It’s never too late to give up. Whether you’re 2-0 down at half-time, whether you’re fighting an opponent and nobody gives you a chance, whether you’re battling against the odds in life, love, health or happiness at the worst times and in the wrong places, it’s never too late to give up.
So, because you can give up at any time, you might as well keep going.
But keeping going is hard, because it means confronting challenges and fears. We were saying on the TSB Podcast last week that we might welcome a twenty point deduction now just to relieve ourselves from the stress of watching Leeds United carrying on with this attempt at promotion. Just losing to Aston Villa might have helped. Let’s not win six in a row, let’s not be top at Christmas, let’s not put ourselves through the strain of imagining that 2019 might be Leeds United’s year. It’s never too late to give up. So why wait?
First this weekend we had Josh Warrington’s superb effort beating Carl Frampton on Saturday night. At the first bell in the Manchester Arena Warrington was still, to many, the dental technician with ideas that his floss fists couldn’t match, no matter how many belts those ideas and those fists were bringing his way. By the time the bell was ringing again for the end of the first round, Frampton looked bewildered and sore and the doubters, at last, were ready to give up. Warrington hasn’t given up, and never will, and has taken his career to the point that if one day he gets beaten it won’t matter, because he went first to the point where he became unbeatable, where so few others have been.
Warrington has drawn additional strength from Leeds United. He’s spoken about hearing the crowd singing Leeds songs while he’s in the ring, and how it spurs him on; having Lucas Radebe, Vinnie Jones, Gaetano Berardi, Jermaine Beckford or, this time, Liam Cooper in his dressing room and on his ringwalk is meaningful support to him. The through line from Warrington’s performance to Villa Park ought to have been easy to draw, a path of inspiration from the boxer Leeds supports back to the football team he supports. But for a while it looked like Leeds United were taking the other option against Aston Villa, and giving up.
This Leeds team has form for that, because it’s the team that gave up last season after Thomas Christiansen took them to the top of the table and offered them the chance of a glory season. Success became too hard. At Villa Park Leeds were quickly two goals down, unable to cope with Villa’s attacking speed and movement when Tammy Abraham scored the first after four minutes; unable to recover when Jack Harrison gave up the ball, before Jonathan Kodjia span away from four players and passed to Conor Hourihane, who struck past Bailey Peacock-Farrell from the edge of the area in the sixteenth minute. Despite attacking with purpose between and around Villa’s two goals Leeds were threatening, like in the 4-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion, to let last season’s soft underbrain take over again.
This time around, we might not have blamed them. Since the West Brom match Leeds have been assaulted by ill fortune at every turn. Not content with injuring players, the fates sent one of the best of them into exile and then, taunting us with a goal from Patrick Bamford that turned our medical bad-luck into a self-satisfied success story, they struck Bamford down again, smote Izzy Brown, and poisoned Barry Douglas minutes before the game. The return of Luke Ayling at the back brought a welcome aroma of confidence and VO5, but it was balanced by the fresh from the forest smell of Leif Davis being forced into his debut. After seeing that three souls was the price of Ayling’s return, what might it cost Leeds United if they didn’t give up now?
Because this was a football match, though, the 2-0 score at half-time mingled pain and opportunity. Harrison had been too much of the first and not enough of the other and was taken off. Jack Clarke was given the second half instead. At first the break only prompted Villa’s most sustained attacking of the match, as if they wanted to live up to their lead. But for Leeds, Clarke wanted to live up to his opportunity.
Even before it was followed by more, United’s first goal was a wonder. We can almost be lazy about the way Clarke dribbled inside from the left wing, pushing defenders back and swaying at them as if he was brandishing a knife; we’ve been seeing it in second halves for weeks, and about five times in ten minutes already in this one. And we can almost be mild about his precise finish, a shot across the goalkeeper into the bottom corner, because he rehearsed it the other week against Burnley in the U23s. What elevated this goal, Clarke’s first for the senior team, was his reaction; there was no teenage exuberance, just encouragement to his teammates retrieving the ball so the game could restart, and a high-five shared with Davis, the equally teenage debutant backing him up on the left. The moment exposed both the weaknesses Leeds are suffering through injuries and form, and the potential they’re finding in youth.
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Pontus Jansson is nobody but himself. A few minutes after Clarke’s goal, Jansson was taking it upon himself to chase away a pitch invader. He returned to Villa’s goalmouth to attack a corner, and without any fuss headed Pablo Hernandez’s cross straight into the net to equalise. Now came the fuss, amid wild celebrations, and an enormous grin that Jansson kept while defending through the rest of the game. It was perfect Pontus; he’s like a Ming Dynasty vase, more fragile than something that has survived 500 years should be, and priceless for that reason.
