Bournemouth 0 Yeovil Town 2 –Tuesday 20th February 2007
With reputedly the lowest playing budget in League One, Yeovil’s run to the playoff final in 2006/07 arguably came as a surprise to everyone, including this supporter who was fully expecting a relegation battle under new manager Russell Slade. The Glovers’ budget had been reduced during the 2005/06 season following restructuring at board level, resulting in the departure of key players such as Darren Way, Lee Johnson, Phil Jevons and Chris Weale. Having only narrowly avoided relegation even with those players, the future looked bleak.
However, Russell Slade brought discipline, solidity and a counter-attacking game which surprised the opposition, particularly in the first half of the season. After a moderate start, the Glovers’ form was boosted significantly by the arrival of Marcus Stewart from Bristol City, initially on loan and later on a permanent basis. In his first 11 games, Stewart scored five goals and four assists. Four of those goals came in 1-1 draws which would have been defeats without him, the other a spectacular goal from distance which opened the scoring in a 2-0 win over Brighton. He was often deployed up front in a 4-5-1, with Arron Davies, Lee Morris and/or Wayne Gray as the wide supporting attackers. This run of form took Yeovil from 7th in the table up to 2nd following the memorable 2-1 win over Bristol City in November, and suddenly Yeovil had to be talked about as promotion contenders along with City, Nottingham Forest and the less fancied but more consistent Scunthorpe.
Having made significant progress with the signing of Stewart, the Glovers faced a problem when his loan spell ran out at the end of November. He could potentially sign permanently in the transfer window, but that would not be until at least 1st January, leaving Yeovil short for six games over the critical Christmas period, if not more.
Acting quickly, Slade signed young striker Leon Best on loan from Championship club Southampton until the expected return of Stewart in January. Best had come through the Saints’ youth ranks, and been on loan several times from his parent club before Yeovil, including Bournemouth at the start of the 2006/07 season where he scored three goals.
Only turning 20 shortly before his arrival at Yeovil, Best was an immediate hit, scoring on his first start against Rotherham in a 3-2 defeat. He struck up a very fruitful partnership with Lee Morris in Stewart’s absence – Morris scored the other against Rotherham, and in their first seven games together he and Best scored ten goals and five assists between them. Yeovil went on a run of 14 points in six games over Christmas, including memorable away wins at Brighton and Crewe, and a demolition of Huddersfield live on television on 5th January. The Glovers had gone on a very difficult run following the win over City that had propelled them up to 2nd and looked to have lost momentum dropping down to 8th in the table, but were galvanised by the arrival of Best and some of their best performances of the season came in the middle third when he was at the club. With two holding midfielders and often one up front, Russell Slade’s side were very difficult to break down and if they scored first it was very rare the opposition got back into it, but equally if they conceded first they often found it hard to break down stubborn defences and it was usually a case of ‘first goal wins’. Fortunately, Yeovil had become very good at getting the first goal. With Best arriving however, the goal threat increased and Yeovil scored a lot more freely, which also marked a change in formation following a serious injury to Paul Terry which meant a switch from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2. In the rest of the regular league season, Yeovil only scored three times once, in the 3-2 win at Huddersfield. With Best in the team, they did it four times.
Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and even though he had been brought in just to tide us over until the return of Marcus Stewart, by the time Leon Best left the club he had scored 10 goals in 15 games and helped propel Yeovil back up to 2nd. In the end many fans were sad to see him go and perhaps feared that without him, we would lose momentum again and our promotion challenge would fade. Despite five defeats in the final stretch however, the Glovers just managed to get enough wins at crucial times to maintain a playoff challenge and finish strongly in 5th, facing Nottingham Forest in the playoffs.
Best’s last game for Yeovil was away at his previous club Bournemouth, where an incredible 1600 Glovers fans travelled for a Tuesday night match against a team who weren’t even in the promotion race. In a game of many chances and some decent saves from Steve Mildenhall, Leon signed off his loan spell with a late goal to secure a 2-0 win.
He would return to Southampton and play a part in their run-in, scoring four goals and playing in the Championship playoffs. At the end of the season, he left Southampton for Coventry, also in the Championship. Although he was never as prolific in his later career as he was for Yeovil, he was sold for large transfer fees several times and ultimately played in the Premier League for Newcastle from 2010-12, where he was not first choice but did score ten Premier League goals, becoming one of the first Yeovil players of the modern era to play in the top flight (now there are too many to count of course, thanks mostly to the loan system). He was sold to Coventry for £650,000, Newcastle for £1.5 million, and Blackburn for £3 million. He ended his career with spells at Rotherham, Ipswich and Charlton, and played most of his career at Championship or Premier League level.
Team that day: Steve Mildenhall, Nathan Jones, Terrell Forbes, Terry Skiverton, Scott Guyett, Jean-Paul Kalala, Nicky Law, Chris Cohen, Arron Davies (sub. Peter Sweeney, 74), Leon Best, Wayne Gray. Subs not used: Anthony Tonkin, Anthony Barry, Martin Brittain, Marcus Stewart