I don’t even know what he’s about to say in his post-match interview on the pitch at Old Trafford, but I know from his expression that Luke Ayling has got this. Back in the dark mists of losing to Nottingham Forest in 2020, Ayling’s post-match interview when promotion was falling apart was less significant for the words he spoke than for his ashen, shocked expression, startling fans and teammates into sorting it out.
Now here is The Ayling Frown® again, as much a part of of him as The Ayling Flop®. He was wearing it less than an hour after one of the biggest grins of his life followed a netbuster to end netbusters at Old Trafford. The steady eyes. The thin, set mouth. The slight suggestion of a toffee in the corner of his gob, but it’s actually the scoreline. Completed with the sunken cheekbones Marcelo Bielsa’s fitness regime teased out of him, that always make me think Luke Ayling could fit in on bass in a new romantic pop group from 1983.
“It was a wonderful goal,” says the interviewer, and Ayling’s tongue goes into his cheek, weighing up whether to take the compliment or chin him. As if picking up on the body language, the interviewer tells Bill he has, “A few chins to pick up off the floor this week.”
“We got beat here by four last year,” says Luke, “So it’s nothing new to us,” and, eh, that’s not really what I hoped to be hearing at the end of our first game of the new season. “But we came back from that and did alright at the end of the season,” and that’s more like the spirit, although let’s not wait that long! “We’ll go back, see what happened, and try and get it right for the next game.”
But this isn’t about what he’s saying. It’s about his face while he’s saying it, and in a way it’s about the goal he scored. Leeds were struggling in the first half at Old Trafford, and were looking for a big moment to kickstart them at the start of the second. Let’s ignore for a minute how it ended up kickstarting the other team instead. Focus on it coming from Ayling’s boot, the same as it did in the Championship when his glumness inspired the turnaround towards the title, spitting out the sour pill he’d sucked through that interview in Nottingham, when he had us all drinking down the sweetness of opening goals against Bristol City, Hull City, the volley against Huddersfield being the best. With promotion on the line, Leeds needed a way of stopping nerves from creeping into their play, and an optimistic Billy Banger in the first few minutes was the solution. Now we’ve seen him with his face on, first goal against Everton, please. ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)