My interest in attending Leeds Under-21s’ play-off semi-final at Elland Road was less about the thrill of a promotion battle, and more about avoiding an evening doomscrolling on my phone checking updates from the Premier League’s relegation scrap. I didn’t concern myself with the details. I assumed it was a two-legged tie, only to learn from the stadium announcer there was the prospect of extra-time, penalties, and a later night than I expected. As for the opposition, they were definitely playing in claret and blue, but I had to keep checking the scoreboard to work out whether Leeds were playing West Ham or Aston Villa.
U21 fixtures at Elland Road are nights for the kids anyway. Not just those on the pitch, but those in the stands enjoying the rare chance to get taken to a game. As Marching On Together began playing ahead of kick off, my friend Steve’s eight-year-old son Roman was standing on his seat, scarf raised above his head, belting out the words. Bemoaning the quieting atmosphere after the game had started, Roman took it upon himself to raise the noise, earning a laugh from the fans sitting around us by shouting without warning, “CRACK OPEN THE GOOD STUFF!”
It might have been the most perfect shout I’ve ever heard at a football match. As advice, you cannot argue with cracking open the good stuff. When I asked Roman where he’d got it from, he told me he just made it up on the spot, tweaking his original idea of, “Crack open the good biscuits.” Again, an inarguable piece of wisdom. But biscuits aren’t always readily available. Regardless of the scenario, cracking open the good stuff contains a universal truth.
It still took Leeds a little while to crack open the good stuff. The problem was Aston Ham’s left winger was giving Charlie Allen a migraine at right-back. Allen has been one of the U21s’ most consistent performers this season, but he’s a forward, not a full-back. After West Villa’s number 11 beat him one too many times in the build up to the opening goal, Allen was given some tips from Leeds’ dugout, looking back as if to say, ‘What do you expect?’ Leeds fixed the issue by asking the full-backs to swap sides, leaving the defending to actual defender Kris Moore.
With the defence calmer, the attack could start having fun. Georginio Rutter was given a run-out in front of Sam Allardyce and was busy, tracking back to get stuck in defensively and showing a turn of pace to drag Leeds up the pitch. It isn’t Georginio’s fault that no matter what number he wears on his back, he’ll always play with a £35m pricetag above his head, but his minutes in a Leeds shirt are still missing a moment of star power to settle him into his new home.
Mateo Joseph, Sonny Perkins, and Sean McGurk don’t have to worry about living up to the reputation of a club-record signing, though, so they could just keep playing like they have all season. Joseph was drifting wide, combining his hard-running industry with a poacher’s instinct, sniffing out an equaliser as Allen’s corner dropped over Rutter’s head and into the six-yard box, waiting to be tapped in.
After a difficult start, Leeds’ plan was coming together. The previously troublesome left winger was left on the floor by Moore, allowing Archie Gray to launch the ball forward and start the decisive attack. Rutter combined with Perkins and McGurk, who pulled the defence out of position and picked the right pass back to Perkins. Perkins was still stepping backwards to create a yard of space when the ball came to his feet but, like Joseph, he has that knack of knowing how to manoeuvre the ball into the net, curling a beautiful finish into the far corner even while he was falling ungainly onto his arse.
I can’t tell you much about the second half, because nothing really happened. Rutter accidentally blocked Perkins’ shot from a set-piece routine and looked embarrassed, but let’s just hope it was definitely drifting wide anyway. By that point, we’d all succumbed to the temptation of checking score updates as the Premier League descended into lunacy. Leicester had already lost 5-3 at Fulham, and both in front and behind me I could see fans streaming the horror of Everton sticking five past Brighton on their phones.
Towards the end of the second half at Elland Road, Nottingham Forest were already 2-0 up against Southampton, which I took as my cue to leave. All the talk of cracking open the good biscuits had me contemplating buying some on the way home. The TVs on the concourse were showing the Forest game, and I was pleased to see Southampton had pulled a goal back before I reached the bottom of the stairs. But as I returned from the gents, Morgan Gibbs-White was scoring a penalty to restore Forest’s two-goal advantage.
When I got home, the score was 3-2, and I accepted I was going to have to watch the final twenty minutes, hoping for a Southampton equaliser. By the time I’d walked upstairs to get my laptop, Forest had scored a fourth. Fuck that. Cracking out the good biscuits will have to wait until the end of the season. Until then, I’m going to need something stronger. ⬢