History was both made and respected in Elland Road’s first game with the renamed Norman Hunter Stand but the most fitting tribute to Leeds’ late great may come next month. Eight points clear of third-place Brentford with seven games to go, Leeds are on course to end their 16-year exile from the top flight.
One of the biggest games Elland Road has staged in that time was the emptiest, with Marching On Together broadcast from the PA to an audience of 15,000 cardboard cutouts, The piped-in chants of Patrick Bamford’s name were rather louder than those from the supporters at many a match but the much-maligned striker, along with Ezgjan Alioski and Jack Harrison, delivered an ultimately emphatic win.
“The victory was necessary for us,” said the Leeds manager, Marcelo Bielsa, whose team responded admirably to defeat by Cardiff, but it was another damaging loss for Fulham, beaten by Brentford last week.
The consequences of the second setback could be considerable. While Aleksandar Mitrovic escaped unpunished for a needless second-minute elbow on Ben White, Fulham will lose the services of their talisman for three games if the FA take retrospective action. Ten days ago, they could dream of automatic promotion.
“I wouldn’t write it off but it is going to be a big ask,” said their manager, Scott Parker, who claimed he did not see Mitrovic’s elbow. “We are in a world where surprises can happen.” Yet one possible shock is that Fulham lose their play-off berth.
If Mitrovic’s wanton violence was the wrong sort of way to remember the famously tough Hunter, Leeds delivered others. They warmed up in shirts reading “RIP Trevor and Norman”, also commemorating Trevor Cherry. Bamford emulated another stalwart of their glory days. Allan Clarke was an altogether more prolific forward and he, in the 1971 Fairs Cup final against Juventus, was Leeds’ last scorer in June until Bamford struck.
It came in a decisive minute. Fulham’s menacing Anthony Knockaert drilled a shot into the advertising hoardings. Leeds broke and, from the edge of the box and in front of the rebranded South Stand, Bamford met Hélder Costa’s cutback by steering a shot beyond Marek Rodak with an assurance to belies his reputation for missing.
And yet Leeds are leaders without a potent marksman and Fulham only fourth with the division’s joint top scorer. Some deem them underachievers because of their talent. It was evident as they became a rare side to subject Leeds to a sustained spell of pressure.
“Our first-half performance was exceptional,” Parker said. “I thought we were superb. We just needed to be more clinical.” Knockaert, Mitrovic and Joe Bryan all threatened and there were repeated high-pitched appeals of “handball” from Parker when the ball struck Tyler Roberts’ arm.
But Bielsa turned responded decisively. “In the first half it was difficult to recover the ball in their half,” he said. “The second half we played with more clarity.”
The Leeds manager often leaves his substitutions to the latter stages but instead made a double change at the break to press better. He removed the supplier and scorer, Costa and Bamford, and regained the initiative.
Victory was sealed by another clinical counterattacking goal. Harrison led the break and found the substitute Alioski, who had taken his initial position on the left, to steer in his shot. Switching Harrison to the right bore further fruit when he latched on to Pablo Hernández’s long pass and slotted a shot under Rodak.
Bielsa duly substituted the substitute Hernández, deeming 45 minutes enough on his comeback. A Fulham replacement made a different sort of early exit, with Neeskens Kebano collecting two cautions. Yet it was the early misdemeanours that may occupy their minds.