Awaydays Reloaded: Leeds United, 2008

Awaydays Reloaded is an original series from Planet Prentonia reliving some of our favourite journeys around the country watching Tranmere.


By Ryan Ferguson

When opposing teams visit Prenton Park in the National League, a sense of awe is palpable. Judging from posts on social media and excited chatter among rival fans, ours is the most imposing and advanced stadium ever to grace this level of English football. There’s a strange sort of pride attached to that, and our journey into non-league purgatory has made Prenton Park even more appealing, but I still yearn for those days when we were the ones mesmerised by big grounds and mighty opponents. No awayday captured that essence better than our trip to Leeds United in 2008, and that game still has a special place in my heart.

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My match ticket and programme.

It was an overcast Saturday, the first weekend of February as Tranmere flirted with promotion to the second tier. Excitement was palpable among the fanbase, and close to 2,000 supporters decamped to Yorkshire for our first ever visit to Elland Road in the league. Rovers lay in eighth position, with 43 points from 29 games. Leeds, meanwhile, were seventh, one point above Tranmere after suffering a 15-point deduction prior to the season for entering administration. Something had to give.

 

When the two sides met at Prenton Park to open the campaign, a patina of history bathed proceedings. It was Leeds’ first ever game in the third tier, and they filled the Cowshed with vociferous fans. Tranmere also enjoyed a strong turnout, as a crowd of 11,008 watched in the glorious Wirral sun. Chris Greenacre, that fine poacher, put Rovers ahead, sparking jubilant celebrations, but Leeds equalised through Matt Heath in the second half. Then, with seconds remaining, Tresor Kandol bundled home a winner for the visitors, to the chagrin of Tranmere fans everywhere. As the striker back-flipped with delight, one of the wildest goal celebrations I’ve ever seen took place in the Cowshed. It was a difficult pill to swallow, but Rovers acquitted themselves well.

Under the management of Ronnie Moore, Tranmere recovered to reach top spot in October, as Greenacre and Chris Shuker sparkled in their prime years. A dip in form saw Rovers languish to mid-table for Christmas, but results picked up thereafter as hopes of securing a playoff place grew. The visit to Elland Road, circled on the calendar immediately after the fixtures came out, was imbued with added importance in the promotion hunt. It was one of our biggest league fixtures for many years.

Of course, Tranmere have an intriguing history against Leeds. We famously beat them in the 2000/01 League Cup with a remarkable comeback at Prenton Park. Darren Huckerby fired Leeds into a 2-0 lead, which should have been enough for a Premier League outfit including Paul Robinson, Ian Harte, Eirik Bakke, Jonathan Woodgate, Mark Viduka and Alan Smith. But Tranmere mounted a sensational recovery, as they were wont to do under John Aldridge. Andy Parkinson pulled one back after being introduced from the bench, before Steve Yates equalised following panic from a Dave Challinor throw-in. Another goal wasn’t forthcoming inside the regulation ninety, but Parkinson won it for Tranmere in the dying embers of extra-time.

That famous victory came in a season when Leeds beat AC Milan, Besiktas and Lazio, among others, en route to the Champions League semi-finals. A week before losing to Tranmere, they drew with Xavi, Rivaldo and Barcelona at Elland Road. Then, eight days after the Birkenhead defeat, they drew with Maldini, Shevchenko and Milan in the San Siro. In every way, what Rovers achieved that night was sensational, and it often goes overlooked in our pantheon of great cup giant-killings.

Prior to that encounter, Tranmere lost cup ties to Leeds in 1991/92 and 1932/33. The former was a 3-1 League Cup defeat, while the latter was an FA Cup 4th round replay that represented the furthest Rovers had ever been in the competition until that point. Nevertheless, Tranmere had never visited Elland Road for a league game before, and those lucky enough to secure tickets to that seminal League One contest felt quite privileged to be doing so.

I was just 13-years old and totally obsessed with Tranmere. I was still in that innocent stage of fandom where every player is a hero and every dream seems realistic. The limitations of human beings kicking a ball around a field had yet to be fully revealed, and I was oblivious to the laws of football evolution that made it increasingly difficult for my beloved team to compete at such a high level.

I went to Leeds on a coach with my dad, and its still possible to recall the phenomenal anticipation that built throughout our journey. I remember my mind racing as we passed signs for Elland Road, and the surging adrenaline as the mammoth stadium came into view. It felt like the largest building I’d ever seen. An endless stream of people flooded by, as vendors sold white, yellow and blue scarves and commemorative matchday badges. The grand statue of Billy Bremner seemed to be a preferred meeting place for home fans, as I struggled to comprehend the hive of activity.

Ultimately, the attendance was 24,907. That may not seem enormous, but it was brilliant for a third division match in the wake of Leeds’ rapid demise. I had rarely, if ever, seen Tranmere play before so many people. Inside the ground, Rovers fans were clustered in the yellow seats in the South-East corner. Our seats were in the upper tier, a few rows from the back, near the middle. They were sold as restricted view tickets due to the low roof, but the pitch was in full sight.

