Stick around, they tell you at school, teaching you to be a good citizen, and you’ll live through momentous occasions in history.
They say it like it’s a good thing, but tell that to the witnesses of the Hindenburg disaster, or the witnesses of Birmingham City versus Leeds United at the end of the year of our lord 2019.
By all accounts this was Leeds United’s first ever 5-4 win, but when I go to live on my eternal island alone, let me take a videotape of the Nordic broadcast of 1991’s 5-4 defeat to Liverpool instead. Not this. I loved this and my team won, but I wouldn’t know what to do with me and a tape of this game forever.
That Liverpool match lives long in the memory for reasons that mingle Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United. From Bielsa, there was the nobility of the resources used in a brave comeback from 4-0 down at half-time to the First Division champions, who since last playing at Elland Road had won six league titles and a European Cup among other things. In the first half John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and Ian Rush were unstoppable.
The Leeds part was the glory of losing anyway, and the injustice of a fifth goal disallowed for a foul on the goalkeeper. That’s also why, as a Leeds fan, I prefer the Liverpool game: our defeats made us the club we are, even more than the wins.
Bielsa said the Birmingham game defied all previous analysis of his team, that United’s clinical finishing but woeful defending was the opposite of their usual routine. That reversal applies beyond this season. That Liverpool game, and the successful comebacks we remember against Derby, Southampton and Bristol Rovers, were about snatching something — whether victory or defeat — from dire jaws. This game? Leeds had it won three times before their stoppage time winner. Pep Clotet complained afterwards about getting nothing from the referee, but he couldn’t have asked for more from Leeds.
2-0 up inside twenty minutes, after Jackie Harrison broke and fed Helder Costa, then snapped in a deflected volley of his own, Leeds looked ready to score five. With Eddie Nketiah starting in place of injured Pat Bamford, the Peacocks picked up from the Preston game’s end, with relentless front-foot attacking that was even taking Kalvin Phillips into Birmingham’s penalty area.
How it all went so wrong from there is beyond me, and I suspect Bielsa will look inwards. His team can rampage forward at will, but their attention on attacking can leave them vulnerable to an obscure schoolboy, Jude Bellingham, rampaging in their own defence. Foolishness gave Birmingham their first goal; at a corner, Bellingham bullied Kiko Casilla into giving them their equaliser. Their next equaliser came from a cross aimed in front of Casilla, and flicked past him by unmarked substitute Jérémie Bela; they made it 4-4 when Leeds, supposedly seeing the game out in stoppage time, lost the ball on a helter-skelter attack down the left, and Lukas Jutkiewicz finished Bela’s deep cross.
Luke Ayling couldn’t get back in time to stop that goal, but he was key to the two times in the second half when Leeds thought they’d won, and the third time in stoppage time when they actually did. Defending by attacking is Bielsa’s philosophy but this way Ayling’s match, and he perhaps best exemplified the style by not giving into it, but mastering it. Ayling was bigger than the game, and while the Peacocks around him let it get out of control, Bill held the scruff.
Receiving a long crossfield pass from Alioski, Ayling cut inside and, declining to pass or cross, controlled and volleyed across the penalty area and inside the far post for 3-2. As soon as Birmingham equalised that one, Ayling took the ball on a run through the middle, got it back from Harrison, then shoved it into the box for Stuart Dallas to regain the lead within two minutes. Then, when Leeds might have been ready for all our sakes to take a disappointing draw from the last minute of stoppage time, he was ahead of Gaetano Berardi’s firm tackle deep in Birmingham’s half, ready to take a pass from Costa to the byline and cross, where Wes Harding put the ball in the net before Jackie Harrison could.
These were all Leeds United’s best current strengths — an experienced defender displaying leadership, commitment and good attacking play — but also exposed their weakness, by how rarely it happens. Ayling decided three times that he would give Leeds the lead, and it’s that kind of forceful decision making Leeds lack when they’re laying the ball off to each other around the penalty area. Bielsa has tried to empower them, but sometimes the players seem too in awe of him, or of the fates, to realise how much influence they have with the ball at their feet. Luke Ayling showed the way by putting his laces through it, by surging through midfield with it, by cutting it back from the byline with seconds left. If you decide to score, when you’re this good, you probably will.
Perhaps the same resolution is required at the other end of the pitch, where the best defence in the Championship has gone Baileys-legged over Christmas. It made for a thrilling game and, like last season’s Champions League semi-finals, this had everything I could ask for from a football match. I should cherish it, the way I cherish everything Marcelo Bielsa has brought to Elland Road: the last time we scored five away was April 2003, and as for defending, Scott Wootton might have conceded them, but he was never going to follow Ayling by going to score them too.
But there’s one more thing I ask for from a game like this: that it please does not involve Leeds, not now, at least not until after May 2020. Yes, the team showed fortifying resilience to win; perhaps with this sort of stamina and belief, they could have overcome Derby at Elland Road in May 2019. That’s not a hypothesis I’m keen to test this spring; this spring is when I want to look back on this match, sigh, and then I can feel glad at last to have seen it. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
(Are you reading the BUFF? A daily email newsletter by Moscowhite for twenty pence a week. If you enjoy these reports, your money supports more: Click here to get your daily BUFF.)
(photo by Lee Brown)