Times Online - Newspaper Edition

Captain Courageous saves day for Leeds
Leeds United 3 Fulham 2

IF EDDIE GRAY IS NOT careful, he may be getting a poisoned chalice for Christmas. It may be too early to talk of a phoenix rising from the ashes of tainted dreams, but seven points from their past three games amount to manna from heaven for a side that had been dodo-esque during the last days of Peter Reid’s reign. Having twice lost his job at Elland Road in the past, the caretaker manager is now staking a claim to be handed the role on a permanent basis. It is no coincidence that Leeds’s improvement has arrived with Gray’s policy of leaving out the job-lot of loan signings that Reid recruited from abroad.
“There are lots of players with ability, but you have to use it,” he said. “You need courage.”
The implication was that home-grown players such as James Milner and worldly warhorses such as Lucas Radebe are a better bet for a relegation scrap. A rip-snorting finale left the game hanging in the balance until the very last kick, but Leeds were worth their win.
Fulham must hope that their bubble has not burst after Dominic Matteo, the Leeds captain, headed in Ian Harte’s free kick in the 88th minute to claim the spoils with his first goal since he scored against AC Milan in sepia days of success. Having seen his side equalise only three minutes earlier, when Paul Robinson fluffed Louis Saha’s daisy-cutter, Chris Coleman felt hard-done-by. He said that he felt his side deserved to win but was happy to act as a seconder for Gray’s claim on the manager’s seat. “No way are they one of the worst teams in the league,” Coleman said. “I think he’s got them focused and has the players behind him.”
Both sides had numerous chances and only a combination of profligate finishing, good goalkeeping and the woodwork prevented a goalfest. Jermaine Pennant twice hit the bar, once with a rasping volley and then with a deflected cross, while Steed Malbranque drew a fine save from Robinson in injury time. It was thrilling stuff and at the centre of most of the frenzied action was Alan Smith.
Few fans will be devastated by Professor John McKenzie’s decision to step down, but they might be concerned that the chairman has always maintained that Smith would not be sold while he was in charge. The local hero’s manner of playing as if affronted by the mere presence of opponents has cemented his place in Leeds folklore and, if his billing as a regular goalscorer is something of a myth, his passion and aggression are priceless. Every crisis club should have a player such as him.
With Smith, Matteo and David Batty flooding the midfield, the emphasis was on stifling rather than creating. It made for a first half that was a good advertisement for Christmas shopping and it was fitting that the breakthrough was a slapstick goal that owed much to fortune, Michael Duberry scoring with his knee after Edwin van der Sar had parried Harte’s disputed free kick.
Maybe it was the half-time singalong led by Allan Clarke, Mick Jones and Paul Reaney, three reminders that it used to be different, which galvanised the game. Seconds after the restart, Mark Viduka picked up Milner’s throw and shuffled across the box with that familiar mincing gait that suggests his shorts are chaffing. Yet Viduka’s languid style masks the fact that he is the best finisher Leeds have had since Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and he proved it by caressing a wonderful 20-yard strike into the top corner. If he does depart in the January sales, it will leave Leeds bereft of a genuine goal threat. “He’s very important to the system we’re playing,” Gray said.
This being Leeds, it was a fleeting stop in the comfort zone. Almost immediately, Sean Davis pushed a pass to Saha and the Frenchman threaded the ball between Radebe’s legs and beyond the flailing hand of Robinson. Chances continued to come and go. Robinson stopped a volley from Saha, Malbranque flashed a drive just wide and then Matteo blazed over from eight yards. The last redeemed himself when it mattered, though, and Leeds can at least be assured of avoiding the hoodoo that dictates that the bottom side at Christmas ends up being relegated.
Leeds United (4-5-1): P Robinson 5 — G Kelly 5, M Duberry 5, L Radebe 7, I Harte 6 — J Pennant 6, A Smith 6, D Matteo 7, D Batty 5, J Milner 7 — M Viduka 7. Substitutes not used: S Carson, J Morris, M Bridges, S McPhail, F Richardson. Booked: Batty, Smith. NEXT: Manchester City (a). FORM: WDWLLL
Fulham (4-1-4-1): E van der Sar 5 — M Volz 5 (sub: B Hayles, 63min 5), A Melville 5, Z Knight 5, J Harley 5 — S Legwinski 5 — S Malbranque 7, L Clark 6, S Davis 6, L Boa Morte 6 (sub: F Sava, 77) — L Saha 8. Substitutes not used: M Crossley, M Djetou, A Goma. Booked: Boa Morte. NEXT: Chelsea (h). FORM: LWDWLL
Shots on target: (h) 8 (a) 5. Fouls: (h) 16 (a) 13. Offsides: (h) 2 (a) 2
Referee: N Barry 7. Attendance: 30,544

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