Leeds United 2 Bristol Rovers 1: Leeds show their bottle after Gradel's moment of madness

FIRST, an apology. Regular readers of the Yorkshire Post may recall that in our Easter Monday edition, the players of Leeds United were described as "pathetic" and "spineless".

Furthermore, the writer of said article – okay, it was yours truly – also thought it appropriate to sum up United's display in the

3-0 defeat to Swindon Town two days earlier as "shameful", while also accusing the team of performing "sport's most spectacular collapse since Devon Loch blew the 1956 Grand National".

Then, to add insult to, well, insult, an analysis of the League One promotion race that appeared in this newspaper on Friday, April 23 dismissed the Elland Road club's chances by stating they would choke when the pressure was on and that Leeds would be "staying down" as a result.

All comments were, I can assure you, written in good faith and an accurate reflection of this correspondent's thinking at the time.

However, after a truly dramatic climax to the League One season, the YP now accepts such allegations were untrue and would, therefore, like to humbly offer our deepest apologies to Simon Grayson and his players.

Certainly, the character United displayed in overcoming the first half dismissal of Max Gradel and then falling a goal behind to beat Bristol Rovers was worthy of the highest praise.

And to stage such a stirring fightback while knowing that results elsewhere were going against them only added to the impressive nature of the response from Grayson's side.

Delving deep into their pits of resolve as a third successive tilt at the dreaded play-offs honed into view, 10-man United netted twice in four minutes through Jonny Howson and Jermaine Beckford.

Then, as the Pirates regrouped and pushed for an equaliser, Leeds stood firm with captain-for-the-day Beckford epitomising the desire to finish the job by putting in an impressive stint on the left wing as Grayson ditched the 3-4-2 formation that had brought the two goals in favour of 4-4-1.

No wonder the United manager was so full of praise for his team at the final whistle.

He said: "A few bottles of champagne were thrown around in the dressing room and rightly so because promotion is a great achievement.

"The players can look back on this and be very, very proud.

"We made it hard for ourselves by going down to 10 men and then falling behind. But the hunger and desire to succeed shone through.

"I told the players at half-time to retain the belief they could do it. I told them to become heroes by winning promotion when things are stacked against us.

"Full credit to the players, and also the fans for keeping us going. The roar when that winning goal went in was amazing.

"The atmosphere was incredible throughout and the fans lifted the players so much that we did not look like a team that was down to 10-men.

"These fans have been through every emotion in the last five years so this promotion is for them."

Leeds are, indeed, back in the second tier after a three-year absence. But, shortly after 4pm on Saturday, it has to be said promotion seemed a long, long way away.

The first setback had come on 34 minutes when Gradel, switched to the right flank to accommodate Beckford's return to the frontline, stupidly reacted to what he felt was a foul by Daniel Jones.

If anything, the Leeds wideman had been guilty of catching Jones late as the left-back cleared but that did not stop him taking retribution with a stamp on the defender.

Referee Graham Salisbury immediately brandished the red card and a task that ahead of kick-off had seemed relatively straightforward was now looking that little bit harder.

It had become even more of up an uphill task within 74 seconds of the second half getting underway after Jones had ignored the booing of the home fans to charge down the left and send over a deep cross for Jo Kuffour to return back across the six-yard box.

The ball fell to Darryl Duffy and, after initially steadying himself, the former Hull City striker netted from close range.

With news filtering through that Charlton, courtesy of being two goals up at Oldham, were now sitting second, the situation seemed grave.

Grayson's response was to bring Howson off the bench and the move paid dividends on 59 minutes when the Leeds-born midfielder curled an exquisite shot past Mikkel Andersen from the edge of the penalty area.

Cue the decibel levels being cranked up even higher and it took just four minutes for the goal Elland Road craved to arrive.

Andersen was, this time, badly at fault with his attempted thrown clearance deflecting off Beckford's head to fall for Bradley Johnson on the left. He quickly returned the ball to the six-yard box where a defender's outstretched leg knocked it into the path of Beckford, who duly did what he does best by finishing from close range with an instep shot under the goalkeeper's body.

Such was the topsy-turvy nature of the afternoon that Millwall had only just replaced Charlton in second place by going ahead against Swindon at The Den when Beckford struck his seventh goal in his last five games against Rovers.

But from hereon in at Elland Road, there was only ever going to be one winner as United saw out the final 27 minutes to pip the Lions to automatic promotion – Beckford handing the captain's armband to Howson on his late withdrawal.

MATCH FOCUS

Hero: Jermaine Beckford

Surprisingly handed the captaincy with Richard Naylor out with a hamstring injury, the United top scorer responded to the added responsibility in admirable fashion. Could be seen vocally encouraging his team-mates on the walk out of the tunnel, something not normally associated with Beckford in his time at Leeds. Can now leave for Everton with good wishes.

Villain: Max Gradel

Crazy behaviour from the Ivory Coast-born wideman. Daniel Jones may have over-reacted to the stamp but there could still be no excuse for Gradel's actions, nor his strop after being shown the red card.

Key moment

63rd minute: Just as Millwall had gone ahead in south London to claim second place, the decisive moment of the season arrived as Mikkel Andersen attempted to clear the ball. Unfortunately for the Pirates' goalkeeper, his throw hit Jermaine Beckford and fell to Bradley Johnson on the left flank. The wideman then looked up before curling over a cross that the defence could only clear as far as Beckford, who finished from close range in front of a delirious Kop.

Ref watch

Graham Salisbury: Did not appear to have any option but to send off Max Gradel in the 34th minute. After that, Salisbury was on a hiding to nothing with the Leeds fans, whose response was to chant 'this game's too big for you'.

Verdict

Leeds's tendency to do things the hard way was never more evident than in this most dramatic of final days. They started strongly but were suddenly facing an uphill task after Gradel's rush of blood. It became even more of a task early in the second half when Duffy put Rovers ahead. Credit to Simon Grayson, though, for an imaginative response in terms of tactics and substitutions as Leeds wrestled back control of second place in memorable fashion courtesy of Howson and Beckford.

Quote of the day

Filey or Bridlington, probably.

– Simon Grayson's tongue-in-cheek response when asked where chairman Ken Bates was sending the players and coaching staff on the end-of-season trip that is their reward for winning promotion.

Next game

No idea, though happily for everyone connected with Leeds it will not be in the play-offs.

This season the Yorkshire Post has an exciting new match-day service, called Match Centre. Here you will find minute-by-minute updates, stats and team formations. Plus reports from every game in England, from the Premier League down to the Blue Square Premier.

Simply select your game from the pull down menu, then click on the 'i' information button on the right of the fixture and it will give you access to everything you need to know about your team.

So if you can't make it to a game, head for the Match Centre and we will give you the best seat in the house. Click the link below.

For the latest team news, score and commentary from your team check out our new Match Centre