The year was 2006. After a very solid season, Kevin Blackwell’s Leeds United finished in 5th place and, after a semi-final victory over Preston, found themselves in the Championship playoff final against Watford FC. At 17 years old, this game was to shape my future as a Leeds United fan. It was also going to define the next ten years at Leeds United as a whole.
I remember waking up that day feeling like it was Christmas morning. Watford finished three points and two places above us that season, and I went into the game with so much optimism and excitement. The game was at the Millennium Stadium that day due to the new Wembley not being ready, and I distinctly remember the pitch in Cardiff being a torn up mess. Like most playoff final games, it was going to come down to who had the bottle to take this game by the throat. Unfortunately, on this day, as we all know, Leeds had no bottle at all.
The game started in a very cagey manner, but after going ahead just short of the half hour mark, Watford kicked on, and a dominating performance culminated in a three goal victory. There are no real words to describe how losing a playoff final feels, and I think my mind has partially blocked out the anger I felt that day. What is possibly worse than losing a playoff final though, is the ten years we have had to suffer following it, which has included relegation, shambolic ownership to the extreme, more playoff heartache, and general disappointment week in, week out.
It could have all been so different though. If we had won, would Ken Bates have spent a bit of money to keep us in the Premier League? That’s a hard question to answer, but with the way the top flight went for the following years, with the TV money and general growth of the league abroad, one thing is for sure: if we had won that game that day and stayed in the Premier League for a few seasons after, things would have been extremely different at Elland Road.
Bates was always going to sell Leeds, he wanted to pick us up on the cheap and sell us for a quick buck. It didn’t work out that way for him, but if we got promoted that day, would he have had offers from more attractive buyers? Once again, a hard question to answer, but the mind wanders.
Watford’s stay in the Premier League didn’t last long, one season to be precise, which is exactly how much longer we lasted in the Championship ourselves. Relegated the next season, our three year stretch in League 1 began, and I don't need to tell you the rest of the story.
That playoff final against Watford set the tone for the next ten years at Leeds. What will Saturday's game bring?
The Hornets were relegated and eventually were bought by a nice Italian man. They've slowly made their return to the Promised Land. It has been two very different journeys for the two clubs since we met on that day in Cardiff and the Leeds United journey has, and still is, the much more painful one.
Back to 2016, and we are streets behind Watford at the moment, with them nicely establishing themselves as a mid-table Premier League side, spending enough money to grow and keep that pace and power in the side that got them back out of the Championship in the first place. As we prepare to square up to them this weekend, I can’t help but daydream about what could have been if that day ten years ago had turned out differently.
At the same time, I feel incredibly saddened by the fact we have spent an entire decade dreaming of getting back to the position we were in that day. To be one game away from promotion seems a long way off, but it shouldn’t be. If we were run like an ambitious club who held onto their talent, invested in the future, and made the occasional splash on a big name, with our fan base, we could have ended up being in an even better position than Watford.
Going on recent years, Watford have been a real hassle for us; their pace alone is enough to rip us apart. They have stuck to this approach in the top flight and improved the personnel since their promotion, so we have real cause for concern this weekend. We'll see.
I ask you this: which Leeds United team would you rather have play Watford? The 2006 team or the 2016 team? I know which I’d prefer. Let's hope the 2016 lads perform on Saturday and help heal just a little bit of our ten-year-old heartache.
The Leeds United lineup that day
Sullivan, Kelly, Butler, Gregan, Kilgallon, Richardson, Miller, Derry, Douglas, Lewis, Hulse
The predicted Leeds lineup for Saturday at Watford
Silvestri, Wootton, Bellusci, Cooper, Taylor, Bridcutt, Diagouraga, Mowatt, Cook, Carayol, Doukara