Play(ed them) off (the park)

Better than champions

Written by: Rob Conlon
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
A picture of Mateo Joseph shouting about how happy he is

Leeds United’s Under-21s were meant to win promotion three weeks ago. They were ten minutes from winning the league, cruising at West Brom, until conceding a 25-yard hit-and-hope that left Archie Gray and co laying face down on the pitch, consigned to the play-offs.

It won’t have felt like it at the time, but it was the best thing that could have happened to them. Losing at West Brom meant Leeds’ season lasted longer than they hoped, providing two unexpected opportunities to show why they’re so much fun to crowds at Elland Road desperate for a boost of dopamine.

In the semi-final against Aston Ham, top scorers Mateo Joseph and Sonny Perkins cracked open the good stuff in front of the West Stand, setting up a decider against Notts Forest and an even bigger attendance. With the Kop and East Stand open, Joseph and Perkins stepped back, letting the rest of the team take the acclaim.

Leeds beat Forest 5-1 at the start of the season, and a similar scoreline soon looked likely. Within the first twenty minutes, Leeds had a set-piece cleared off the line, Joseph was denied from inside the six-yard box, and Georginio Rutter forced Forest’s goalkeeper into three saves. It’s difficult to know what to make of Georginio when, in the words of the LUTV commentary team, he can look so “awkward”, which made it all the more fitting when his scruffiest attempt of the opening stages was the one that broke the deadlock, bobbling the ball into the bottom corner after Leeds’ front three passed between themselves in the penalty area.

United’s defence had a difficult night’s work in the semi-final, but were firm in preventing Forest from having a single shot in the first half. With Leeds continuing to attack, the defenders joined in the fun. Charlie Allen, enjoying a much more comfortable evening out of position at right-back than he had in the semi-final, swung a free-kick to the back post, where Jeremiah Mullen met the cross with a volley so sweet even Joseph put his hands to his head in awe. Elland Road might not have been as full as the 1992 Youth Cup final, but the Class of 2023 had their moment to rival Jamie Forrester’s overhead kick. “He tries it everyday in training,” Sean McGurk told LUTV. “I’ve been here for eighteen months and never seen him do it.”

Even when the game was halted, Leeds were still committed to entertainment. While Diogo Monteiro was receiving treatment, Gray flicked the ball onto his forehead, where he balanced it like a seal as the crowd purred in delight.

Forest were at least allowed to have a shot in the second half, but Leeds kept the joy of scoring to themselves. A short corner routine allowed McGurk to twist past his marker and thump a cross onto the head of Kris Moore, who nodded the final goal of the night in front of the Kop.

The nature of U21s football means this team might not play together again. Leeds spent a record fee on Georginio Rutter to secure top-flight status in the actual Premier League rather than PL2. Joseph, Gyabi, and Perkins have already tasted involvement in the first team and will be aiming for more next season. Archie Gray has a family name to live up to and more interviews to gatecrash. Had things gone as they hoped, this team would have signed off by celebrating promotion behind closed doors at Walsall’s training ground. Instead, they’re the team that danced and lifted a trophy after thrilling Elland Road. ⬢

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