I didn’t think anything good could come from the Carabao Cup.
For a start, there’s the name. Apart from it being a low rent Red Bull, I’m not comfortable with playing in a tournament sponsored by a company that also sponsors a club. Coca Cola never sponsored a team playing in the League Cup. Neither, as I recall, did Rumbelows. Or milk. If Reading end up winning this trophy, there ought to be hell to pay at Shaun Harvey’s gaff.
Secondly, there’s the scheduling, and the chore of the early rounds. It’s the second game of the season and already I’m sick of football: where did summer go? The Confederations Cup, countless youth tournaments and the Women’s Euros, that’s where, then a struggle to tune in on Leeds’ preseason programme. With only two stands open and a team of reserves playing League Two opposition, this is basically a bonus preseason friendly, only the actual season pauses after three days to play it. Last season I don’t think I even bothered going to the early League Cup rounds.
Then there was the opposition. It might have been nice to catch Port Vale last season, when they were managed by proto-suave Bruno Ribeiro, the thinking Leeds fan’s template for Thomas Christiansen. Now they’re managed by Michael Brown, who brought a team with Danny Pugh and Michael Tonge in central midfield. “Personally, walking out at Leeds United as a manager will be a step I have wanted to do for quite a long time,” said Browneh, and the prospect of defeat to this Warnock-in-waiting charlatan didn’t bear thinking about.
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To the East Stand, then, where confused fans criss-crossed the aisles, looking for right seats like Hadi Sacko looking for the right ball, wishing they’d brought shades to shield their eyes from the dazzling sunset. And to Samuel Saiz, who dazzled in all the ways that Michael Brown never did, and was perfect.
Port Vale were every inch as bad as I thought they would be. They fouled, they moaned, they tested the unpullable fabric of our lads’ Kappa shirts. They tried to run the clock down in the first half, and they scored a hideous, jammy goal, Michael Tonge — of course — somehow getting on the end of a long throw-in, right at the far post. That’s what happens when Leeds field a defence with no natural, recognised centre-backs, I guess.
As a true team of Michael Browns, though, Port Vale also displayed his and his father-figure Warnock’s fatal flaw. They hate football, and they hate each other. Leeds took the lead when, flashing on the left wing, Stuart Dallas sent over a cross that evaded Vale’s keeper and hit the post; it bounced to Saiz, and he looked at the empty goal, and the keeper, unable to defend it, looked at him, and the Vale defenders looked at the keeper and did nothing to try and help him. This was his problem, and his teammates definitely weren’t going to do anything to help. Saiz shot into the feebly guarded net, and the keeper turned to his defenders, asking what he ever did to make them hate him so.
In the first half Leeds were the better team without dominating. I had wondered in advance about the wisdom of picking new kids in town like Saiz, Klich and Ekuban against a side of inevitable cloggers, but it wasn’t so much that, more that unfamiliarity sucked out fluidity, so Leeds weren’t as coherent as they were at their best against Bolton. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was as bright as anybody and, much as I don’t want Berardi to catch me saying it, showed the advantage of a left-foot when attacking down the left wing. Ronaldo Vieira grew into the game, demonstrating in the early stages why he was maybe felt not to be ready for Bolton on Sunday after a long first season and busy summer, while Mateusz Klich worked hard, mostly defensively.
Samuel Saiz, meanwhile, apart from his goal, had showed some sweet, sweet moments of skill and invention, picking out difficult passes in the final third and making them work, and pulling off tricks that I would never hope to hit the right buttons for on FIFA. He sent Danny Pugh all the way home with one memorable sway of his hips; he did something that probably has a complicated Spanish name to evade Michael Tonge. He also, according to Michael Brown, spat at somebody, but given there was no visible outrage on the pitch at any time, and given that I wouldn’t believe a word Michael Brown says, I don’t believe what Michael Brown is saying.
The second half turned into the Saiz show, but he was helped tremendously when Ezgjan Alioski came on. I was quite sad to see Hadi Sacko substituted; he’d just been showing signs of warming up to the game — a thirty yard dribble towards his own goal is included, because at least he was keeping the ball — and he had as usual been getting stick from the East Stand whether things were his fault or not — a perfectly good pass that Klich couldn’t control springs to mind. I’d hoped playing against Port Vale would be a chance for him to build up some confidence: instead, it was the chance for Alioski and Saiz to make their mark.
Alioski was also quite lacklustre against Bolton, but here he was immediately a step above his predecessor down the right wing. I do think a lot of it is confidence; where Sacko was hesitant, desperate to do the right thing, Alioski just got on with it, swinging carefree crosses into the box. Another word for this would be cockiness, and it’s justified, as it is with Saiz. Together they played like they could do anything with the ball, and Port Vale could do nothing to stop them.
Alioski lifted the pace and put Leeds on the front foot, and Vieira played a gorgeous through ball for Saiz to score his second. It was a joy watching it all come together: Saiz’s curving run, Vieira’s perfect pass, Saiz controlling, swaying around the goalkeeper, and the finish, slid just inside the near post.
Two minutes later the delicacy was Alioski’s pass to Ekuban, and his deft backheel to Saiz; the power was from Saiz, slamming the ball into the roof of the net, as emphatic a hat-trick goal as you could wish for, and as euphoric as I’ve known Elland Road when so sparsely filled. It felt like we’d been given a private audience to something sublime, and this against a team of reminders of Elland Road when it was sparsely filled, and we all felt like we’d been overcharged for tickets to look at actual dog dirt.
Caleb Ekuban got the fourth, which was deserved for a hard working performance that had the pessimist in me thinking, good player, never going to score a goal for Leeds. But there he was, finishing firmly from inside the penalty area when Saiz and Alioski were simply playing down the right. Alioski collected the ball absurdly deep in his own half, ran the length of the pitch, made a fool of Vale’s defender by going down his outside, slowed his run and rolled a pass inside to Saiz. Saiz opened his legs like a gate and Ekuban shot low into the corner: do you celebrate, or laugh?
Port Vale weren’t laughing, but the Beeston Globetrotters showed them no mercy, turning on the style and, frankly, taking the piss. The arch professionalism being drilled into Vale by senior pros Browneh, Tongeh and Pugheh had its effect, when Gavin Gunning got fed up of all the sexy football going on and kicked Alioski, earning his second yellow card of the evening. For lovers of good soccer and justice, it was a perfect end to the night, only topped when the last kick of the game — and surely the last kick at Elland Road of his career — was a shot by Tongeh, that swerved miles away from goal, tamely into the South Stand.
All of that is Port Vale’s problem, as is whatever Michael Brown has been complaining about since the game ended. I don’t believe him, and I don’t care anyway. We successfully rehabilitated Souleymane Doukara from his biting habit; we can tell Samuel Saiz not to spit at people, and he won’t. The only person Michael Brown has ever listened to is Neil Warnock, and look where it’s got him — Division Four, with no better ideas than relying on his old-school dead-football mates in midfield.
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And look where football is getting Leeds United. I didn’t expect, before this evening, that I would end up getting carried away by the Carabao Cup, but here I am. I can’t wait for Saturday, and even if I probably won’t see Samuel Saiz and Pablo Hernandez in the team together — although, c’mon, TC, c’mon — at least I might see one replace the other, and at least I can approach the game not knowing how good it might get, rather than dreading how bad it might be. And I’ll have the memory of Samuel Saiz’s debut on my mind, for a long long long time. ◉
(feature image by Lee Brown)