2-2, and soon Leeds wanted a penalty for handball that might have made it 3-2. The two goal comeback was enough, though, proving that if it’s never too late to give up, this year’s Leeds United won’t give up until later, if they ever give up at all. That this is last year’s Leeds United with its most unpredictable creative talent removed and several significant players sidelined forces the assumption that the inspiration for continuing the pain of pursuing success is Marcelo Bielsa, but can he really be the explanation for everything we’re seeing?
Most of us thought Leeds United could only be fixed by throwing away the accumulated junk of recent seasons and replacing it all. Instead Bielsa has changed everything by not just repairing everything, but revealing qualities nobody but him knew were hidden. He wasn’t brought in to change the personnel but to change the culture, and changing a 2-0 deficit to a 2-2 draw is proof of his cultural revolution.
How far can that influence reach? Can it go further than the team and the club? Bielsa is trying to resist the fans’ gratitude for his work so far, insisting he doesn’t deserve praise. Perhaps he’d be more comfortable knowing that fans aren’t only thanking him, but listening to him. His press conferences have the applicable qualities of sermons; his team’s performances are inspiring beyond football into life, into any situation that can be answered by one of the sincere statements of principle he puts in motion on the pitch. Bielsa is obsessed with football, but I wonder what he’d make of a Leeds United fan facing their fears in a waiting room outside an intensive care unit, thinking, how would Marcelo Bielsa deal with this? Perhaps he’d laugh, and laugh again if he heard that, while the fan was checking their phone for second half updates from Villa Park, they were thinking what a good thing it is in this bad world that Marcelo Bielsa is managing Leeds.
The Championship can think it a good thing too. The best teams don’t always produce the best matches amid the tension of this division’s top half, but part of Bielsa’s mission in life is to destroy the stale or mundane, and once Leeds equalised the second half had all the closely matched end to end excitement of Warrington’s fight with Frampton the night before. Except Warrington won that fight, while Leeds were only drawing this one; until the end. It’s never too late to give up; but first, you have to keep going.
Five minutes into five added minutes, a defensive header placed the ball in front of Kemar Roofe in the Aston Villa penalty area. Roofe shot with power and accuracy into the bottom corner of the goal. What more can you say about what happened? That’s all that happened. Kemar Roofe kicked the ball into the net. But this is football, and football makes it mean more.
“From the celebrations, I thought they’d won the title,” complained Villa’s manager Dean Smith. “We’re halfway through the season.” But some of the most significant reactions to Roofe’s winner weren’t among the limbs at Villa Park, but in the tweeted videos of people running around gardens like maniacs in Leeds, or yelling at televisions across the world. English football tends to sneer at the non-match going fan, but the game transmits its unique power through any medium: television, radio, tweet, text message. Allan Clarke’s winner in the 1972 FA Cup final will be associated forever with David Coleman’s commentary, ‘Clarke, 1-0′, that nobody in the stadium heard. Leeds United take more to away games because Leeds United have more fans than can cram into an away end, and when Roofe scored it mattered just as much in living rooms, pubs and hospital waiting rooms as it did in the front rows of the away end, being whipped by braids of Kalvin Phillips’ hair.
Only football can do that. Sorry, Josh; nothing can diminish Saturday night, but nothing can come close to Sunday afternoon. And I mean nothing. A few weeks ago I was watching some fan-filmed footage of the away end at the City Ground a few days after Gary Speed died, when eleven minutes of singing for Speed ended, and eleven seconds later, Robert Snodgrass scored. There isn’t a religion on earth that could produce such an awesome moment, in the old sense of feeling awe in the presence of a force greater than nature. Humanity has never produced an artwork with such sublime power; nothing invented by any of earth’s civilisations has ever been so profoundly beautiful. Humans have done a lot of damage to this planet over millennia. But over the last 150 years some humans have kicked a football into a net at just the right moment and made it all feel like a price worth paying.
We’re always paying, and Kemar Roofe’s entry into the historical ledger of this planet’s gorgeousness means we’ll go on paying into 2019. When Leeds went 2-0 down it was our chance to exit, the moment when we could ignore success and give up. People say losing football matches is hard but it’s much easier than winning, because if you lose you always get the chance, next game or next season, to put it right. You’re not risking success that is much harder to gain and, if you miss it, much harder to regain. Losing is the path to a simple life, while after the euphoria of winning comes the difficulty of trying to do better. But at 2-0 down, with everything against us and nothing left to lose, we prayed like fuck anyway for a comeback, to continue the painful journey of trying, of feeling and being alive, of carrying on having something to lose.
Were the prayers answered? If your preferred deity has a blue bucket for a throne, yes. It’s never too late to give up. Right now, according to Leeds United, it’s definitely too soon. ◉
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(photo by Paul Kent)