Leeds Strive to Overcome Play-off Heartbreak: Can Norwich Win Spark Promotion?


Anyone who watched Leeds United dismantle Norwich City 4-0 in their Championship play-off semi-final would regard them in perfect shape for football’s richest game at Wembley, with a £200million jackpot at stake.

Unfortunately for manager Daniel Farke, his players will need to conquer history as well as highly-awkward opponents in Southampton in Sunday’s final.

Those 35,000 Leeds supporters marching on together from Yorkshire to the capital will know that better than anyone.

Should Leeds miss out again, they will join MK Dons as the only club to have participated in six campaigns and been successful in none of them.

Leeds are arguably in perfect shape for football’s richest game at Wembley on Sunday

Daniel Farke hopes to take Leeds to the top flight, but must overcome their play-off hoodoo

Daniel Farke hopes to take Leeds to the top flight, but must overcome their play-off hoodoo

35,000 Leeds fans will make the trip to the capital aware of the club's unwanted record

35,000 Leeds fans will make the trip to the capital aware of the club’s unwanted record 

The list of clubs to have beaten Leeds in the past is hardly the most intimidating in English football — Charlton Athletic, Watford, Doncaster Rovers, Millwall and Derby County.

Indeed, it is a bit embarrassing for a proud club who won league championships under Don Revie and Howard Wilkinson, and also boast a European Cup final and Champions League semi-final on their resume.

Neither do they seem choosy where they self-destruct. They lost their first play-off final at St Andrew’s, their second at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and the third at Wembley. More recently they have twice exited at the semi-final stage on their own patch at Elland Road.

No wonder lifelong fan Simon Rix, bassist for Leeds rock gods the Kaiser Chiefs and co-host of club podcast Don’t Go to Bed Yet, sounded almost pleading when he suggested: ‘Maybe Farke is the man to break the hoodoo.’

Maybe Farke is the man. But 10 months into the job, he is aware of the need to separate any anxiety felt by supporters so it does not impact on his players.

‘Over the season everyone has told me, “You can’t rely on the play-offs because we never win”,’ he says.

‘I didn’t know about this record when I joined, but it means we could become the first team in the history of this club to win promotion this way. It is an opportunity.

‘I am a pessimist by nature, but there have been times this season I’ve needed to lead by example and stay calm.

‘You have to act a little bit to lead such an emotional club. The supporters think the world has ended after a defeat and dream of the Champions League after a win.

‘I love that and the fire is burning in me as well. But I have to make sure I control it.’

The Whites lost in the 1987 play-off final - the very first of the format - going down to Charlton

The Whites lost in the 1987 play-off final – the very first of the format – going down to Charlton

In their next play-off campaign, they were beaten comprehensively by Watford in 2006

In their next play-off campaign, they were beaten comprehensively by Watford in 2006 

In 2008, they lost the League One play-off final after overcoming a 15-point penalty

In 2008, they lost the League One play-off final after overcoming a 15-point penalty

A year later, Jermaine Beckford (not pictured) missed a penalty as Leeds lost against Millwall

A year later, Jermaine Beckford (not pictured) missed a penalty as Leeds lost against Millwall

The common themes throughout the Leeds jinx are a heavy burden of expectation combined with an absence of luck.

They took part in the very first play-offs in 1987. The original format saw the final take place over two legs between Charlton, who had finished 19th in the old First Division, and Leeds, who were fifth in the Second.

After the tie finished 1-1 on aggregate, a decider was set for Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s. Leeds led until seven minutes from the end of extra-time when they were undone by two headers by defender Peter Shirtliff.

‘I knew “Shirts” and he’d never scored twice in a game in his life. It was devastating because we were so close,’ recalls Mervyn Day, Leeds’ goalkeeper on the night. By Leeds’ next play-off encounter in 2006, the club had experienced enormous highs and lows culminating in relegation and financial meltdown after chairman Peter Ridsdale had ‘chased the dream’.

It was remarkable they reached the Championship play-off final under Kevin Blackwell two years after relegation, but it did not stop the perception that all Leeds had to do was turn up to win.

‘People in football knew differently. The club had changed,’ explains Blackwell. ‘We’d sold Mark Viduka, James Milner, Robbo (Paul Robinson) and Smithy (Alan Smith). Once we’d had Aston Martins and Range Rovers in the car park, the new players came in driving Ford Focuses.

‘Our team was really on a par with Watford, but everybody still saw us as the big team. As a manager, you carry the weight on your shoulders.’

Not for the first time, or last, fortune did not favour the Whites.

‘We started well and Shaun Derry had a shot from a corner,’ recalls Blackwell. ‘Ashley Young turned his back, the ball hit his leg and went for a corner.

‘If it had gone in, you don’t know what would have happened.’

Leeds lost 3-0 and Blackwell was sacked by Ken Bates three games into the following season. Things deteriorated further with Leeds relegated to League One and given a 15-point penalty for entering administration.

Miraculously, Gary McAllister’s side then reached the play-offs in 2008 when their luck run out again. Red-hot favourites against their Yorkshire rivals Doncaster, they succumbed 1-0 in the final at Wembley.

‘We felt hard done by because without the points deduction we would have gone up automatically,’ midfielder Jonathan Douglas said.

Play-off appearances have been few and far between since, but with the same outcome.

In 2009, Leeds blew the chance of returning to the Championship when Millwall defeated them 2-1 on aggregate in the semi-final, Jermaine Beckford missing a penalty.

A decade later it was the same story as Frank Lampard’s Derby came back from 2-0 down to win the semi-final 4-3 against Marcelo Bielsa’s side.

On both those occasions, Leeds went up automatically the following season. It might give Farke solace should the worst happen again, but he will not want to rely on that given the ambitions of the 49ers owners, whose investors include Will Ferrell and Russell Crowe. Blackwell feels this is the right time to banish history.

‘The fans might be worried because of past play-off results, but the players blew Norwich away,’ he says.

‘If that Leeds turns up, I think they have enough to beat Southampton.’

Marcelo Bielsa's side fell short against Derby in the the Championship play-offs five years ago

Marcelo Bielsa’s side fell short against Derby in the the Championship play-offs five years ago

Manager for the 2006 final, Kevin Blackwell (left), opened up on the pressure his side faced

Manager for the 2006 final, Kevin Blackwell (left), opened up on the pressure his side faced

Farke hopes the match is not decided by a moment of misfortune.

‘Football is the only sport where the better team can lose because one goal can be so crucial,’ he adds.

‘But you’re not allowed to pray for luck beforehand. You have to try to earn it.

‘A play-off final is not a normal league game. You can’t repair any mistakes the next week.’



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