Paul Heckingbottom has the face of someone who hasn’t known true happiness since, as a small child, he pulled the wings off a house fly.
Even that pleasure was fleeting. His mam caught him, and belted him, and banished him from the kitchen table to go play in the fields. There the bigger lads caught him, and belted him, for not supporting Leeds. But little Heck didn’t mind. Escaping to safety in his secret shed at the allotments, he passed an hour playing with the pocket penknife he’d stolen from Woolworths that morning, imagining it had been a daring bank heist.
Against Derby County Heckingbottom’s Leeds nearly achieved, if not happiness, then at least grim satisfaction, but even that small favour from the gods was snatched away at the last moment. Twice. And not cruelly, because it was entirely Leeds United’s own fault.
When your winless streak hits ten games, it’s hard to look anywhere but at the failures. They weren’t hard to find; most of them were playing in defence. This is a concern. With suspensions finally coming to an end, Leeds were able to play what is, Luke Ayling apart, a first choice defence. But Derby had 25 shots at Felix Wiedwald, eight of them from inside the penalty area, a sure sign that having the players back was only one step towards security.
Laurens De Bock hasn’t been anywhere, but at left-back he was putting in, like Paul Rachubka and Marius Zaliukas before him, a career defining performance for which he’ll always be remembered. Like Zaliukas — but not like Rachubka — De Bock has looked steady enough since he signed and made his first positive impression amid the craziness against Millwall. He said afterwards that he’d never experienced a game like that before, and against Derby, the trauma seemed to have caught up with him.
De Bock’s wide face shows a hint of a handlebar moustache and is topped by a severely side parted crop of blond hair, as if he’s just crawled from the wreckage of a downed Spitfire. Weighed down and imbalanced by his thick leather-and-wool flying jacket, he was groggy and disorientated, his pipe falling from his mouth as he tried to locate the enemy while his vision filled with burning fuselage.
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Alongside him the returning captain, Liam Cooper, wasn’t helping; he’s the naive young soldier, earnestly writing home to the wife and kiddies on his first day of action, oblivious to the grenade with his name on it. These two were the left side of United’s defence, but their teamwork reached its peak in the second half when De Bock sent a precise pass down the side of Cooper to Derby’s Andreas Wiemann, whose cross wasn’t finished by David Nugent. Before that, in stoppage time at the end of the first half, neither Cooper nor De Bock put a name on the long ball sent their way by Tom Huddlestone; De Bock moved to cover Cooper rather than watch his friend Weimann, who profited from Cooper’s flick on to score from in front of Wiedwald.
Wiedwald, who never wanted to leave Werder Bremen in the first place, seems lately to have remembered that as a prisoner of war the Geneva Conventions grant him the right to remain silent. He looks determined not to tell his defenders what he knows, in case it somehow incriminates him. That’s how Derby got their second equaliser. Now it was second half stoppage time, and Wiedwald’s refusal to share valuable secrets with Cooper meant the latter had to give away a corner, and finally this mild poet of the trenches lost his temper with the captive of the six yard box. That burst of anger did no good; Wiedwald’s lips remained tight shut but United’s ship sank all the same, Derby sending a howitzer into the penalty area that sent the Leeds defenders scrambling for cover, and Kasey Palmer scrambling to score.
It’s worth saying, as there were some positives in this game, that Pontus Jansson and Gaetano Berardi remained impressively neutral on their side of the defence, refusing to be dragged into the self-inflicted conflicts alongside them. De Bock, it’s possible, could fly again, but Cooper must be careful; after playing well recently, the main reasons for dropping Matthew Pennington seemed to be his lack of height, and Cooper’s status as captain. Well, height’s no good if you’re only going to head the ball backwards, and there’s a cautionary tale in Heckingbottom’s first choice of captain, Eunan O’Kane, who didn’t even make the bench here.
His replacement didn’t lift Leeds much above the mud. It was pleasant to see Ronaldo Vieira back in the team again, and a relief to see him substituted, after an hour’s struggle for fitness and form. Kemar Roofe had already left by then, although he’d been so anonymous this could have been the game where Leeds started with ten just to see if we could get that second half fightback first. Although that didn’t work in terms of performance, it almost worked on the scoreline. After 35 minutes being battered by Derby, Cooper had a rare moment of clarity and matched it with a rare sweeping ball from left-back to right wing, where it flew over Marcus Olsson to Stuart Dallas. He caught up with the bouncing ball and with a mixture of guesswork and instinct, half-volleyed his cross. Derby’s defenders, who had been enjoying some fierce debates with Pierre-Michel Lasogga, were caught considering his last devastating remarks, and didn’t follow him into the six yard box, so that his close range header past Scott Carson looked like a training exercise. Nobody could be bothered stopping him, he didn’t bother to put much finesse on the finish.
