AMID a host of intriguing sub-plots surrounding the first meeting of Huddersfield Town and Leeds United in the second tier for almost exactly a quarter-of-a- century, one notable factor was largely overlooked during last week’s build-up.
Namely, Neil Warnock’s return to a stadium known by the name McAlpine during his tenure in charge of the Terriers was taking place on the United manager’s 64th birthday.
Moving to within a year of qualifying for a free bus pass can be a daunting prospect for any man and Warnock admits that as recently as a fortnight ago he had a deep sense of foreboding about the prospect of taking on a resurgent Huddersfield.
Not only were Leeds down to the bare bones back then through a combination of injury and suspension but the seemingly never-ending takeover saga was sucking the life out of any lingering enthusiasm at Elland Road.
Come his big day, however, Warnock got the present he craved as his revitalised United players gift-wrapped three points and brought to an end a five-game winless run against Huddersfield.
“The gaffer has mentioned it is his birthday a few times,” joked Ross McCormack when speaking to the Yorkshire Post in the wake of Leeds bagging a hat-trick of consecutive league wins for the first time since December, 2010, to move to within four points of the play-off places.
“He even asked us after the game what we’d got for him. But we said there was no present and that the three points should be enough.”
Sure enough, Warnock was perfectly satisfied with the win and so elated, in fact, that he admitted afterwards that the Saturday night drive down to the family home in Cornwall would “seem like five minutes, even if turns out to be 15 hours”.
The United chief’s happy mood was understandable with his side having been full value for their third win in eight days.
Having fallen behind to a cool finish from Chris Atkinson after the midfielder had been played through by a delightful pass from Adam Clayton on 12 minutes, United responded in admirable fashion courtesy of two quickfire goals.
The first came via a huge slice of good fortune as Alex Smithies made a total hash of what should have been a routine save to keep out a tame 35th-minute shot from Michael Tonge.
The second, however, was a thing of beauty as a raking 40-yard pass from Tonge released McCormack, who rolled the ball back to Luciano Becchio and he finished in devastating fashion from 18 yards.
United’s Argentinian has rarely scored as sweet a strike for the club, but he then threatened to ruin Warnock’s birthday by gifting Huddersfield a penalty with a crude tug on central defender Anthony Gerrard.
Premier League referee Mike Dean rightly ruled it to be a foul and Clayton did the rest from 12 yards despite the best efforts of McCormack, who admitted afterwards: “I said to Clayts, ‘I know you’re a Leeds fan so why don’t you just put it wide?’”
After coming out on top in the mind games with his good friend, Clayton then raced to celebrate in front of Warnock, the manager whom he blames for his exit from Elland Road.
Watching just a couple of yards away was Simon Grayson, who, like Clayton, had been shown the door by Leeds in 2012.
Unlike the midfielder, though, Grayson has retained his dignity throughout the past 10 months and he said: “You have to be respectful to people. Neil had the last laugh because they won the game and that is why you have to be careful sometimes.”
Warnock did, indeed, have the last laugh as, after gradually exerting more and more control on proceedings the longer the second half went on, United’s efforts were finally rewarded when David Norris fired past Smithies with 20 minutes remaining.
It almost prised open the floodgates with Ryan Hall denied by a flying save from Smithies, who then kept out Becchio and Paul Green in similarly impression fashion.
Michael Brown also fired narrowly over in stoppage time but by then the game was over thanks to a bullet header from Becchio that was enough to earn the gratitude of the Argentinian’s team-mates.
McCormack, back in the starting line-up for the first time since September 15 following injury, said: “Everyone knows what Luciano does. Outside the box is not his game. You forgive anything he does outside the box – if he gives it away or whatever – because you know that if the ball is in the box, he is going to be there or thereabouts, as he showed against Huddersfield with two great finishes.”
Becchio’s double means Leeds’s season is finally up and running after a series of false starts, leaving McCormack confidently believing that his manager’s 65th year could yet yield a promotion challenge.
The United striker, who left the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday clutching Clayton’s Huddersfield shirt, said: “It is all about momentum now. If we can go to Derby next week and keep playing the way we are playing then I think we have got a chance.
“You have only got to look at Reading last season to see that anything can happen when a team gets on a run.
“During the (2009-10) season when my then team Cardiff got beat in the play-off final, Blackpool came from nowhere to get promoted, too.
“It is definitely possible and we just need to keep doing what we are doing and, hopefully, the points will add up.”