How Leeds United and Huddersfield Town failed fans through their FA Cup exits - Stuart Rayner

Maybe we should have seen it coming.
FA Cup joy: Barnsley on the way through.FA Cup joy: Barnsley on the way through.
FA Cup joy: Barnsley on the way through.

When managers start talking about their love of the FA Cup in a pre-match press conference, it is so often the prelude to a weakened team and a swift exit from the competition.

Leeds United coach Marcelo Bielsa can rarely be accused of being disingenuous.

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West Ham United manager David Moyes fell into the trap of being suspicious when the Argentinian named his XI for December’s Premier League match. Confident in his players, Bielsa used to be disarmingly frank about his selections but the criticism he received when Leeds lost to the Hammers put a stop to that.

Heading out: Carlos Corberan.
 Picture : Jonathan GawthorpeHeading out: Carlos Corberan.
 Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe
Heading out: Carlos Corberan. Picture : Jonathan Gawthorpe

Bielsa’s team was not so much the problem at Broadfield Stadium, but you cannot help but feel Leeds and Huddersfield Town missed a trick in the FA Cup at the weekend.

Sheffield United badly needed to beat Bristol Rovers for their own morale but Covid-depleted neighbours Wednesday, Middlesbrough, Doncaster Rovers (both also suffering) and Rotherham United could claim bigger fish to fry at either end of their divisions.

Good starts to the season, however, left Barnsley, Leeds and Huddersfield a freedom to attack the Cup in the way those laudable five did regardless at the weekend – successfully so in the case of Doncaster and the two Sheffield clubs.

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Barnsley played a full-strength side and can now see a pathway to an FA Cup visit from Chelsea. Huddersfield made 11 changes and instead it is League One Plymouth Argyle who go to Bramall Lane in round four.

Exit: Marcelo Bielsa.Exit: Marcelo Bielsa.
Exit: Marcelo Bielsa.

Even with stalwarts like Stuart Dallas, Luke Ayling, Patrick Bamford and Mateusz Klich at home, Bielsa named a Leeds side more than good enough to get the job done against League Two Crawley Town and they dominated the first half.

But withdrawing Liam Cooper, Rodrigo and Pascal Struijk at the interval and replacing them with youngsters sent a message contradicting his pre-match verbal love letter to the competition and must have made some players doubt whether victory was actually that important to him.

More importantly, it provided extra inspiration to the brilliant hosts.

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With Bielsa having thus far only subjected himself to the media scrutiny of two brief national BBC interviews (one for television, one for radio), we do not know if injury or illness played any part in the triple substitution or original selection, but the cynical view is it was just a case of preserving legs for the Premier League.

Bielsa’s behaviour around the tie also promoted cynicism as much as his pre-match comments ignited romanticism in those of us who yearn to see the great competition taken seriously.

“I feel it’s healthy for the bigger teams to be able to help the smaller teams and be generous with them,” he had said less than 48 hours earlier.

“An expression of generosity is to compete with them as equals.”

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The result was to make another chapter in Leeds’s inglorious history of FA Cup giant-killings suffered all the more disappointing.

Bielsa’s nought per cent record in a competition which, above all others, ought to float his boat as a footballing romantic – and sounded as if it did before the game – continues.

It was a real pity.

This was a competition Leeds could have reached Wembley in, at least.

Their devil-may-care football is perfect for it, and has already given frights to Everton, Manchester City, Liverpool and the FA Cup masters Arsenal.

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A first semi-final since 1987 would have been a reward for the Leeds fans who, like the rest of Britain, have had such a difficult 12 months.

Their thrilling 2020-21 season now has only 21 games left in 18-and-a-half weeks. Thanks to the first 17, they were never going to be relegated, nor were they likely to qualify for Europe – unless through the FA Cup.

Barnsley, alas, will not win the Cup, although the fact they reached a Wembley semi-final by beating Chelsea the last time the Londoners came to Oakwell, in 2008, means the dreamers can still dream and that is what the competition is all about.

Unlikely as it is, it would be lovely to see the Reds live their dream and it would have been too for a Huddersfield team who have matched them as one of the Championship’s feelgood stories of 2020-21.

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This year those dreams are more important than ever. It is a pity Leeds and Huddersfield did not do more to indulge them.

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