There is a grisly quality to Leeds’ FA Cup record over the past two decades. Only five times have they progressed beyond the third round and sometimes they have not even made it that far. Their supporters still shudder at a couple of crashes from the dark days of League One – against Hereford and non-league Histon in rounds one and two respectively.
This was another humiliation to set alongside yet more, against Newport County, non-league Sutton and Rochdale; an afternoon when they were not so much as beaten but torn apart during a second half in which Crawley scored three times and ought to have had more.
Were it not for the colours, nobody would have been able to identify the team that sits 12th in the Premier League. The one that occupies sixth place in League Two was hungrier, more in tune with the requirements of the occasion, and they brought a cutting edge as well.
Nick Tsaroulla, the former Tottenham trainee, got what had to be described as a rout started when he ran through to finish at the start of the second half and it was quickly 2-0 when Ashley Nadesan embarrassed Kiko Casilla at his near post. It was a horror moment for the Leeds goalkeeper but the pain did not stop there for him and his teammates.
Crawley’s third came when Casillas pushed out a shot from Nadesan following a corner and the centre-half Jordan Tunnicliffe was on hand to lift into the roof of the net. The home team had further chances during a period that will live forever in the memories of their fans who, sadly, had to enjoy it from their living rooms via the BBC.
Crawley brought the star-dust, not their more illustrious rivals, all the way down to the detail of their introduction of the reality TV star, Mark Wright, as a 90th-minute substitute. Wright, a one-time Spurs youth team player who went on to feature in non-leagues before seeking his fortune outside the game, is the subject of a BBC documentary.
The 33-year-old has been training with Crawley for the past couple of months and this was the first game for which he was eligible. The Only Way is Essex? The only way, here, was West Sussex. Never before have Crawley upset Premier League opposition. It was surely the biggest result of their history.
Marcelo Bielsa had been poetic in his pre-match press conference. “For me, the FA Cup represents English football in its purest form,” the Leeds manager said. He showed his respect to the competition – and Crawley – by naming a strong starting XI, which he set up in a 3-4-3 formation with the England midfielder, Kalvin Phillips, on the right of the defensive three. But despite a couple of first-half flickers, Leeds melted into the background.
Crawley were well-drilled with their two banks of four behind the strikers and tenacious in the tackle. “Take him out,” bellowed a voice from their bench as Leeds pushed during the first half. It caught the mood of local defiance.
Crawley could have been in front at half-time. Nadesan was crowded out after a mistake by Phillips but the big chance came on 41 minutes from a Jack Powell corner, and what a moment it was for Tom Nichols. The striker manoeuvred himself into space to head goalwards but the effort was too close to Casilla who saved smartly. For a split-second, it had seemed as though Nichols was the favourite to score.
It did not matter. Crawley started the second half at pace, brimming with conviction. They surely reasoned that Leeds had done nothing to hurt them in the first half so why should they fear anything?
Bielsa made changes at half-time, introducing a couple of youngsters in Oliver Casey and Jack Jenkins. They struggled, particularly Casey in central defence, and they had barely caught their breath by the time that their team were two goals down.
The power of Tsaroulla’s 40-yard run was matched by the precision of the low shot into the far corner – where was the Leeds resistance? – and Crawley were in dreamland when Nadesan outpaced Casey and shot for the near post. The bounce deceived Casilla and the ball squirmed through him.
Thereafter Crawley enjoyed themselves, stringing together some passing sequences. Leeds could not get off the pitch quick enough. Tom Dallison and Sam Matthews had gone close before Tunnicliffe’s goal while after it, Jake Hessenthaler had two good chances – the first after he dribbled around Casilla; Casey would make the block.
At full-time, the stadium announcer could barely believe his own words when he announced the scoreline before pressing play on the Rocky theme tune. Leeds were shell shocked.