Leeds United face Reading this Saturday teatime in the EFL Championship. It’s a critical game for Leeds, but then each of the remaining eight matches will be as we mount a proper challenge for promotion back to the Premier League. We are currently fourth, while Reading are fifth.
We haven’t been in such a good position since Simon Grayson’s team came seventh in the 2010-2011 season, having just arrived back in English football’s second tier and the momentum still very much with us.
Before that, the closest we have been to getting back was in 2006 when Kevin Blackwell managed to steer us through the chaos of accountants and dead goldfish (spot the difference?) to the play-off final at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. It will be forever known to Leeds fans as the Millennium Stadium because it felt like about a thousand years to get home afterwards.
At least we turned up in our thousands, whereas, apart from a few midfield flurries from Shaun Derry early on, the Leeds team hadn’t so much parked the bus as stayed on it. My two sons and I watched in disbelief as Watford ran out easy 3.0 winners. It was one of the (quite a few) worst days of my life, especially as we had defied expectation to get past a gritty Preston North End (and the smuggest manager in the world, Billy Davies) in the previous match where all Leeds players were seemingly on a mission to either get booked or sent off for the cause.
More than thirty years earlier, Leeds United and Reading were in very different places in the football pyramid. Reading FC will always be special to me as they provided the opposition for the first football league match I got to watch live. My hometown was Peterborough and the resident football team was Peterborough United who played in the old Division Four (fourth tier). I had an ‘uncle’ who went to most of the home games and, seeing my interest in all things football (especially Leeds United), he urged my parents to let me go along to watch a game.
My father was not interested in football at all, while my mother was wary of big crowds and, in particular, the violence that accompanied a lot of matches in the mid-1970s. However, my uncle managed to persuade them and so, on 22nd December 1973, I was at London Road with 7,820 other people to see Peterborough beat Reading 2.0.
On the same day, Terry Yorath scored a solitary goal as Leeds beat another side from East Anglia – Norwich City – 1.0. Because of my father’s disinterest and our family’s lack of money, I had never been lucky enough to see Leeds United play live at Elland Road – that would have to wait until I moved there just over four years later.
However, luck did me a favour that season by drawing Peterborough to play at home to Leeds in the fourth round of the FA Cup. I was one of 28,000 packed into London Road to see Joe Jordan score twice, Peter Lorimer and Terry Yorath (again) in a 4.1 win to Leeds. My uncle had previously regaled me with stories from 1965 when Peterborough had beaten Arsenal at the same, fourth-round stage, 2.1, in one of the big giant-killing FA Cup shocks, before losing in the next round to Swansea in front of Peterborough’s best-ever attendance of 30,096.
Leeds United were, of course in the middle of that 29-match unbeaten league run and would become First Division champions that season, for the second time in their history – finishing five points clear of Liverpool. Peterborough went on to become Fourth Division champions that same season, finishing three points clear of Gillingham and a full 14 ahead of Reading, who finished sixth.
Times change of course. My mother, father and uncle are no longer with us and Reading have been in the Premier League more recently than we have. On Saturday, we will be playing at the Madejski Stadium rather than just plain, old Elm Park. The Football League is now known as the EFL. The idea of the teams once being four divisions apart seems incredible, doesn’t it?
Apart from FA Cup shocks, though, we do remember those teams that have risen through the tiers and sometimes back again. Northampton Town and Blackpool are obvious examples, and Wimbledon were still in the Southern League in 1973-74. Our play-off victors from 2006, Watford, were in Division Three – the third tier of English football.
When we missed out on the play-offs in 2011, Swansea City went on to win the final and gain promotion; yet in 1973-74 they were in the same league as Peterborough United – Division Four. And who did Swansea beat in that Play-Off Final in 2011? Yes, Reading!