As fallow years in the Football League go by, the 2009-10 season looks ever more like Leeds United’s annus mirabilis. When Andrew Hughes says it was a privilege to experience it, he is speaking for the scores of players who passed through Elland Road without any of the same satisfaction.
Five years ago this weekend, Leeds were shaking the ground in Manchester with a monumental FA Cup win. Their 1-0 victory over Manchester United was the club’s first at Old Trafford for 28 years; the first time Manchester United under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson had lost an FA Cup tie to a team so far below them in the English pyramid.
They called it a giant-killing, which rather stuck in the craw in Yorkshire, but the game was that type of match-up. Earlier in the week, Leeds had played at Stockport County and protected their position at the top of League One.
“A year before the Old Trafford win we got knocked out the cup by Histon,” Hughes recalls. Which goes some way to explaining why the 2009-10 season resonated so much.
United’s visit to Old Trafford was the tie of the third round and the upset of the third round. No other fixture on a formbook-following weekend made any headlines of note.
“It was an upset,” Hughes says, “but only because of the divisions we were in. They were Premier League, going for the title as usual, but we were in form too; bang in form. I fancied us to play well there. I knew we’d be in the game.”
Bang in form was about right. At the start of January, United’s league record showed 23 games played, 17 games won and 56 points accrued. Ferguson dispatched his first-team coach, Rene Meullenstein, to watch Leigh Bromby’s 20-yard daisy-cutter force a late win over Stockport and underline the club’s relentless march forward.
In the days before the cup tie, Ferguson talked in glowing terms about Simon Grayson, Leeds’ popular boss.
“The motivation that’s coming from the manager means they’ve got a great chance of being in the Premier League in the next couple of years,” Ferguson said. Grayson was no less respectful: “To be stood next to him is something I wouldn’t have thought could happen when I was first starting out in management.”
Grayson’s preparation for the Old Trafford tie was not quite perfect. That week the superstitious 40-year-old lost his lucky pen. In addition, Bromby’s goal at Stockport came with a yellow card and a one-match ban for the trip to Manchester. Towards the end of Leeds’ final training session, Robert Snodgrass limped off with a minor injury.
“We were just finishing off a session of shape when Snoddy disappeared,” Hughes says. “He was a really big player for us.”
Grayson reluctantly chose to name the Scot as a substitute. The bookmakers priced Leeds at 10/1 to win inside 90 minutes; a short enough price to suggest some doubt about the outcome. Back in Yorkshire the scramble for 9,000 tickets began as soon as United’s allocation was released. The club reckoned they could have sold three times as many.
“We’d have shifted 30,000,” Grayson said. Leeds’ captain, Richard Naylor, said his mobile phone was jammed with text messages – scores asking for freebies, others urging him to “smash Gary Neville.” “I’ve got the utmost respect for him,” said Naylor diplomatically. “But this is a proper rivalry.”
Grayson thought so too. Both he and Naylor were Leeds fans born and bred. “When teams go from the Premier League to League One as we have, that rivalry can dwindle away,” Grayson said. “It’s a testament to us that Man United hate us as much now as they did when we played them on a regular basis. But Man United are still the best team in the country.”
Hughes, who played at left-back at Old Trafford and now works as Bolton’s development squad coach, had his own sense of rivalry; a Manchester boy with blue blood. “Old Trafford wasn’t a very happy place for any of us,” he says. “Nobody won there very often, not Leeds or City. City are about to rule the world but it wasn’t like that back then. The build-up was still really calm. We stayed at Mottram Hall (in Cheshire) the night before and it felt like our normal pre-match. The gaffer took us for a long walk and we went over the plan. He didn’t really change much. The team talk went along the lines of ‘let’s play our game and get every individual performance spot on.’ That’s exactly what happened.”
Leeds were essentially full strength. “There was never any chance of anything else,” Hughes said. “We’d all have been raging if the gaffer had tried to rest people. That wasn’t his way. With Simon it was all about winning games.”
Ferguson himself promised a serious line-up and when it came, Manchester United’s team included Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov, Wes Brown and Neville. Nemanja Vidic cried off in the warm-up but Ryan Giggs, Michael Owen and Antonio Valencia sat on the bench. They were quickly called upon as the afternoon went wrong. ITV televised the tie and between the various streams of income, it earned Leeds in the region of £750,000. The broadcaster soon realised that its investment was shrewd.
“We bossed the first half,” Hughes says. “It’s as simple as that. They had a good team – not their strongest but still a quality team – and they never got on top of us.”
