left Leeds 2-1 adrift but suddenly confident that they had taken the initiative.
“I think the Carlisle players would’ve been happier taking us back there with a two-goal lead,” McAllister said. “They’re the home side. Are they going to try and protect their lead or are they going to try and score? We know what we’ve got to do. We’re not going to go there to defend.
“It’s game on and it keeps us in the tie. It’s plain to see that the goal has changed it. I said to the lads that it’s going to be a game of 180 minutes and I’ve got to applaud my players. We played right through to 96 and I’ve got a feeling that this tie is going to go right to the final minutes up at Carlisle as well.”
It sounded like a footballing cliche but McAllister could not have been more right.
Leeds travelled to Brunton Park three days later and Howson took centre stage, dragging the club into the play-off final with two brilliant, unanswered goals – the second scored on 90 minutes.
Between Freedman’s intervention and that night in Carlisle, it felt like United’s year.
Leeds United 1
Carlisle United 2 (Graham 32, Bridge-Wilkinson 50)
League one play-off semi-final first leg, May 12, 2008
Leeds United: Ankergren, Richardson, Huntington, Michalik, Johnson, Prutton (Carole 78), Douglas, Howson (Hughes 90), Kilkenny, Beckford (Kandol 58), Freedman. Subs (not used): Lucas, Marques.
Carlisle United: Westwood, Arnison, Livesey, Murphy, Horwood, Dobie, Lumsdon, Bridge-Wilkinson, Grant Smith (Thirlwell 79), Hackney (Taylor 69), Graham (Madine 90). Subs (not used): Howarth, Campion.
Referee: Anthony Bates.