It was not a scene easily associated with a glorious promotion season. As the final whistle blew at Elland Road, the ball was dropping above Kalvin Phillips, who tried to boot it back up into the air in frustration. He miskicked it to the ground. The ground was where Stuart Dallas had been, injured, for much of the last ten minutes.
Around them their teammates seethed and the few fans who hadn’t left booed them. The sky had darkened quickly in the second half, the mood with it, the air turning frosty, perhaps with the first breaths from Storm Brendan, on its way from the Atlantic to wreak havoc. The wind whispered around the dugouts, repeating Mick Hennigan’s warning to Howard Wilkinson in April 1990, caught on the season review’s film of their defeat to Barnsley: “It’s Brendan O’Connell.”
O’Connell scored the equaliser that day, and Barnsley won, and boos echoed around United’s stuttering bid for promotion. A week later fans were doing the conga on the pitch, but Leeds still weren’t up: Vinnie Jones had announced mistaken scores from elsewhere accidentally, so David Batty suspected, on purpose.
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Events elsewhere are important to Leeds now, and that’s what gave this demoralising defeat to Sheffield Wednesday its bitter flavour. Brentford beat QPR, while Southampton striker Che Adams came off their bench to set up a goal. His movements at the weekend felt as important as Leeds United’s; again, on that 1989/90 film, a fan can be heard earlier in the season demanding to know which striker Wilkinson was going to sign to get Leeds promoted. “Never mind John Aldridge!” he yelled, “You need van Basten with this lot!” And this lot, in 2020, need Che Adams.
Marco van Basten never came but Lee Chapman did, and became the hero; his twelfth goal, at Bournemouth, took Leeds up. But Chappy didn’t make things easy; a debut goal was his only for four games, and when he was substituted after his second start at Elland Road, he was booed off the field.
Che Adams won’t immediately make everything okay either, but his name has been on the fans’ lips for a fortnight, and he quite simply has to come now. After this game Marcelo Bielsa talked obliquely about nervousness everywhere, and it’s rooted in fear of repeating last season. Coming up against another King Canute in a January transfer window would be more than most fans can take: last season it was Swansea’s chairman Huw Jenkins bellowing at the tide to go out and leave Dan James ashore with him; this time it’s Southampton manager Ralph Hasenhüttl blocking the harbour, resisting the insistence of his board and the player himself that Che Adams should grab the life buoy thrown by Leeds.
Whether Leeds would have beaten Wednesday if Adams was here is hypothetical and moot. The point is, Leeds lost the match, and, he isn’t here. One of those facts might be forgiven, but not both together.
Leeds played against Wednesday how they always do, and Wednesday, under Garry Monk, kept up his bizarre unbeatable hex on Bielsa. I’m sure that will be prominent on his CV when he goes for his next job at the edge of the Championship play-offs. It’s hard to know what he or Wednesday have on Leeds; they’re a strange club at the moment, with a league position destined to be struck down by deductions, a stadium mysteriously sold, sponsor logos all over them for businesses that barely exist. Barry Bannan, after his hair transplant, is balding; his team came to Elland Road wearing green, as if agreeing that none of this is real and wanting to blend in with the grass. What was their game plan? I dunno. Be on the pitch and win. They did half that job earlier in the season at Hillsborough and all of it here. Fair play, I suppose, if those words don’t make Monk flinch as if he’s come in late to a conversation about him.
Leeds United’s identity is clear under Bielsa and was clear as ever here. They attacked relentlessly down the wings, creating several first half chances, most for Jackie Harrison: the best a free-kick crossed by Phillips that he should have buried at the back post, the most beautiful when he followed Ben White’s shimmy and pass by cutting in from the left and taking the ball gently past two players before shooting. Bamford also had chances, a tame shot, another shot over the bar from close range; the best executed was a header that went in, but Mateusz Klich had been offside before he crossed.
The usual missed chances, then, and the usual chances offered: set pieces gave Wednesday several excellent opportunities. Then the changes: one responsive, to stop Osaze Urhoghide marauding from right-back, one progressive, Pablo Hernandez coming on when it was clear that Leeds, well-rehearsed as ever, needed someone to improvise. Finally came Jordan Stevens, just because.
It all led to a finish that United dominated in search of a winning goal, which Wednesday found. Stuart Dallas miscontrolled, Atdhe Nuhiu pushed the ball through for Jacob Murphy, and Kiko Casilla himself will have to explain, with contrite diagrams, how he was beaten at his near post. Then Dallas became a passenger through injury but Ben White, too well programmed in how to start a counter attack, tried to pass out of defence to him anyway. Wednesday seized the ball and Bannan orchestrated a goal for Nuhiu.
Defeat was self-inflicted, but it always is. Leeds United’s identity is their success and their downfall, and we ought to be used to it: it hasn’t changed, it won’t change, we just have to hope it’s going to work. Teams don’t change suddenly the way Leeds would have to, to romp the division from here; George Graham’s Leeds were not going to spark into goalscoring life in February 1997, and Bielsa’s Leeds will not become clinical in attack and immune in defence suddenly, simultaneously, in February 2020. They are what they are. Che Adams might help them, but he won’t change them.
Which leaves the club always at odds with itself after losing like this, when the gaps fill with arguments between Bielsa’s belief in a small squad, Victor Orta and Angus Kinnear’s preferred tactics in the transfer market, and fans’ desire for the security of the familiar, like a bench full of strikers and two on the pitch. All that really unites everyone is fear of this season going wrong like the last one; differing ideas about how to prevent that cause conflict.
Even if Leeds sign Che Adams on Monday they will lose other games this season. Elland Road will be like this again before May: the players hurt, physically and emotionally; fans leaving, clouds gathering. We’ll bring on our new striker with twenty minutes to go at 0-0; we’ll score none and make a mistake and concede. There will be no certain solutions or guarantees and no end to fear until and unless promotion is confirmed. This could be our glory season. That doesn’t protect us from the dark along the way. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)