ALMOST 62,000 fans pouring through the Leeds United turnstiles for the first two home games of this season is an indicator of the excitement surrounding the club since Andrea Radrizzani’s buyout.
As is how the club’s near 3,000 ticket allocation for today’s game with Sunderland was snapped up just minutes after being put on sale last month.
The tea-time reunion with Simon Grayson at the Stadium of Light will come exactly 28 years to the day since United supporters made another trip to the North East in similarly expectant mood only to be left more deflated than a New Year’s balloon come January 4.
Newcastle United’s St James’ Park was the destination for the mass pilgrimage of 4,500 Leeds followers. Seven long years after the club had dropped into the Second Division, a sense of anticipation was back thanks to a summer recruitment drive by Howard Wilkinson that had seen his side quickly installed as favourites for promotion.
Record season-ticket sales followed the arrival of Vinnie Jones, John Hendrie, Mel Sterland et al as supporters bought into the brave, new dawn.
Wilkinson, on the eve of the season, did try to temper the confident mood by pointing out that promotion was far from United’s right and that many difficult hurdles lay ahead. Few, though, were listening.
“There are a lot of people who have looked to back us,” said the Leeds manager. “And although it isn’t up to me to advise anyone what to do in a situation like this, betting on the Second Division championship race this season is like having a flutter on the Grand National.”
Extending the racing analogy, United suffered a false start every bit as spectacular as the one at Aintree that, a little under four years later, would lead to the world’s most famous steeplechase being declared void.
Things went wrong from the very beginning for Wilkinson and his team. Injuries had dogged Leeds throughout pre-season, meaning by the time the squad headed north on the Friday Jones, Chris Fairclough, Noel Blake and Glynn Snodin had all been ruled out.
Jim Beglin had also been struggling horribly with a knee problem and trained just three or four times since returning from the summer but he had to start due to Gary Williams suffering a late thigh injury.
His struggles were apparent straight away, the Irishman sliding in so late on Kevin Gallacher after 18 minutes that a penalty inevitably followed.
Micky Quinn converted, the first of four goals for the Liverpudlian that, by full-time, would have the pundits mocking United’s title odds of 4-1 and leave Wilkinson fuming.
“Those second-half goals were a joke from our point of view,” he said. “A bit of a farce and I have made my feelings known. The players know what I think and they think the same themselves. We have to cut out the generosity.”
Amid the dejection of United’s 5-2 loss, however, Wilkinson did manage to remain philosophical. “At some stage,” he added, “Goliath was going to be well and truly toppled and everyone was going to stamp on his body, wave flags and laugh.”
Nine months later, Leeds were the ones laughing after promotion back to the top flight had been secured to ensure all memories of that truly awful opening day had been banished.