Leeds out to exorcise playoff demons in Wembley showdown with Saints | Louise Taylor

When Daniel Farke moved into the manager’s office at Leeds last summer one particular piece of advice soon started echoing in his ears. “Everyone told me: ‘You can’t rely on the playoffs for promotion because we never win,’” he said, grimacing slightly. “I didn’t know about the bad record when I signed my contract.”

Given that five previous involvements in Football League playoffs ended in five failures for Leeds, he would have preferred to avoid meeting Southampton in Sunday’s Championship final at Wembley. It possibly explained why he grinned through gritted teeth on Friday as he was told his amplified image had been projected on to the glass domed roof of the Trinity retail centre in Leeds city centre.

While Farke admitted that, should his team stumble, shoppers will probably “throw tomatoes at it”, his Southampton counterpart, Russell Martin, expects to be labelled “a huge failure” if the Saints lose. A match dubbed football’s richest – worth, according to Deloitte, at least £135m to the winner – is further spiced by the renewal of old ­managerial acquaintances.

In 2017-18, Farke ended Martin’s lengthy career as a Norwich defender, making him train with the under-23s before loaning him to Rangers. Although the latter acknowledges he did not like the decision, the pair emphasise their relationship is now so cordial they enjoyed post-match drinks after Southampton’s two league victories over the Yorkshire side this season.

Leeds finished third on 90 points, three in front of rivals who also dropped out of the Premier League last season. The similarities do not end there. Quite apart from both clubs being the subject of fairly recent takeovers, their managers are no strangers to promotion. While Farke twice led Norwich out of the Championship, Martin earlier played for two top tier-bound Carrow Road sides, on the second occasion captaining them to a 2015 playoff final triumph against Middlesbrough.

At the time, Patrick Bamford was Boro’s star forward but that year’s Championship player of the season was nursing an ankle problem at Wembley and struggled as the gamble on starting him backfired. Nine years on, Farke will not repeat that mistake and has reluctantly ruled the striker out of contention because of a knee injury. “I would have preferred to have had Patrick,” he said. “But we have to face reality.”

Without Bamford’s ­excellent off-the-ball movement ­dragging defenders out of position, Crysencio Summerville – the Championship player of the season – may have to work even harder, along with his ­fellow winger Wilfried Gnonto and the gifted French No 10 Georginio Rutter.

They and their often high-­pressing teammates will need to beware getting caught on the counterattack by a sweet passing Southampton XI featuring not merely a form striker in Adam Armstrong but Will Smallbone’s midfield talent. Perhaps significantly, three of Armstrong’s 23 goals this season came against Leeds.

Martin said: “It’s been a really unique Championship season and this is two really good teams going toe to toe on the biggest stage. It’s going to be an exciting, tough, tight and interesting contest. Both teams have top performers that can create magical moments out of nowhere. In finals you have to hope for that.”

Adam Armstrong scored in Southampton’s 2-1 win at Elland Road on 4 May. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

Not to mention crave sheer luck. Farke smiled when he was asked if good fortune is an underrated ­footballing commodity. “That’s a difficult and even philosophical question,” said the 47-year-old. “I believe you can’t always wait for luck but football is more or less the only sport in the world where the much ­better team can lose. It’s because it’s so ­difficult to score a goal.

“We all remember one team just parking the bus and the other team is all over them and hitting the ­crossbar 10 or 12 times but still loses to one deflected strike or one piece of good fortune because maybe the referee made a little mistake. So, yes, sometimes football can be the most unfair sport in the world. But we’re ­concentrating on trying to force the luck.”

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Creditably, Farke invariably encourages his entertaining young team to do so in style, but more pessimistic fans fear the arguable naivety that has seen an Elland Road squad seemingly allergic to tactical fouling finish second in the Championship fair-play table could prove a problem.

As a city, Leeds has real difficulties but also possesses the burgeoning self-confidence befitting a legal and financial centre ahead of Cambridge, Bristol and Manchester in offering the highest salaries outside London. Still, the increasing glossiness of its city centre contrasts markedly with the dilapidated Elland Road. The club’s new-ish owners, the San Francisco based 49er Enterprises, will need the broadcast revenue accompanying Premier League status.

Defeat on Sunday may place Leeds in peril of breaching English Football League spending rules and necessitate the sale of gifted individuals including Summerville and the 18-year-old midfielder Archie Gray this summer.

Similarly, Martin accepts that the £87m losses posted by Southampton in March and the job’s attendant “weight and responsibility” have contributed to his waking up unfailingly “early” during recent mornings. A 38-year-old looking forward to “sleeping properly again” post Wembley knows his club’s owners and Dragan Solak, their Serbian investor, have spent heavily since taking over in early 2022. Small wonder he is striving to secure them “a beautiful moment”.

As Farke conceded the only problem is that there can be only one winner. “Believe me, we’re all very motivated to write some history,” he said. “A lot is lined up on this game.”


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