I sincerely hope as you read this, the spectre of 2011-2012 has finally been expunged from your memories and you are looking forward to the new season, with an (almost) entirely new team that has been put together by the man we trust, Neil Warnock.
For the first time in five years there will be no home friendly fixture for us to look forward to before the season starts properly and we now instead face the prospect of a visit from our friends in Shropshire, Shrewsbury Town in the newly named Capital One Cup or the just simply the League Cup for those old enough to remember a less commercial era.
Meetings between the two clubs have been few and far between, in fact there have only been 16 meetings in the 47 years since their first competitive match in 1965, a 2-0 win for Revie’s machine en route to a losing Wembley appearance against Liverpool.
Fans of both clubs would have to wait until the winter of 1982 before they would meet again, this time in Division 2 (a 1-1 draw at Elland Road). This would begin a period of seven years when both clubs would reside in the second tier of English football, until at least Shrewsbury’s eventual relegation in 1989 and United’s last match against the Shrews.
One fixture of note occurred on the first day of October 1983 down at Gay Meadow where United, despite a 1-0 half-time lead conceded five goals without reply in a disastrous 45 minutes. One Leeds fan (who shall remain anonymous) at the age of eighteen, had the dubious pleasure of being offered a bag of sweets by another fan as consolation, an unusual companion to the bottle of brandy he held in the other one! It’s safe to say the brandy was consumed and the said fan ended the day at Hull train station after falling asleep and missing his stop at Leeds! I’m sure there are plenty of us who have our own tales of away-day shenanigans, some that can be shared and others where we will probably have to wait for people to die before we can spill the beans!
The penultimate game of our eight year run of fixtures against the Shrews occurred on the 10th December 1988 at Elland Road as United began to find their feet under new manager Howard Wilkinson after a disastrous start to the campaign. Leeds under Sergeant Wilko’s had managed to drag themselves up to mid-table after only a couple of months of his appointment. Wilko spoke of his concern that the match would have a low attendance with the upcoming festive season, his delight at gaining the manager of the month award, and what would probably not be mentioned in a manager’s programme notes nowadays, Howard describes the atmosphere at recent games as ‘in the best part acceptable’, an obvious reference to the acts of hooliganism within the stadium that occurred back then.
The match programme back in 1988 was a far cry from the hefty tome that fans expect to purchase on match day now. At a slender 30 pages and priced at 80p, it was probably ample entertainment for any keen reader at the shortened half-time break.
Wilko’s match day notes that voiced fears of a low attendance were unfounded. The crowd of 19,967 was actually up from the previous game home game against Stoke, despite a miniscule following from Shropshire, (the Leeds fans taunts of ‘you must have come in a taxi’ were not too wide of the mark) and actually dwarfed the attendance at the much-maligned Simod Cup fixture a month previous (only 3,220 witnessed a 3-1 United win in a pointless game of a pointless competition).
After the win in that fixture and with United enjoying a ten match unbeaten run and a third consecutive clean sheet, Wilkinson was awarded the Manager of the Month for November and his team were rightly the favourites against the struggling Shrews. On paper at least it looked like a home banker, three points in the bag before a busy festive season despite Shrewsbury’s reputation as away-day battlers.
The trouble is of course, football matches are not played on paper but on grass by fallible human beings, who can fail despite the virulent support of a partisan crowd.
United had destroyed Stoke & Walsall in their previous games 4-0 and 3-0 largely to the voracious skills of the predatory striker Bobby Davison, whose confidence and indeed the team as a whole, couldn’t have been higher.
The Shrewsbury team contained a former Leeds player in Jim Melrose and Mickey Thomas, an experienced player who would join Leeds within a few months of his opposition appearance at Elland Road. Along with this pair, the Shrews also boasted the experienced defensive pair Doug Rougvie and present Everton manager David Moyes but were not expected to de-rail the Leeds revival on a cold, winter afternoon.
But de-rail they did, by the odd goal in five in a thrilling encounter despite goals from the in-form Davison and the mercurial John Sheridan. United forced an amazing 25 corner kicks and had three penalty claims turned down by the referee, as Shrewsbury miraculously survived a second-half onslaught to take the 3 points on a long journey back home on a bitter mid-winter night and leave their miniscule but loyal away following in a state of pre-Christmas celebration.
At the end of the 1988-89 season however, the Shrews heroics at Elland Road and their battling performances away from home mattered little as they were relegated before United’s visit to Gay Meadow. Another high-scoring match finished the season in 3-3 draw, as Shrewsbury fell through the trapdoor into Division 3 never to re-emerge, the chief architect of the forthcoming Wilko revolution Strachan would chip in with two goals.
So please remember as you look forward to the game on Saturday and (hopefully) another revolution under another son of Sheffield that formbooks are made to be slung out of the window and football can indeed be a theatre with 20 odd players and no script.
Here’s to a successful 2012-13, for the club and the fans.