Simon Grayson was walking his dog on the morning of May 8, 2010, when he made one of the biggest decisions of his managerial career.
A few hours later, Leeds United were playing Bristol Rovers. Grayson’s leaders in defence, Richard Naylor and Paddy Kisnorbo, were injured. He’d already decided on his team, and local hero Jonny Howson was on the bench. As he walked, one thought ran through Grayson’s mind: “F*cking hell, who’s going to be captain?”
Eventually, he came to a decision. “I just thought that he enjoys the limelight and he enjoys the big moments and he thrives on the real big games. I just thought, ‘Why not? We’ve got nothing to lose.’”
Leeds United did have something to lose: promotion – and none of the 38,234 fans inside Elland Road that day arrived at the ground expecting him to be wearing the captain’s armband.
For the first half of the 2009-10 season, Leeds appeared to be cruising to the League One title, seemingly swerving any chance of the play-off heartbreak which had ended their first two campaigns in the third tier. After winning 4-2 at Stockport County on December 28, the Whites were eight points clear of second placed Charlton Athletic with a game in hand and 11 points ahead of Norwich City.
In their next fixture, Leeds produced one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history, as Jermaine Beckford scored the only goal at Old Trafford to knock out Manchester United, the Yorkshire club’s greatest rivals and the reigning champions of England.
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They followed that up with a thrilling 2-2 draw at Tottenham in the next round, but their league form began to suffer. To put it bluntly, they collapsed. Between January 9 and April 3, Leeds won just three of 16 matches in League One, losing four consecutive games without scoring at the end of that run.
The euphoria which had carried the club to the top of the table and to one of their most famous victories had dissipated, replaced by angst, anxiety and fear.
Player of the Year Paddy Kisnorbo snapped his Achilles in a dismal defeat to Millwall, ruling the defender out for over a year. And after Swindon Town triumphed 3-0 at Elland Road, Leeds were fourth, two points behind the victors, who sat in second. It was now Norwich who were 11 points clear of Leeds in first place.
Grayson insists his players did not fall into the trap of complacency but instead struggled to readjust to playing against the likes of Exeter City and Hartlepool after thriving on the adrenaline produced against Manchester United and Spurs.
“It wasn’t as if the players thought they were big time or anything like that. ‘We beat Man United and we’re just going to sail the division. We’re too good for this division’ – they weren’t like that, they were just caught up like they had been for the past one or two years in League One. It was a massive cup final for every other team every time you played in League One.
“I’d go and watch, say, Coventry v Exeter, and there’d be 5,000 people there and there’s no atmosphere or anything like that. We go there the next week and there’s like 18,000 at Coventry.
“Suddenly there’s more home fans and there’s a bigger atmosphere, the players get lifted because of the better atmosphere, they’re playing against Leeds and it is the intensity and having to deal with everybody else’s cup final week in and week out.”
Beckford’s winner against Manchester United had been his 20th strike of the season, but the goals began to dry up as the forward scored just three times in 14 games between February 3 and April 13. He quickly became the subject of fans’ ire, having rejected a new deal the previous summer and handed in a transfer request in January. It was an open secret Beckford would be moving to the Premier League upon the expiration of his contract, which hardly helped his relationship with supporters.
With five matches remaining, Beckford was dropped.
“Like any player he was disappointed,” Grayson says, “but he realised he wasn’t playing well. I thought in that particular time he’d got his mind made up that he was leaving in the summer anyway.
“In the January window we had bids from Newcastle which we turned down. It got to the end of the window and I said to him, ‘Don’t let it affect your next big move. You’ll still get a big move, so play well until the end of the season and instead of getting, for example, £15,000 a week, you might get £30,000 a week.’
“We were going through a rocky period and I think it just affected him more. He was thinking about the future because we did say we’d let him go for free in the summer so just do what you can to get us promoted.”
Without Beckford in the starting XI, Leeds beat Carlisle United and MK Dons but lost to Gillingham. Results elsewhere meant victory at Charlton would have secured promotion with a game to spare.
With the score at The Valley 0-0, Beckford was brought on from the bench as Grayson gambled with a “ridiculous” system which featured six forwards on the pitch at once. Leeds lost 1-0 through a Richard Naylor own-goal, and so it went to the last day of the season against Bristol Rovers.
