Last time, this time, next time

Leeds United 0-1 Southampton: Turning up

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Archie Gray on the verge of tears after the game at Wembley, with his hand on the badge on his shirt, looking up at the stands

Leeds United only needed to turn up, that was all. Just show up, be there, be themselves. Or maybe being themselves, being Leeds United, was the problem – maybe that’s always the problem.

But it was Wembley, it was the Championship play-off final, it was the richest game in football, all of that. But it was only Southampton. Southampton are a good team and beat Leeds twice in the league season, but they finished a place below in the table. Not much between the two sides, as they say, and nothing to fear. Leeds could beat Southampton if Leeds played well. They only needed, first, to turn up.

What the hell is it with Leeds United and Wembley? We may never know. Maybe there isn’t an answer. The 1973 FA Cup final that Leeds lost to Second Division Sunderland remains one of the enduring mysteries of the club’s great Revie era. Few people know more about football than the legendary players on the pitch for Leeds that day, but they could never explain what happened to them. In our modern era, when so many fans seem to resent the teams they support rather than love them, when players and managers must be ‘held accountable’ for losing a game, just having one of those days no longer cuts it. But it might be the nearest thing anyone can say to the truth.

A lot goes into having one of those days, of course, to the point in the 100th minute on Sunday when Ethan Ampadu scuffed a pass and watched it bounce slowly across the pitch and out for a throw-in. He knew that he’d also just scuffed one of United’s very last chances of equalising and gripped his head with his hands, despairing, hardly letting go until the final whistle blew. In the first half United’s player of the year had been caught out for Southampton’s goal, and a while after that I watched him curving a square pass around the front of a striker to Joe Rodon, putting an extra edge of risk on a pass he’s played a thousand times. I had the feeling that, however slightly, Ampadu was not playing his normal game.

Wembley is not a normal place. It’s enormous. The stands feel endless, and the Leeds end looked raucous, all scarves against the Saints end flags. It was hard to tell if it sounded raucous, as Wembley supplies its own nullifying din of noise, like one of those rooms designed to deaden sound, where nobody can stay for too long without feeling mad. When the players kick the ball the sound of it doesn’t reach the stands, a lessening of the senses that makes it feel like watching a computer game on mute through clingfilm. The arch adds to the disorientating scale, as did a replica trophy the size of a double decker bus that was dragged away before kick-off like Gulliver imprisoned on Lilliput. The roof was open but the rain was something I could see not feel. A helicopter was twirling low, filling the roof-less patch of sky then disappearing, reappearing. One of the weirder details is the drone camera, hovering just above the players on its criss-crossed wires, zooming and swooping and swaying and distracting – distracting me, anyway. I wonder about the players.

When Leeds lost 4-0 at QPR a month ago, I wondered how much of their frozen performance that night could be put down to the many inexperienced players in United’s team never playing at a ground like Loftus Road before: a cramped little stack of boxes that keeps two tiers of tense and bawling fans within touching distance of the pitch. Combining that with the pressure of an important Championship game, and the inherent heaviness of Leeds United’s shirt, turned an ordinary game into something the players had never done before. I was worried, on the morning of the big match, about the same players coping with their first experience of a final at Wembley, but hoping that the relative luxury of the place would counteract the novelty. But then this is the point of Wembley in the first place. We know these good teams can play football. But can they play football here?

Southampton can, by the looks of things, and if there is an unturned key to this match, perhaps it’s something Daniel Farke could have done, or done differently, to help his inexperienced players deal with the occasion. The nerves were obvious, not only from Ampadu. Archie Gray was berated when he messed up a counter attack in the first half right in front of his manager, but really, an eighteen-year-old struggling to produce his normal form in the biggest match of his young life was to be expected. Georginio Rutter, always an emotional player, was one to watch carefully too, and Wilf Gnonto, who is easily frustrated and combustible. It was more surprising that the more outwardly confident Crysencio Summerville didn’t make an impact, and unfortunately less surprising from Joel Piroe. After them, Leeds are running out of players who can take a grip on a game and win it themselves, which is why Joe Rodon started trying to make things happen from the back, rushing forward with the ball.

The counter example was Dan James, who came on for the last half-an-hour and got stuck in with determination and energy, smashed the bar with a brilliant shot, smashed his head open, then played even harder. There was a case for tapping a few more of the Leeds players on the head, if it would knock similar performances from them.

Rather than a bang on the head, James’ real advantages are the blows he’s had in his career. It’s not been easy being Dan James. There was the failed transfer to Leeds, the sudden death of his father, the pressure at Old Trafford, the decision to give that up and try Leeds again, being ostracised by Jesse Marsch, returning from his loan at Fulham to find he was now on Championship wages through no fault of his own, missing the crucial penalty that could have sent Wales to Euro 24. Even starting on the bench at Wembley feels like a knock he didn’t deserve. But the long line of stitches down his forehead after the game, and his rueful dazed smile, are a map of the resilience all that has built within him.

I’m not sure it’s necessary to know how to win at Wembley in order to win at Wembley. After all, everyone has to win it the first time, first. But I think it helps, in general, to know something about how to lose. There’s a great paradox here. Daniel Farke has spoken about how, after relegation, teams have to work hard to get rid of their losing habits, to build wins and sustain a winning mentality. And ninety points later, after an almost an entirely unbeaten season at Elland Road that rubbed away memories of going there week after week last season to watch Leeds lose, Farke had achieved that aim. The problem, though, is that his young team have got so used to winning that they look confused whenever they’re not. Often, through the season, bright starts would be wasted for lacking an early goal, ideas would dry up, frustration would take over. Sometimes the sheer weight of United’s attacking talent would, eventually, tilt the result back their way; or the leeway granted by a 46 game season would let them take a point or absorb a defeat, to put it right in the next game. In recent weeks that leeway has not been an option. The number of next games kept decreasing until, at Wembley, there were none. The 4-0 victory over Norwich was determined, mostly, by Ilia Gruev scoring so early, a sixth minute reward for a good opening. Defeat to Southampton was dictated when, after Leeds had made most of the opening moves, William Smallbone played Adam Armstrong through United’s misaligned defence and he smashed his shot into the bottom corner. United’s only remaining resource was a form of slow panic.

That was the beginning of the end. A sinking feeling, a knowing glance. A resorting to hope – maybe it’ll be different, this time – that was contradicted every time you looked at the players. It didn’t help that Southampton had their two previous wins over Leeds to lean on. It didn’t even help that Southampton didn’t play particularly well, either. It wouldn’t have taken much for Leeds to beat them. Whether they should have or not is a different question, but Leeds could have beaten them, and that’s what disappoints. The margin was one goal, not much between the two sides, as they say. But the gap between United’s performance and their best – go back ten days! – was just too large. ⬢

(Photograph by David Klein/Sportimage, via Alamy)

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