Leeds United and Chelsea is a proper, albeit curious, football rivalry. The enmity spans back to the 1970’s FA Cup final replay, when photographs of meetings between the two sides had their own yellow tint that comfortably eclipses anything Instagram has to offer in the nostalgia stakes. Such is Leeds’ fall from grace, and Chelsea’s ascent in the opposite direction, that the two sides do not get to face each other all that often any more, but when they do - as shown by the cauldron of hatred that was Elland Road last night - the fans and players alike are all seriously up for it.
If distasteful songs about Jimmy Saville and Gary Glitter, stories of Neil Warnock still holding a grudge over weakened sides fielded by Rafa Benitez and news of Leeds fans throwing chairs at Chelsea fans on arrival were preludes to the game, then the main attraction lived up to the hype. Rain and wind poured down mercilessly. David Luiz’s curly hair was matted, Fernando Torres adjusted his headband. Leeds fans hollered with the decibels of a thousand stereos, as vitriolic songs that they had been rehearsing in Chelsea’s absence for over eight years finally got their designated audience. The candle of detestation between Northern and Southern team had endured; if anything, it burnt brighter. Juan Mata and Oscar regarded each other nervously, with a look as if to say, Toto, I don’t think we’re in Fulham any more.
Michael Brown, nobody’s favourite player, was clearly under instructions from Neil Warnock to rile Chelsea’s players as much as possible, in the hope of raising a response like the one that led to Gary Cahill getting sent off against Corinthians. The pesky Englishman varied between making lunges at Frank Lampard, Oscar and Luiz, with extra sniping at the former, and such is Brown’s Machiavellian nous, that he went the entire game without picking up a booking; a true testament to adeptness at being a nuisance.
In fact, rather surprisingly, the first yellow card of the game was picked up by stand-in Chelsea captain Lampard, who let the heat of the game get to him early on and made a needlessly crude tackle on El-Hadji Diouf. Getting booked within 15 minutes meant that, for the rest of the game, he had to watch himself, knowing that if he put so much as a foot out of place, he could be off, leaving his team without their captain and most experienced stalwart. The Blues have been in situations like this and come back from them, but truth be told; it is a situation we would rather not be in in the first place.
Gracefully, unlike John Terry at Camp Nou and to a lesser extent, Cahill at the weekend, Lampard kept his composure and was fully disciplined for the remainder of the gruelling tie. And thank God too, because while the team without him certainly aren’t lacking in skill and invention, one thing they have displayed a telling lack of in recent weeks is grit. A shock was on the cards when Luciano Becchio put Leeds in front, following Luiz losing possession and Branislav Ivanovic being unable to recover for him, but unlike Arsenal in Bradford last week, Chelsea recovered from conceding against a west Yorkshire side to win the tie. Man of the Match Lampard was a big factor for that.
For, while Chelsea’s give goals varied from the ridiculous - Mata’s equaliser was essentially helped into the net by Leeds goalkeeper Jamie Ashdown, who will reflect ruefully on what was otherwise a solid performance - to the sublime, both centre-backs at fault for Leeds’ goals found redemption - Ivanovic scored Chelsea’s second with a bullet header and Luiz carved up a defence-slicing pass to Eden Hazard that lay true to his Brazilian roots - Lampard was the cog in central midfield, spurring his teammates on, refusing to let them give up when the hard slog of the second half staring them in the face.
Unlike the company he takes, Lampard is an extremely cerebral footballer, and reads the game excellently. This is exhibited in how, on the less-than-picturesque cold winter night in Yorkshire, he kept taking long-range shots after Chelsea had got back into the game, having seen the effect the weather had on impairing Ashdown’s goalkeeping judgement. He didn’t score last night, but the 34-year-old has plied his trade on scoring some sensational goals, being unafraid to take hits, and looking like an absolute king when it pays off.
He also holds no mean supply of mental mettle. Last season, following QPR’s promotion to the premier league, Chelsea went to Loftus Road to face their bitter west London rivals. Nice, harmless Mata, who hasn’t had a bad word to say about anyone, was shocked to discover that his affability did not mean a thing to QPR fans - he was Chelsea, ergo, he was the enemy. Such was the hostility directed at him when he went to take a corner that the Spaniard crumbled, asking Lampard to take over the corners for him for the rest of that game. Frank stepped up; he always does. Mata has since become marginally less wide-eyed on accustoming himself to English football - the Spaniard was taught about the history between Chelsea and Leeds and knew he would need his wits about him, and that he did. Having Lampard as a role model surely helps, too.
Alas, Lampard will not get the two-year extension that he so craves and deserves. Bruce Buck and Ron Gourlay’s vision for the future of the club doesn’t have the Blues stalwart in it, regardless of his bond with the fans and long history of everything he has done for us. When he parts company with Chelsea at the end of the season, I’ll need to be put on Suicide Watch.
I could write a book about the amount of times Frank’s cool head has rescued Chelsea and inspired similar behaviour in teammates. At 34, no one’s questioning that he is no longer the player he once was, that he will be a little rusty occasionally (as he was against Corinthians). And he will certainly not start in every single game. But even Lampard knows this. He has a huge connection with the club and doesn’t want to walk away. And my oh my, we don’t want him to walk away either. We would be letting go of an absolute diamond.