Soft drugs

Don’t be a villain, be a coward

Written by: Rob Conlon
Photograph by: Lee Brown
A photograph of Georginio Rutter sticking his tongue out as the ball rolls out of play for a throw-in towards the end of Leeds' win against Preston. The West Stand are laughing behind him while a Preston clogger is falling over trying to chase him

One of the suits at Sky Sports recently contacted Leeds United asking if they could discourage fans from making their disdain of Sky TV so audibly clear during televised fixtures. If they wanted fans to stop voicing their frustration with Sky constantly moving fixtures with no regard for match-going supporters, came the reply from Leeds (presumably from another suit, but one wearing a white, blue, and yellow-striped tie), then Sky should stop constantly moving fixtures with no regard for match-going supporters. It was no surprise, then, that while the crowd at Elland Road was still shaking off Saturday night hangovers and Sunday morning lethargy, the only chant that was sung with any enthusiasm during the first half against Preston was, ‘Sky TV is fucking shit!’

Sky love to market English football on the crackle of its atmosphere, yet for the last three decades they’ve tried everything but cultivate stadium culture. Moving kick-off against Preston to noon on a Sunday meant most fans got to Elland Road confused, wondering what they were doing there at such an unfamiliar time. Pre-match routines were thrown up in the air. Me and my friends decided it was too early for our usual pre-match pint and agreed to meet for coffee instead, only to find the cafes were full of football fans and end up in a bar anyway. A couple of friends stayed strong and ordered coffees, whereas I succumbed to the temptation of a beer I didn’t enjoy. Something about nursing a pint at 10:30am on a Sunday morning is inescapably bleak. By the time we set off for the stadium I was feeling even sleepier than before, so much so that walking across Holbeck Moor our conversation soon strayed into wondering whether we’d be better off avoiding the game and heading straight for the comfort of a pub. This happens once or twice a season (in the wilderness years it happened most weeks), whether we’re battling relegation or challenging for promotion. New Year, same shit.

Leeds started the game looking as sleepy as the supporters, letting Preston score after a minute if only to jolt themselves awake with a challenge. Despite a quickfire response from Dan James, the match soon settled into a weary pattern of frustration and, I can’t lie, boredom.

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby details his criteria for the perfect day at the football. They start with his pre-match ritual as a child: a sit-down lunch with his dad in a chippy, sitting in specific seats that gave him a view down the players’ tunnel, a full stadium promising an exciting atmosphere. Later, he sets out the stipulations for a game ‘that sends you home buzzing inside with the fulfilment of it all’: goals, as many as possible; outrageously bad refereeing decisions; a noisy crowd; rain, or at least a greasy surface; an opposition player missing a penalty, or getting sent off; some kind of ‘disgraceful incident’.

Sky’s scheduling had ruined any chance of reliving an idyllic childhood memory of visiting Elland Road for one of the first times, and the match itself certainly wasn’t fulfilling the criteria of a classic. Early in the second half, I resigned myself to a boring Preston team boring their way to a boring 1-1 draw. It’s fine, these things can happen. It beats losing, even if I was imagining an alternate afternoon when we decided to turn around at Holbeck Moor and head straight for a pub.

But then something changed. Specifically, Preston changed. They stopped being boring, inoffensive Champo landfill, and started being bastards. Their no-name goalkeeper revealed his plan for the second 45 minutes was to waste as much of it as possible. Their no-name outfielders started nipping at Leeds’ players ankles, holding their shirts, then feigning injuries themselves. Their no-name manager started throwing hissyfits on the touchline and refusing to give us the ball back for throw-ins. Preston started to enjoy making themselves villains. It was their biggest mistake of the afternoon.

When Johan Gruev was taken out by the last of three players attempting to swipe Leeds’ legs away and prevent a counter-attack, I was no longer bored. I was as furious as everyone else, desperate for Leeds to beat the bastards. The useless ref added to the pantomime, unable to control a game that boiled into a predictable scuffle between both teams. Finally, the game was beginning to tick some of Hornby’s boxes for an entertaining afternoon out. ‘Argy-bargy, like soft drugs,’ he writes, ‘would be no fun if it were officially sanctioned.’ It was the loudest Elland Road had been all afternoon.

We’ll never know if Preston would have escaped with a result if they’d never began playing up to their role as villains, but I’ve seen enough boring draws at Elland Road to believe so. It’s a life lesson most of us learn growing up — the last thing you want to do at high school is stand out; you’re meant to keep your head down, go under the radar, do anything but draw attention to yourself. Basically, be a coward. Life is much easier that way! But being so good at football you’re on the books of a pro club means those rules often don’t apply when you’re a teenager. We all knew someone at school who was good enough to play for an academy and they were almost always popular, confident, and brash. Do they become arrogant because they’re good footballers or are they good footballers because they’re arrogant? Whatever, all I know is that it doesn’t matter how good you think you are, eventually you’ll bump into someone better, at which point you might help yourself by winding your neck in and quietly going unnoticed.

Preston learned their lesson far too late. Even as Joel Piroe was running up to take his 94th-minute penalty, their goalkeeper still had the brass neck to keep shouting at Piroe, trying to put him off, then dived out of the way of the ball as Piroe ran off celebrating with the smuggest of smug smiles:

A screenshot of Joel Piroe's Instagram post of him celebrating his penalty against Preston with a brilliantly smug smile with a shouting Pat Bamford running after him

It was pleasing to hear Leeds’ players admit after the game that they were feeling exactly the same as the supporters. Joe Rodon criticised Preston’s time wasting and said he got stuck into Ryan Ledson after his booking on Gruev because it was a “bad tackle” that’s “not really football”. Likewise, Ethan Ampadu said Leeds felt like “we owed them one” after losing at Deepdale and a “dirty” end to the game with “a couple of naughty challenges in there”. “After the game,” Ampadu added, “it’s good feelings.” Preston might have tried their best to make it an awful game to watch, but they only succeeded in making it a brilliant game for Leeds to win. ⬢

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