When the team was announced an hour before kick-off, not only was Beckford starting, he was captain.
“The captain’s role is insignificant to a certain degree but to a certain individual that’s a massive fillip for them,” Grayson says. “When you tell him it’s like he’s 12 feet tall. It was just a decision that I made.”
“It was one of excitement but one of nervousness as well,” Grayson says of the atmosphere inside the Leeds dressing room prior to kick-off. “We’ve worked so hard and so much is riding on it. You know that there’s 38,000 inside Elland Road. Ultimately it was in our hands and that’s all I kept stressing to the players.
“If somebody said to us at the start of the season, ‘If you win your last home game of the season to get promoted, will you take that now?’ I think everybody would take that, especially playing against a Bristol Rovers team who, no disrespect, were only bottom half of the division.
“We started the game well. As you can imagine the crowd were fully behind the players. I said to the players, ‘We need to make sure we get on the front foot and get the crowd going and try get that early goal to settle everybody down.’ Obviously the fans were behind us but they were still apprehensive and nervous because they know what’s capable at Leeds United.”
Leeds almost took the lead in the first half, as Max Gradel burst past left-back Daniel Jones and put an inviting ball across the six-yard box, only for Luciano Becchio’s shot to be deflected clear with the goal at his mercy. Beckford soon had the ball in the back of the net, but his strike was disallowed by the linesman’s offside flag.
It seemed only a matter of time before the hosts opened the scoring, but it has never been very Leeds United to do things the easy way. Grayson sighs: “What a fool. Why’s he just done it?”
Gradel had helped galvanise the Whites’ attack in the run-in thanks to his pace and energy. The winger became a firm favourite among supporters, thanks in no small part to being somewhat – for want of a better phrase – batsh*t mental.
But such a trait which made Gradel an exciting player came back to haunt Leeds. He was sent off just after the half-hour mark following an off-the-ball clash with Jones in which the defender fell to the floor clutching his face. The Ivorian completely lost his head in the aftermath, refusing to leave the pitch while he remonstrated with referee Graham Salisbury, at least until Beckford stepped in.
“All of a sudden Max gets sent off and Jermaine, who’s normally the one antagonising the opposition, this time he’s peacemaker trying to get Max off the pitch.”
Leeds held on to get to half-time with the score 0-0, but Grayson had one more thing to do before returning to the dressing room.
“I don’t know if I deliberately waited for this particular player or it just happened and what I said to him was a natural thing to just come out. Daniel Jones – he didn’t get Max sent off because Max got himself sent off, but he was involved in it. I don’t know if I waited for him or not.
“We’re walking down the tunnel at half-time and all of a sudden I said, ‘Just remember, second half you’re playing left-back in the north-east corner. When that final whistle goes, if we’ve not got promoted, all the best getting off this f*cking pitch.’ I just looked at him and walked into my office.
“There was all sorts going off in the dressing room. I always go into my office to have a couple of minutes with myself and Snods (assistant manager Glynn Snodin) to talk about the first half.
“I went into our dressing room and the lads are still having a go at Max. Max is saying this, that and the other. It’s mayhem. Not fighting, but everyone was so het up and worried about the situation.
“I got everyone settled down and you’re still just telling them, ‘Look, we’ve still got a fantastic opportunity. We’re down to 10 men but we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing and we can still beat these.’”
Once the second half got underway, Grayson’s plans lasted all of three minutes. Jones, firmly established as the villain of the piece, swung in a cross to the back post. Two Leeds defenders followed Jo Kuffour, leaving Darryl Duffy alone in the six-yard box. Kuffour hooked the ball back, and Duffy fired home. Leeds were a goal and a man down, and heading for the play-offs. Charlton were in second on 84 points, with Leeds, Millwall and Swindon all on 83 points.
“You go a goal down and again your thought process is, ‘F*cking hell, what do we need to do now?’ Suddenly I’ve got to go, ‘Right, I need to do something to make sure we win this game.’ Even at half-time I had a plan B worked out, what I was going to do with substitutions knowing that we still had to win the game with 10 men, never mind being a goal down.
“I made two substitutions; I took Shane Lowry off and went three at the back, and I brought Jonny Howson on.”
