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Written by: Rob Conlon
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Two Leeds fans in one of the NW corner bars, viewed through the window from outside Elland Road stadium, one of them leaning on the windowledge and gazing out at Beeston

The problem with the Champo is that it sucks you in. Its charms are obvious. No VAR. Fewer grifters like Mark Goldbridge. More opportunities to enjoy the simple success of three points on a Saturday afternoon. After wretched back-to-back campaigns in the Premier League, it didn’t take long this season before Leeds fans were settling into second division Stockholm syndrome.

Maybe it’s not so bad after all, right? In the six seasons since Leeds appointed Marcelo Bielsa, we’ve been put through three promotion battles and two fights to escape relegation. In between, there was the blissful year of finishing 9th in the Premier League, but that was experienced while relaxing on our sofas at home, rather than as a stress-free season on the terraces of Elland Road. Which might explain why, as we approach the end of another exhausting campaign, there have been times I’ve been wistfully looking back on days in the wilderness years when we could spend second halves in the concourse bars, chewing the fat with mates over a couple of pints, safe in the knowledge we weren’t going to miss anything significant in the history of Leeds United Football Club.

Towards the end of Thomas Christiansen’s time in charge, I would wait until near the end of the first half before assuming it was safe enough to go to the bar, only for Leeds to routinely go a goal down and have a player brainlessly red carded. Sometimes, Leeds would make the second half worth watching, like the rousing “Lasogga, gerr’in the box you fat cunt” comeback against Millwall. But we still lost that game. And Christiansen couldn’t survive the regular collapses that culminated in Colin’s Cardiff taking his scalp. I stayed in the bar for the second half of that one, and ended the night puking my guts up at the back of a gig at Wharf Chambers.

Before the Southampton game this weekend, it had been years since I’d stayed in the bar beyond the start of the second half. Leeds have either been playing too well or had too much riding on results to ignore the actual football. The extortionate price of tickets also means you might as well get your money’s worth. My dad tends not to drink at Elland Road these days, too, but by half-time against Southampton he’d seen enough. “Once Southampton score a third let’s get a beer and watch it on a telly downstairs,” he told me. I couldn’t wait for Southampton to put us out of our misery. Where’s Laurens De Bock when you need him?

It was hard to tell when the second half even began. The atmosphere in the ground consisted of idle chat between fans who barely noticed the football on the pitch. With the play-offs looming, even the players themselves seemed content to play out an uneventful finish. It took Southampton fifteen minutes to put the ball in the back of the net for a third time, prompting me and my dad to immediately head for a pint while others were already walking down Lowfields Road. It initially felt like a rush. I even bumped into some of the same faces in the carpeted bar of the North East Upper that I had six years ago during that 4-1 defeat to Cardiff. I’d disengaged from the football to such an extent that it took another fifteen minutes before I glanced at a TV and realised the score was still 2-1. Southampton’s goal had been disallowed. Okay, cool. Whatever.

But it turns out I was wrong to think I missed this. The experience was just a reminder of how miserable it was when we were last marooned in the Champo. Going to Elland Road is much more fun when Leeds are playing well or competing for something. If I want to relax over a beer then there are loads of nicer and cheaper ways to do it. My argument against the ‘the Premier League is rubbish, it’s much better in the Champo’ sentiment has always been that the Premier League itself isn’t rubbish – sure, there are lots of things about it that are terrible, but Stuart Dallas scoring the winner at Manchester City and finishing 9th was great! – but being rubbish in the Premier League is rubbish.

And if we look up for a second, what is there really to fear? Scum and Chelsea are absolutely laughable yet are still somehow 7th and 8th. West Ham keep losing 5-0 and are 9th. Notts Forest and Everton can afford points deductions and still stay up. Leeds couldn’t have got things more wrong in our relegation season and still took it to the final day, despite competing against clubs who were financially cheating the system. The Premier League might have plenty of things wrong with it, but don’t let Sky Bet convince us the Champo is some kind of haven.

As we learned from the past, it only gets harder to escape the confines of the EFL, so we might as well embrace the terror of trying to get out of there while we can. The play-offs might have scarred us, but even losing to Derby was one of the most exhilarating nights at Elland Road I’ve ever experienced. There was never any question of going to the bar and missing a second of the game. To quote Paul Sykes: without swearing, it’s shit or bust. And that’s exactly how I like it. ⬢

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