Leeds and the FA Cup, marching on together?

by William Abbs

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

However we choose to pronounce ‘2010’ we have entered a new year and, indeed, a new decade. In football, the past ten years might ultimately be remembered for any number of reasons: England’s 5-1 win in Munich; David Beckham’s free-kick against Greece; Arsenal’s unbeaten Premier League campaign; José Mourinho’s sprint up the Old Trafford touchline in 2004 and the union with Abramovich’s billions that followed; Liverpool’s comeback in Istanbul; Ronaldo’s wink. Momentous events like Beckham’s last-minute goal in 2001 can occur, quite literally, in a moment, or, as in the case of Arsenal’s ‘invincible’ season in 2003/2004, they can unfold over time and only become truly significant right at the end. However, the noughties (if we must call them that) were also the decade in which the FA Cup had to face ever-growing accusations and insinuations from top-flight managers of being, at best, an outmoded institution and, at worst, a downright inconvenience.

The FA Cup’s malaise can be traced back to 1999, when Manchester United won the Champions League and qualified for the inaugural Club World Cup that was due to take place in Brazil the following January. The scheduling of FIFA’s nascent competition clashed with that of the FA Cup; if United progressed to the 4th Round of the FA Cup, they would be forced to play a shadow side while the senior squad was away in Brazil. Although the club were under pressure from the Football Association themselves to withdraw from their own cup competition –  in order to score points with FIFA for England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup – United were pilloried by the press and the public for declining to defend the trophy they had won in 1999 and instead honouring their commitments in South America. No matter what the circumstances were, by favouring what was then the world’s newest club competition over its oldest United dealt the FA Cup a blow to its pride from which it has never quite recovered and, at the same time, demonstrated how the country’s top clubs were increasingly looking beyond the confines of the domestic game to global opportunities.

United did not return from Brazil in triumph. Four points from three group games were not enough to see them progress beyond the group stage of the Club World Cup, during which United were worthy 3-1 losers against a Romario-inspired Vasco da Gama. When United returned to England, it was to face a new threat to their domestic eminence that had emerged that season: Leeds United. David O’Leary’s Leeds side – packed with youth but sprinkled with experience – played fast and attractive football, with two wingers supplying two aggressive strikers. In short, they echoed the best traditions of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. A month after their sojourn in Rio, United sat just three points above Leeds at the top of the Premier League when the two teams squared up at Elland Road. A goal from Andrew Cole early in the second half was enough to earn United a 1-0 victory and, in truth, Leeds faded badly during the remainder of the league season while United romped to another title with a winning margin of 18 points. However, Leeds were to profit from Liverpool’s final-day defeat to Bradford City and, after qualifying for the Champions League at the expense of the Reds, their thrilling progress in the competition the following season was only halted by Valencia in the semi-finals.

Ten years on from Manchester United’s FA Cup no-show and Leeds’ flirtation with the Premier League title, the two sides met at Old Trafford on Sunday in the FA Cup 3rd Round. Despite there currently being two divisions and 43 league places between the two Uniteds, the latest battle in the footballing War of the Roses ended in a shock 1-0 win for the House of York. While the denigration of the FA Cup that United instigated in 2000 has in no way hampered their own success in the years since, the club having won another six league titles and one more European Cup, the wait to add to the single FA Cup they have won since 1999 – against Millwall in 2004 – must go on for another year at least.

Over the last ten years, Leeds’ standing has suffered even more than that of the FA Cup. Relegated twice and almost bankrupted as a result of gross financial mismanagement that forced them to sell players that they could not afford to replace, Leeds eventually stabilised in League One amid its away trips to Brentford rather than the Bernabeu. Jermaine Beckford, the scorer of Sunday’s winning goal,  is not just arguably Leeds’ most important player but one who embodies the traditional FA Cup hero as well. Signed from Wealdstone in 2006, where he kick-started his football career after being released by Chelsea as a youngster, Beckford’s non-League past and his abundant self-confidence make him the type of character for whom 3rd Round weekend was designed. With Saturday’s FA Cup ties largely producing a set of games so uninspiring that the competition’s relevance was set to be questioned again, Leeds’ unlikely win and Beckford’s memorable winning goal have seen the FA Cup deal a mighty blow to the pride of Manchester United. With Leeds marching towards Championship football next season, perhaps their own resurgence might occur alongside that of the FA Cup – just as the Yorkshire club’s downfall was played out during the domestic trophy’s bleakest decade.

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