FA Cup provides a rare bright spot for Leeds United
Leeds United and the FA Cup are not a good mix. Sure, Leeds are one of the clubs to have the distinction of reaching the summit of the competition but that achievement is just over 50 years ago, and highlights in the cup since have been few and far between.
The early 70s saw Leeds in their pomp under the late, great Don Revie but, despite two league titles, the FA Cup victory in the competition's centenary year of 1972, a League Cup triumph in 1968 and success in Europe with two Inter-Cities Fair Cups, the group were seen as underachievers - or nearly men.
Nowhere is this illustrated more keenly than when Leeds sauntered through to the Final as holders of the Cup in 1973, only to fall to a humiliating defeat to second-tier Sunderland.
There was a semi-final defeat to bitter rivals, Manchester United, in 1977 and a heartbreaking, extra-time defeat to Coventry City at the same stage a decade later. A quarter-final defeat to Liverpool in 1996 a few days ahead of the League Cup Final loss to Aston Villa was an anomaly in suggesting Leeds post-Revie had something approaching cup pedigree.
Two years later, and the joint-furthest Leeds have got in my living memory, saw a painful defeat to second-tier Wolverhampton Wanderers in the quarter-finals - Leeds-born (and Leeds-hating according to popular opinion on the Twittersphere) Don Goodman inflicting the killer blow.
Embarrassing would likely have been the feeling among the Elland Road faithful in 1998, but much worse was to come...
2002. Leeds were at the summit of the Premier League and were drawn away to third-tier Cardiff City. Having grandparents in Cardiff, my Dad took me to the game, giving me a first experience of a standing terrace. Mark Viduka thumped the ball into the Cardiff net early on, suggesting logic would prevail in this encounter, but a highly charged atmosphere inspired the hosts to pull off an unlikely turnaround, with scenes off the pitch turning ugly, missiles flying into the small Leeds end. A horrible experience, capped by Cardiff fans banging on my Dad's car to say we were going the wrong way when driving back into the city.
That game seemed to set the wheels in motion for the end of Leeds as an upwardly mobile club at the top of the English game, with the spectacular fall from grace well documented.
The past 20 years' participation in the FA Cup has felt like a game where Leeds have been dared to stoop lower and lower, with upsets becoming a regular feature of being a fan of the club in this modern era.
Hereford in 2007, Histon (HISTON!) in 2008, Rochdale in 2014, Sutton in 2017, Newport in 2018 and Crawley in 2021. A lamentable roll call which epitomises a 21st century of more misery than joy supporting Leeds United.
Highlights in the competition since that infamous game at Ninian Park have mainly been those where Leeds have been the underdog. A quarter-final in 2003 (and again, a defeat to a lower-league side in Sheffield United), a nosebleed-inducing visit to the 5th round in 2016, a victory over a disinterested Spurs side in 2013, an excellent draw at Arsenal in 2011 and of course, January 3, 2010 - the day third-tier Leeds prevailed over Fergie's United at Old Trafford thanks to Jermaine Beckford's immortalised strike. I was lucky enough to be in the away end of around 9,000 fans that day and it remains my most cherished Leeds memory in the cup.
For most of the past 20 years, Leeds have not had a realistic chance of going far in the competition, being outside of the top tier for around three-quarters of this period.
The best period of these 20 years has been under one Marcelo Bielsa, and the season where the enigmatic Argentinian took Leeds to 9th in the Premier League seemed as good a season as any to launch a tilt at cup success. Alas, a confused strategy at third-tier Crawley Town showed that not even Bielsa was immune to the cup blues at Elland Road.
Roll forward to the present day and, with doubts about Jesse Marsch's suitability to the top job at Leeds, the club find themselves in the 5th round for the first time in seven years - and unlike then, as a Premier League club. Traditional banana skins away at Cardiff City (yes, them!) and Accrington Stanley have been negotiated and a winnable tie at either Fulham or Sunderland (yes, them!) stands between Leeds and a first quarter final appearance in 20 years.
Is this what it feels like to be excited about the prospect of going deep in the cup? A strange feeling but, despite the familiar troubles in the league, the FA Cup unusually gives cause for excitement for once.