A midfield of Jonny Howson, Bradley Johnson and Michael Doyle snapped at heels. Naylor saved his heaviest challenges for Rooney. And on 19 minutes, Jermaine Beckford scored in front of the Stretford End. The move which conjured his goal was swift and clinical – a flighted 50-yard pass from Howson, taken down with a loose touch by Beckford and slipped through the eye of the needle, beyond the challenges of Brown and goalkeeper Tomasz Kuszczak.
“As soon as the ball dropped to Jermaine, I thought ‘goal’,” said Hughes who, like most of the players, was a mile down the pitch. Even after Howson’s pass slipped off his boot?
“Yeah. He was finishing everything that season – easy chances, difficult chances. If you look back at his goals, it didn’t matter where the ball dropped. He stuck them away time and again.
“I was sprinting up the field, trying to get into a position to pick up a clearance and pin their defence in. Bradley Johnson was doing the same. When the ball went in, there was nothing else to do but celebrate with Becks and flatten him near the Stretford End.”
Leeds made it to half-time with only one scare. Rooney’s chipped finish over goalkeeper Casper Ankergren had an equaliser written on it until Jason Crowe, United’s right-back, stuck out a foot and knocked it off the line.
“Those are the moments that stand out,” Hughes says. “Crowey’s goalline clearance, Paddy Kisnorbo with his head smashed in and blood on his headband. We should have been two up at half-time and the bonus in the second half was that we were playing towards our fans. The gaffer said ‘you’ve got 9,000 in there and the noise is deafening. Keep going at them.’ To be honest we did, right to the very end.”
Snodgrass came off the bench and hit the crossbar with a free-kick. Giggs, Owen and Valencia appeared as substitutes but to no avail. Ferguson had the face on at the final whistle as Grayson punched the air. “Five minutes of injury-time was an insult to the game and the players out there,” Ferguson said. “But Leeds fought like tigers. They had a far better appetite than us.”
“That was the truth,” Hughes says. “It was 1-0 going on 2-0 or 3-0. They got away lightly in some respects but winning matches was what our team did. I’m not saying the buzz at the end wasn’t massive but at that stage we’d gone weeks without losing a game. That was probably the worst time for any Premier League team to play us.”
Hughes saw Bobby Charlton in the tunnel afterwards. “He didn’t look angry,” he recalls. “He just looked shocked. I don’t think he could believe it.”
Hughes got one shirt from Giggs and passed it on to Crowe. He took another from Rooney and kept it for himself. “That’s somewhere in my loft,” Hughes says. “It’s the one Wayne Rooney shirt I could sell to a Leeds fan for big money!
“He showed a touch of class that day though. He held his hands up and said ‘the better side won, no arguments.’ He went right up in my estimations. That’s why the result was such a big deal – not only did we go to Old Trafford as a League One team and win, we went to Old Trafford and deserved to win. Any player will tell you that winning there at all is hard enough.”
Manchester United scalped and onwards to promotion, albeit by the skin of Grayson’s teeth. In this chapter of Leeds’ history, it proved to be the best of times.
The Old Trafford team - where are they now?
Casper Ankergren - Second-choice goalkeeper at Brighton and Hove Albion. Turned 35 in November.
Jason Crowe - Called time on his career in May of last year after a short stint with non-league side Corby Town.
Richard Naylor - Retired from playing in 2012. Presently out of football after being sacked as Leeds’ Under-18s coach in July.
Patrick Kisnorbo - Went back to his native Australia last year. Plays for Melbourne City in the A-League.
Andrew Hughes - Bolton Wanderers’ professional development squad manager. Also registered as a first-team player at the Reebok.
Michael Doyle - Never got a full-time move to Leeds and joined Sheffield United in 2011. Has amassed more than 100 appearances for the Blades.
Neil Kilkenny - Now a member of Simon Grayson’s squad at Preston North End. Joined Preston from Bristol City.
Jonathan Howson - One of numerous members of the 09-10 squad who wound up moving to Norwich City. Has been heavily involved in their Championship term.
Bradley Johnson - Into his fourth full season with Norwich. Three of those were spent in the Premier League.
Luciano Becchio - Sold by Leeds to Norwich two years ago and is still there. A recent loan to Rotherham was cut short by injury.
Jermaine Beckford - Linked up with Grayson again at Preston last month, moving to Deepdale on loan from Bolton.
Robert Snodgrass (for Howson, 77) - Joined Hull from Norwich earlier this year. Currently recovering from a serious knee injury.
Lubomir Michalik (for Becchio, 88) - A free agent after reaching the end of his contract with Kazakhstani side FC Kairat.
Aidan White (for Hughes, 89) - Still on the books at Leeds and into the last year of his deal. Hasn’t played this season due to injury.