Leeds rid anxiety and secure trip to Wembley


FOR THE first time in 23 years, since the days of sock tabs, tank tops and Slade Leeds United can savour the prospect of a Wembley final. An emphatic victory over Birmingham yesterday in the second leg of their League Cup semi final sends them south to meet Aston Villa on March 24th.

A whole generation of Elland Road regulars has never known the feeling of striding towards the Twin Towers with a major trophy - not to mention a place in Europe - at stake. Perhaps their anxiety transmitted itself to the team in the first half, for despite starting with a 2-1 lead against a side 13th in the First Division, Leeds seemed incapable of forcing the issue.

Relief finally came out of Africa. Phil Masinga and Tony Yeboah, who faced each other in the colours of South Africa and Ghana last month, both scored in the space of four minutes soon after half time. Steve Claridge's wasted penalty then confirmed that this would not be Birmingham's day, and Brian Deane embellished Leeds' success in the closing stages.

Howard Wilkinson, who has never been involved in a Wembley final during his 34 years in football, was not exactly dancing on tables afterwards. That is not his style. "I've waited a long time for this moment," the Leeds manager said. "When you start off in the game, you want to get to a cup final and win it. It's been a bit of a holy grail for me."

The crucial moment, notwithstanding Claridge's profligacy, was John Lukic's save from Ian Richardson's point blank shot moments before Masinga's opener. Had Birmingham levelled the aggregate scores, the second city's dream of a derby final might have become a reality. In truth, the visitors were surprisingly bereft of bravado for a team of Barry Fry's, and ultimately paid for their tentativeness.

Masinga, preferred to Tomas Brolin, spurned three opportunities to settle Leeds' nerves inside the first 15 minutes. Gary Poole, the Birmingham captain, also cleared a goal bound header by David Wetherall against his own bar, after which the sight of Tony Dorigo departing on a stretcher with a hamstring injury may have persuaded older Leeds fans that malign fate was mocking them.

Had that been true, Richardson would have scored when Claridge's flick on from Poole's cross found him unmarked at the far post. Instead, a second's hesitation allowed Lukic to block heroically, and Leeds promptly made good their escape by sweeping into a 4-1 lead overall.

The breakthrough came after Bart Griemink parried a drive by the increasingly influential Gary McAllister, only for Masinga to run in the loose ball.

Before Birmingham could respond, Gary Kelly's free kick picked out Deane's head on the left angle of their penalty box. As the ball dropped in the danger area, Yeboah beat Griemink with a textbook bicycle kick for his 7th goal of the season and 30th in 49 starts with Leeds.

The home crowd were still celebrating when Kelly felled John Sheridan, his Irish international colleague, on the hour. Claridge, whose on off transfer to Leicester had hardly been an ideal preparation, drove the spot kick against a post - their 14th penalty miss in 23 attempts.

Finally convinced that they were unassailable, Leeds began to perform with a style and swagger conspicuous by its absence of late. The faithful, however, demanded a glimpse of Brolin, and no sooner had the Swede appeared than Deane headed in McAllister's cross. In 1973, when Don Revie's side lost the FA Cup final to Sunderland, they were hot favourites. They may return as underdogs - although where there is Yeboah and McAllister, there is always hope for Leeds.

Later Wilkinson said: "It's a very big day for me but I'm sure it is for the club too, because it's been 23 years since we've been to Wembley for a final. There have been eight managers since then and some of those years have been very barren ones. One way or another quite a few people around this place have worked very hard for many years and I'm sure they will all be absolutely thrilled."

For Yeboah, whose goal represented his 17th of the season, there was also great personal satisfaction. "Ever since I was a child in Ghana the thought of going to Wembley just to be a spectator has been a personal dream."