After masterminding one of the biggest shocks in FA Cup third-round history, Crawley Town manager John Yems could be forgiven for losing his bearings.
Having watched his League Two side thrash Premier League Leeds United 3-0 – making light of a gap of 62 league places between the teams – he ordered his jubilant players to head out to celebrate.
“I’ve been telling the lads to go out and enjoy tonight, but you can’t go out anywhere so that shows how up to date I am!” laughed Yems, whose side became only the second fourth-tier team to beat a top-flight club by three or more goals in 34 years.
The coronavirus restrictions might have robbed his players of a celebratory night out but Sunday’s FA Cup shock was special nonetheless for the Sussex side.
Celebrations at the final whistle were fairly muted, but that was as much down to the lack of tension in the closing stages as it was to the absence of fans, with Crawley’s triumph never looking in doubt once they took the lead in the 50th minute.
Yems, 61, is in his second spell in charge of Crawley, having managed them in the National League and returned in 2019 after spending several years as football operations manager at Bournemouth.
It is a long way away from the fabled footballing journey of Leeds’ former Argentina and Lazio boss Marcelo Bielsa, whose team had no answer to the second-half salvo of a side sitting sixth in English football’s fourth tier.
“You’ve got to enjoy these days,” Yems told BBC Sport. “These players have got a lot to prove to the clubs who have released them and we showed what we can do against a really good side in Leeds.
“It wasn’t me versus Bielsa. He does what he does and I do what I do. He was very complimentary afterwards but I suppose if you lose 3-0 you can’t do anything but.”
Whites midfielder Ezgjan Alioski congratulated Crawley on producing “the game of their lives” while BBC Radio 5 Live pundit and ex-Leeds striker Jermaine Beckford said “they played out of their skins”.
Car crash to cup hero
When injuries suffered in a car crash were followed by his release as a Tottenham trainee in 2018, Nick Tsaroulla could have been forgiven for wondering if a moment like his opening goal against Leeds would ever come.
After completing his physical rehabilitation, Tsaroulla’s football rehabilitation followed when he joined Brentford’s reserve team in 2019. He left in the summer but signed for Crawley in October.
He had only made six professional starts but ensured he will never forget his seventh by turning Leeds pair Pablo Hernandez and Jamie Shackleton inside out before drilling in Crawley’s opener – his first professional goal.
“A few people have asked ‘what am I doing signing those?'” said Yems about Tsaroulla and top scorer Max Watters.
“But sometimes you get these lads who want a second chance, and they come on and perform like that, and it is brilliant for them, because they’ve had enough knocks so let them enjoy the moment.”
Tsaroulla, who grew up in London but has been capped by Cyprus Under-21s, hopes his story can act as a spur to other young players who find themselves in a tough spot after being released.
“It’s been a long hard road for me, a couple of tough years, but what a moment. I just hope I can inspire somebody else out there,” the 21-year-old said in an emotional interview on BBC Radio 5 Live.
Tsaroulla was far from Crawley’s only hero, Yems insisting they needed “11 star men” to beat Leeds.
That claim was not difficult to back up as Crawley’s back-line kept their opponents quiet, apart from one important Glenn Morris save to deny Ian Poveda, while their forward line ran riot at times in the second half, Ashley Nadesan scoring their second and setting up the third for Jordan Tunnicliffe.
“We’ve been watching Leeds in the Premier League on TV and know how high-intensity they are. We had to match that and we did,” beamed central defender Tunnicliffe.
Leeds were ‘bamboozled’ by underdogs
While conceding goals is nothing new this season for Leeds – only West Bromwich Albion (39) have shipped more than the Whites’ 33 in the Premier League – their second-half surrender here will worry Bielsa.
He did make seven changes but despite starting club-record signing Rodrigo up front, with England midfielder Kalvin Phillips and a sprinkling of other first-team regulars involved, Leeds only registered two shots on target.
“It’s not the fact Leeds lost, it is the manner in which they lost,” said Beckford, who scored the winner when the then League One Leeds upset Manchester United at Old Trafford in the third round in 2010.
“I can’t see Bielsa being too kind to these guys – he’ll have them in training and everything they did wrong they will be making right.”
Fellow BBC Radio 5 Live pundit and former England captain Terry Butcher added: “People will say Bielsa treated it like a training game, but I don’t think he did. He was let down by his players.
“Crawley were absolutely dominant in the second half, and Leeds were just bamboozled by the forward play and togetherness.”
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