It was hard to understand how Leeds were ahead, and they gave up the equaliser before half-time as if it was an admission of guilt, like they’d pocketed a couple of weeks’ overpaid wages but wanted to give it back. Taking the lead in the second half, though, was easier to understand.
There are some schools of standoffishness where Samu Saiz is concerned. It is possible that he has, single-mouthedly, ruined our season by his spitting at Newport. Taking all our woes and blaming them on the booger, though, excuses the multitude of problems that have developed around United’s team through no fault of Saiz, and ignores the fact that pretty much only Samu can save us now. He’s been fined for his crimes, but his suspension hurt Leeds more than it hurt him, and any thoughts of further punishment — that he should sit on the sidelines until he’s learned his lesson and earned his place again — would be cutting off our own noses. It’s not like we spat at anybody. Why should we deny ourselves the pleasure of watching the best player we’ve had for years, when we didn’t do anything wrong?
I mean, we could just continue watching Kemar Roofe, if we could find him. In his 55 minutes on the pitch, Roofe touched the ball eleven times. Within half an hour, Saiz had twice as many, and he’d made a goal. Not only that, but he’d turned our whole team around. Even when Pablo Hernandez is at his best, he plays as if dragging his whole reluctant platoon behind him on ropes, forcing them into contact with the enemy. Saiz inspires in a different way. Leeds players look a downcast group, introverted and moody, embarrassed about doing anything because they don’t want to be looked at. Saiz is the opposite. He plays as if he doesn’t care. Always looking forward, that’s where he’s going, and if the others are too shy to follow him, he doesn’t care; he’ll back himself to beat every opponent and score on his own anyway. It makes him irresistible to watch, and our own players can’t resist either. Beneath their furrowed, worried brows, they lift their eyes, not too far, because Samu is small, and all they need to see are his feet. When they see what those feet are doing they remember that sometimes their feet can do that too, and after the initial awkward hesitance, they go running towards him. You’re amazing! they say. Can we play with you? Will you be on our team?
United’s second goal was the perfect demonstration. Derby fluffed a free-kick at goal, and Saiz got the ball from a clever tap by Phillips. Saiz had to battle to reach that, but unusually for a recent Leeds player, he wanted the ball. He got it. And then he kept it, switching inside a sliding tackle and sprinting giddily across the open fields. Ezgjan Alioski, who was bullied every day that Samu wasn’t coming to school, ran after him, and got the ball from Saiz much earlier than anyone expected. It was the right moment, although it gave Alioski all the time he didn’t need: to panic, to shoot at the goalkeeper, to mess the whole thing up. That’s what he did, but he didn’t give up; he had to impress Samu, so he dived at the loose ball, heading it into the net. In the celebrations, Jansson lifted Alioski into the air and threw him, as if to remind him of his place in the playground pecking order. But Alioski didn’t care anymore. Samu was back, and Samu had given him the ball. And look at the happiness that had caused.
Happiness? As the stoppage time equaliser showed, there’s not room yet for such things as happiness at Paul Heckingbottom’s Leeds. But there is, for him if not for us, less room for despondency. All the usual complaints were brought forth from Leeds fans after this game: Wiedwald should be in solitary confinement, De Bock should have his pilot’s licence taken away, Cooper should be sent sweeping for big landmines with a small net, Roofe should be thrown off one, into a tin bath full of rancid rainwater. What came forth from Heckingbottom was his disappointment at conceding soft goals, but that he’d been mentally rehearsing a very positive debrief with the players for the following day.
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He’s pragmatic about the problems in the team: he won’t solve them overnight. He’s encouraged by the improvements that he’s seen: and relieved to have Saiz back. Heckingbottom looks as if true happiness was beaten out of him at a young age, but with it went true misery, too. Somehow Leeds fans have never quite learned that lesson. We’ll banish De Bock, Cooper and the rest to Coventry, and go giddily into the fields with our post-punishment Samu. We can let Heckingbottom retire to his shed and his pocket knife, to think on. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)
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