A stirring rendition of Marching on Together blasted through the public address system before kick-off, then Leeds introduced former player Gary McAllister as their new manager. The Scot won a first division title with Leeds during his playing days, and he was parachuted in after Dennis Wise left for Newcastle.

It was easy to admire the history and magnitude of Leeds United amid such an occasion, and it’s certainly a club for which I have great respect. However, all their songs and pageantry just intensified my love for Tranmere. This is my club, I remember thinking, and the desire to see a brilliant Rovers win was immense.

Tranmere wore their beautiful black away kit, sharp, simple and sophisticated. They made a very good start, and Paul McLaren hit the crossbar with a free-kick. Rovers were assured and confident, which is always a treat for a fanbase programmed to expect the worst. Andy Taylor was a constant menace down the left flank, and his incessant raids won a string of corners far on the horizon, down beneath the popular Leeds end. Yet ultimately, neither team could find a breakthrough and the game remained goalless at half-time.

More than tactics or moments from this game, I mainly remember the constant noise throughout. It wasn’t just normal football noise, but constant roars of encouragement from the Tranmere end. Everybody was behind the team, willing it to succeed. Despite taking far more fans to other fixtures, it was quite possibly the most atmospheric away end I’ve ever been in with Tranmere. The stadium acoustics were perfect for creating a good old fashioned din, and the thunderous applause that greeted each Rovers attack will always be a fond memory.

Shortly after the hour, we finally got our reward. Robbie Stockdale played a studied ball into the channel that was flicked on in midfield, into the path of winger Jennison Myrie-Williams. He showed great foresight to flick past the full-back and gallop on into the box. Faced with pressure, Jennison used sumptuous skill to check back inside, wrong-footing the committed defender. Another centre-back came over to provide support, but he was too ponderous, and Myrie-Williams used his presence as a guide to bend a devilish shot into the top corner.

Absolute bedlam ensued in the away end. All these years later, I still think it was the craziest goal celebration I’ve ever experienced, with the possible exception of Preston away in 2011. As the ball kissed the net, Tranmere fans hurled themselves down whole flights of stairs. Some hugged random strangers. Others surfed on the gyrating mass of humanity. Everybody was bug-eyed in a shared state of delirium.

I could hardly contain the emotion. And although history judged it as just another goal in just another game in just another season that amounted to little, for me it remains one of the greatest goals in Tranmere history. In the moment, it just meant so much. It was one of those rare moments that reveals the true might and potential of Tranmere Rovers, if only for sixty seconds or so. It was a pleasure to feel part of something far bigger than myself.

From that point, the noise just got louder and louder as we urged Rovers forward. To our delight, Tranmere enjoyed wave after wave of attack as Leeds were caught in the headlights. One surge yielded a free-kick wide on the right, and Paul McLaren whipped it into a dangerous area. Making his second debut for Tranmere after joining from Hartlepool just a few days before, Ian Moore found some space and nodded a firm header down and into the bottom corner. Pandemonium engulfed the away end once again. A feeling of disbelief blanketed us, and we sang until the final whistle, serenading our victorious heroes.

I dare say Leeds fans can hardly remember the game. Why would they? After all, they’re probably sick and tired of lower league teams winning at what once was a fortress. Just as our humiliating defeats to Boreham Wood and Welling United blend into one recurring nightmare, this game has likely been blotched from the memory of a massive club. But we’ll always remember it, and that’s the great thing about the emotion of football. It’s all relative. One team’s disaster is another team’s utopia.

Even among Tranmere fans, it may seem strange that this game and those goals meant so much to me. But I was at a deeply impressionable age, and the intensity of support for Rovers touched my soul. In the end, we finished eleventh that season, nine points adrift of the playoffs following a customary late-season collapse. Therefore, in the wider scheme of points and tables and honours, our trip to Elland Road was rather meaningless. Yet in spirit, it meant a great deal.

Leeds also missed out on promotion that year, and Rovers played them in two subsequent seasons. We even beat them 2-1 at home in the following campaign, but Elland Road only ever conjured up defeat after our lone triumph.

I yearn for those days again, when Tranmere rubbed shoulders with the giants of English football on a regular basis. We didn’t just play them; we gave them a right good game and even beat them. The huge stadiums. The grand names. The massive crowds. That’s what it’s all about. They were great days, if ultimately painful in the true Tranmere way.

Will those moments ever return? Well, even as we sit top of the National League, unbeaten in our first seven games to start a new season, they seem so far away. I’ll always remain hopeful, and a lot of work has been committed to restoring the club to its rightful home, but the road back will be long and often ugly. If we can summon that same spirit and harness that same desire of yore, and channel it into positive support, there’s no telling where Tranmere Rovers can go. All we can do is keep the faith and maintain the dream. Hopefully everything else will follow.

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