Texts from Leeds fans, Gary Neville’s celebration and dreaming of Manchester United

Texts from Leeds fans, Gary Neville’s celebration and dreaming of Manchester United

Ten minutes after Ossama Ashley had struck the final blow of a thrilling, epic cup tie, Gary Neville made his way down the gantry at the Peninsula Stadium and jogged across the pitch, waving a fist at the delighted Salford City supporters who had only just been cleared from the playing surface.

Neville knows how sweet a victory against Leeds United is and having been taunted by the 1,238 fans in the away end, he intended to soak up a success against a club that everyone on this side of the Pennines loves to hate. When Ashley’s retaken penalty hit the back of the net Neville let out his screech of excitement on Sky Sports’ co-commentary duty. When he made it to the executive lounges on the other side of the pitch, he was greeted by co-owners Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes, as well as Roy Keane, a regular visitor to this ground.

There they toasted a night that will go down in Ammies folklore. They have had more important wins and they have won at Wembley but they’ve never had a better win. Beating a Championship side with well over £100million of talent available to call on is another statement for a club whose journey has stalled recently in League Two. Perhaps this will be the night to click them back into gear.

But it could yet be bettered. On Wednesday night players, staff and owners will tune in to the third-round draw and the tie everyone wants to see is obvious. You don’t have to go far here to find connections to Manchester United.

“I’m a United fan, I’m from Stretford, so you’d always want to play United,” said manager Neil Wood, a former United player who took the reins at Salford having been in charge of the Premier League team’s under-23s.

Wood joked there would be split loyalties if that was to happen and when Neville was asked who he would want to win a hypothetical tie between the two, he never left his seat on the fence.

But even if it does come to fruition, there are unlikely to be quite as many narrative arcs as the epic second-round encounter against Leeds. Salford, with England’s Lioness hero Ella Toone watching from the stands, had scored against the run of play in the first half, former Leeds youngster Luke Garbutt crossing for former Leeds striker Matt Smith to head home.

The second half was one-way traffic to the end Leeds were attacking, in front of their own fans, but Alex Cairns, a goalkeeper who started his career at Leeds and supported the club as a boy repelled almost everything they could throw at him. He made eight saves, some of them stunning, but couldn’t stop Pascal Struijk from levelling 14 minutes from time.

More Cairns heroics forced penalties. He saved a penalty from £36million striker Georgino Rutter but Connor McLennan hit the bar when he could have won it. On it went until Jamie Shackleton hit the woodwork himself. Karl Darlow then saved Ashley’s penalty, but was a couple of yards off his line and Ashley buried the retake. Leeds boss Daniel Farke was still protesting the decision well after full-time, despite it being a clear infringement from his goalkeeper.

It was reward for pluck and perseverance. Leeds had 33 shots, 16 corners and racked up an expected goals tally of almost four. But they were out. It was gone 11pm and the home dressing room was still bouncing, Wood having told his jubilant players to make sure they enjoyed nights like this.

Not everyone could party, however. This was another day of giant-killing for the giant Smith, a 6ft 6ins striker who went to Manchester University and played up front in his student days with comedian Jack Whitehall. The two remain good mates and Whitehall has claimed he was key in Smith’s rise to the professional ranks.

It’s not the first time the striker has hit the headlines, either. In January 2013 he scored twice for Oldham Athletic when they beat Liverpool 3-2 in the FA Cup fourth round at Boundary Park and a decade on he was causing upsets again. But it was a proud and painful night.

He came off two minutes from time after taking a head into his lip, which had swelled so badly by the end of the game that he was contemplating a trip to A&E while his teammates partied in the dressing room. He had to apologetically cut short a post-match interview such was the pain he was in.

But Leeds were haunted by their old boys and Cairns was destined to be a hero. His only disappointment was he didn’t get to take a penalty, with both sides using outfield players to take their 10 spot kicks. Cairns was next up and the 30-year-old had already told fans behind the goal he fancied it.

“I was ready. I said to one of the fans ‘I’m ready to go’,” he told the Manchester Evening News after the game.

“One of them asked what I was like at pens, I said ‘not bad you know’. I was ready if needed. As a goalkeeper with a penalty there’s no pressure so just go and enjoy taking it, it’s rare you get to score a goal as a goalkeeper.”

Cairns described it as one of the best nights of his career and expressed pride at how he and the team had performed. He had family and friends in attendance and knows plenty of Leeds fans as well. He has to sift through the messages on his phone to decide which ones to reply to.

“I’ve just looked at my phone and it’s been bombarded with some nice messages and some not-so-nice messages. I’ll reply to the nice ones,” he said.

There should be plenty of them for a goalkeeper who idolises Joe Hart and produced the kind of all-action performance that Hart was famous for at Manchester City. This was Cairns’ version of Hart’s Nou Camp heroics.

As the lights went out at the Peninsula Stadium, the goalkeeper and Ashley recounted their tales one more time by the side of the pitch on a night that Salford won’t forget in a hurry.

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