Roulette Wheel

Could heaven ever be like this?

Written by: Miles Reucroft
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
A scroll of photos, including Georginio Rutter playing at Elland Road and Leeds celebrating a goal together

The Championship is a strange sort of purgatory. There are the have-nots, clubs like Rotherham destined to flit between League One and Championship for all eternity. Then there’s the middle ground, packed with clubs like Millwall and Preston who simply just exist here, season after season, unable to find a way out. Then there are the haves, those recently relegated clubs with the winds of Premier League money bellowing through their parachutes.

Each faces their own existential angst. What are we really doing here? Can we dare to dream for more? The risk at the bottom end is slipping into League One and never clawing it back. The middle group just tread water, well off enough to survive but too poor to compete. The haves face the intense pressure of needing to get promoted, lest they fall into the middle group after two seasons.

This season has been really enjoyable for Leeds United. We score more than we concede, win more than we lose and have a team worth getting behind once more. But what’s the ultimate reward for all this? If we get promoted, we’re back into a league that extinguished the talents of Georginio Rutter like a hurricane blowing against a match. If we fail in that endeavour, the vultures will circle and our refulgent attacking talents will get picked up and packed off to salubrious locations such as Goodison Park and the Vitality Stadium. Urgh.

We need the Premier League. We know that. We know it’s better. We know it’s worse. It makes this season a transient joy, for we know what tomorrow will bring; a VAR fuelled anxiety dream or a financial slap down that will relieve us of our talents anyway. Whatever happens, next season probably won’t be pretty. Look at Sheffield United. Look at West Brom. The cost of success or failure is roughly equal in sporting terms in the short term.

Success means facing state-funded behemoths and defences that won’t quite be so charitable to our attacking talents as Huddersfield. I think this is where some of the Joel Piroe discourse comes from: what would he bring to the Premier League at no.10 if he has Rodri and John Stones keeping tabs on him? Mind you, what does anyone?

Failure means our finances won’t be as liberated as they are now by those parachute payments. Departures will be inevitable. Which will be sad. Then there’s all those turncoats out on loan, what on earth is going to become of them? They don’t want to earn Championship money but no one looks likely to pay them Premier League cash, either.

At least two or three of those situations are going to turn ugly, and you can hang your hat on Brenden Aaronsen and Rasmus Kristensen being among them. If we go up, then they’ll all be back. The reward for Liam Cooper captaining us back to the top division will almost certainly be a pat on the back as he leaves Elland Road without a contract extension because we’ll need to make room on the wage bill for Max Wöber. I’m angry just thinking about it.

The Championship exists merely as a Premier League roulette wheel, albeit with the odds increasingly favouring the recently departed. Get ejected, go round the corner, wipe the blood from your nose and straighten your collar and they’ll generally let you straight back in. Turn up in the queue cap in hand, however, and you’ll most likely get told to fuck off. Repeatedly. Of course outliers like Luton exist, but the tide has turned well against such clubs.

While the moment is undoubtedly very good, there are still the sins of the past to be paid for and the uncertainty of the future to be considered. Going along at two points per game (after the 3-2 win against Boro) is the sweet spot that everyone strives for, but then there are Leicester and Ipswich. What if we’re really good, but they remain unflappably brilliant? Into the play-offs. At least we have a good record in them and usually win at Wembley…

This season is beginning to feel like spending too long in the pub on a Sunday. Sure, you’re having a great time. Why not have another? Order some food? Then drink some more? Life’s great! But you know the working week is but a few hours away and do you really want to kick Monday off with an almighty hangover? Because you know that’s what’s coming. There’s a price to be paid for daring to enjoy yourself. There always is.

So, you start to wonder. Will Farke’s football work in the Premier League? Who will need to be improved upon? Can players who have previously failed at that level crack it next time around? Do you really want to see Jack Harrison playing instead of Crysencio Summerville? That’s the best case scenario.

If we lose to West Brom in the play-offs, who will need to be sold? How can Farke make his football work for a second season? Will Burnley, Sheffield United and Luton be such formidable relegated foes as Leicester and Southampton this season? Why has Brenden Aaronsen fallen over again? That’s the worst case scenario.

While the football we’re experiencing is joyful, entertaining and garnering results, could heaven ever be like this? Really? It’s brilliant, but it’s uncertain. It’s joyful but it’s also a bit depressing. We’re waltzing through teams, but far sterner tests await.

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Macbeth wasn’t talking about Jesse Marsch or Victor Orta, but my word he could’ve been. At the very least, this season feels like the seeds of something tangible are once more being sewn in their wake.

That, at least, gives rise to being excited by tomorrow. We didn’t go up in the first season under Bielsa. Would it really be a disaster if history repeated itself for Farke? Surely the 49ers would spin the wheel one more time and try to keep the band together. And if we do go up, there’s a youthful squad with a point to prove. There’s also a manager with a deep-rooted desire to show he belongs in the Premier League. This doesn’t feel like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. After the last two seasons of mismanagement and misdirection, this Championship season even feels like a step forward in many respects.

That underlying tension will always exist in the Championship. It’s a major element in making it, really, the Best League in the World. Sport without jeopardy is nothing. Remember the second half against Huddersfield? Of course not. Leeds were 4-0 up at half time and that was that. Boring! Too good!

If we’re honest, too, it wouldn’t be the Leeds United way to sit eight points clear atop the table at Christmas. It’s far more exciting to repeatedly go 1-0 down in the first couple of minutes and claw it back manically. It may no longer be told by an idiot, but the tale remains eerily familiar. Would we have it any other way? Perhaps this is heaven after all.⬢

(This post is free to read from The Square Ball magazine season 34 issue 4. Click here to read more)

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