Neil Redfearn feels Sunday’s FA Cup tie with Sunderland could deliver a much-needed boost for his struggling side. Phil Hay reports.
There’s a distinction in Neil Redfearn’s mind between establishing priorities and lacking respect. The FA Cup has no real business in Leeds United’s troubled season but it features in the finest years of the club’s long and colourful history.
Elland Road is awash with images from the Centenary Cup Final in 1972, the one and only year when the trophy came to Leeds. The Bremner Suite in the West Stand houses a glorious picture of United’s Scottish captain and their manager, Don Revie, hugging each other and dangling the lidless cup between them.
There are fewer photos, if any at all, of the following year’s final which Leeds lost to Sunderland – a bookmakers’ dream and as big an upset as the competition has seen at Wembley – but even that is part of the club’s fabric. Black-and-white photography and a Championship table showing Leeds in peril make those rich days seem far away.
Redfearn was a seven-year-old Leeds fan when Sunderland, a Division Two side managed by Bob Stokoe, mugged Revie’s United in their prime.
The clubs have waited 41 years to meet again in the FA Cup but they will do so at the Stadium of Light tomorrow, one of the ties of the third round.
“There’s history between the clubs because of the final in 1973,” Redfearn said. “I remember very little about it but the FA Cup was always a big day for us.
“It used to start at 10 in the morning with interviews and everything else and I’d be glued to the telly. Being a Leeds fan I know about us winning against Arsenal in ’72 and then getting beat by Sunderland in ’73.
“The great players we had – Clarke, Lorimer, Bremner and so on – have gone down in history and they’re part of the romance this club’s got with the FA Cup. So it’s important we go up to Sunderland and give a good account of ourselves.”
In steadier seasons, tomorrow’s tie would have prompted a long week of reflection about Ian Porterfield’s winning goal at Wembley, Jim Montgomery’s save from Peter Lorimer, the antipathy between Stokoe and Revie and the upset which saw Sunderland’s supporters march through their hometown with a white coffin bearing the words ‘Leeds died 1973’. It came to rest on the halfway line at Roker Park.
In amongst the 5,200 supporters who Leeds are taking to the Stadium of Light, some might like the taste of revenge, if revenge is the right word 41 years on. “I’d see it as that,” Redfearn said. But more attention is being given to the state of United’s team and the state of a season which is set up for a fight against relegation between now and May.
Leeds took one point from five games in December and have won two of their last 16 fixtures. Redfearn, their third head coach of the term, is under considerably more pressure now than he was when he accepted the job in November. It would be tempting to say that he could do without an FA Cup tie at Sunderland but the 49-year-old sees the game as an opportunity to try a new line-up, perform without huge expectation and edge back into form.
Charlie Taylor is likely to start at left-back in the absence of the injured Stephen Warnock. Dario Del Fabro, the young Italian who Leeds signed on loan from Cagliari in the summer, could make his debut in the centre of defence.
“It’s one of those games where if we get a result, a performance and get through to the next round, it could help everything,” Redfearn said.
“The league’s the priority for us and it’s got to be but we have to put out a side that can compete and win the game at Sunderland. We’ve got a big squad and perhaps it’s time to make use of it but I want to pick a side that’s going to win. It would be a great achievement to go there and get a result.
“Sunderland have done well this season and they seem to have sorted themselves out. They know how to stay in the Premier League. They look solid at the back but I watched them against Manchester City and when they opened up and chased the game, they showed they can score goals too. Gus (Poyet, Sunderland’s manager) is a top football man. I rate him highly.”
The cosmopolitan nature of United’s squad is a contentious topic of discussion at the moment. The influx of players from abroad during the last transfer window has not had the desired effect at Elland Road and many, Redfearn included, question whether club owner Massimo Cellino would be right to follow the same approach this month.
In the context of the FA Cup, it is also hard to know how strongly England’s oldest competition will resonate with Leeds’ overseas contingent. “It’s a good point,” Redfearn said, “but I think they get it. The coverage of football in this country is top notch, it gets sent around the world, so I think they all see the FA Cup as a prestigious tournament.
“They understand it but they understand too that at Leeds it’s important to win. When you enter a competition you enter it to win it, not just to go as far as you can. We’re no different to anyone else.”
Redfearn appreciates still that United’s performance in the FA Cup will not be held against him.
The club’s league position is what matters to Cellino and the crowd, and ultimately to him. But he is keen to make a game of it at Sunderland; to show due respect to a competition he grew up with. “I played in an FA Cup semi-final for Oldham so I know what it’s about,” he said. “It’s a great competition, the oldest in our country and it’s the one everyone looks to for upsets, non-league sides doing well and knocking out big boys. It should be cherished.
“Leeds United have got a proud tradition in the FA Cup. We won the cup and it’s in our history.
“So we want to do well and from our point of view, we’ve got to use this game for our benefit – to put a performance on, play to our strengths, do what we’re good at and try to get a result.”