Howson, like Beckford, was another player who had fallen out of favour with Leeds fans. A local lad, he had been the hero two years previous by scoring twice in a dramatic play-off semi-final victory at Carlisle but had struggled for consistency since. Like Beckford, the midfielder had recently been dropped from the side.
“The local lads who come through the academy, it works both ways for them. Through tough times they get a bit of slack because supporters see them as one of their own, but that only lasts for so long.
“Jonny had been at the club around the first team for four or five years; that slack goes because you’re now one of the main players and people will then think you should be doing more because it should mean more to you because you’re from the city and you know the club. It’s very difficult for one individual to change the outlook of many, many games.
“But Jonny was a fantastic character and understood whatever decision I was making and made on that particular day was hopefully for the benefit of the team. Any game you’re involved in you put players on and say to them, ‘Go make something happen.’ If you’re a defender go keep a clean sheet, if you’re an attacker go do something to win us a game.
“You always knew you could rely on Jonny because Jonny was like Mr Seven Or Eight Out Of 10, son-in-law material.”
Howson replaced Lowry after 54 minutes. Five minutes later, he eclipsed his heroics against Carlisle with possibly his finest, and certainly his most important, moment in the shirt of his boyhood club.
From the left-hand touchline, Bradley Johnson slipped as he went to cross the ball into Bristol’s penalty area, scuffing it to Becchio on the edge of the box. The striker took one touch before laying the ball back to Howson. In one smooth movement, he whipped a shot past Mikkel Andersen in Rovers’ goal. Crucial goals are rarely beautiful goals. On this occasion, Howson managed to produce something which was both.
“All of a sudden the roof fell off the ground and it was as if we had 12 players and they had eight. They couldn’t get anywhere near us.”
Leeds now had 31 minutes plus added time to find a winner. They only needed four.
“Because of the atmosphere and what atmospheres can do to players, their goalkeeper – who had done quite well throughout the season as he’d been on loan from the Championship – catches the ball and decides to throw it out quickly.
“He shouldn’t have done that in the first place, and he throws it straight to Bradley, who has a miscued shot and Jermaine gets on the end of it. It’s amazing what atmospheres can do to players to make them do stupid things.”
It was Beckford’s 31st goal of the season, and his 85th and final goal for Leeds United. “It was quite poignant that he scored the two biggest goals of that season,” Grayson says.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, the intensity of the Elland Road crowd ensured Leeds didn’t relent. Leigh Bromby headed a free-kick against the post which Becchio came agonisingly close to diverting into the goal.
When the final whistle was blown, Leeds fans invaded the pitch in delirium, and Grayson couldn’t help but notice who was the first player down the tunnel.
“Two minutes before the final whistle goes, we’re 2-1 up and have seen it all through. Who’s playing right wing in front of the f*cking dugouts? Daniel Jones.”
For Grayson, who grew up as a Leeds fan and made two appearances for the club before making his name as a player elsewhere, promotion was the realisation of a childhood dream. For Beckford, it was redemption. While his relationship with the supporters was fraught at times, you will now struggle to find a fan who has a bad word to say about the striker.
“You just have a connection with certain players that other people maybe can’t handle or manage. The perception of Jermaine was that he was difficult to deal with and he had this attitude and was sulking, but you couldn’t meet a nicer lad if you got on with him and I did. He knew what he wanted from me and I knew what I wanted from him.
“As a manager you’re always under pressure, but it was a dream for me because I’d always supported the club and had been able to live the dream of making my debut for Leeds. I didn’t play as many games as I wanted to, I had to leave for my own benefit in 1992, but then to go the full circle, to come back around, it was like, ‘Is this really happening?’
“And then to have the success I had there was…yeah, it was really amazing to be fair, but it was obviously coupled with pressure. Don’t forget, there were some tough times as well. We went to Hereford and got absolutely slaughtered; booed off, the players not fit to wear the shirt. That’s not easy for a manager when the club means a lot to them, but also the players as well.
“There were other hair-raising moments as well, thinking you’re going to lose out on promotion on the last day of the season was one of them. You have to deal with the pressure but you’re privileged to be part of that club whether as a player or a manager.”
By Rob Conlon