You’re supposed to play the game, not the occasion, but what am I supposed to write about? The disco on the Lowfields? The South Stand waving their brilliant fan-made flags on poles? The free booze, and the novelty of pie vouchers without strings? The people clutching special shirts in boxes, others hunting for programmes — and fanzines — like gold dust? The Birmingham City fans, remembering the 1980s by fighting with stewards at the end?
What about the pre-match tributes to former players? All-time greats of world football like Eddie Gray and Norman Hunter, and well chosen favourites like Brendan Ormsby and Peter Haddock. To remember an assembly of talent like it on the pitch at Elland Road we have to go back to 2011, when the tragic loss of Gary Speed brought David Batty, Gary McAllister and Gordon Strachan together in the centre circle. It was fortunate and wonderful now to see so many players together, on the pitch and in each other’s company, summed up when Howard Wilkinson and Jermaine Beckford left the pitch with their arms around each other, savouring together every drop of the atmosphere they experienced so deeply, separately, in different parts of our history.
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I can also talk about the names on the back of the tracksuits worn by the day’s starting eleven as they waved to the East Stand, imitating the 1974 title-winning team, while fans held up cards to form a tifo and fireworks exploded along the side of the pitch. Just as the fans on the Kop waving their banners for the champions in 1974 didn’t know a camera was capturing the moment, creating one of the most iconic images in 100 years of football in Leeds, so the crowd behind the cardboard didn’t realise what part they were playing until Twitter hosted a post-match reveal of the modern tribute to 1974 the moment had created. I’m not sure anyone in the stadium realised how perfectly choreographed the crowd, players, pyro and camera were at the time, except perhaps Marcelo Bielsa, his eyes used to discerning patterns at pitch level.
It was Bielsa’s job to ensure that his modern side lived up to all the above and more, by starting the Peacocks’ second century with three league points. The players had to concentrate too. Kalvin Phillips said after the game he’d made up for being too ill to attend the legends’ gala by getting a picture with Lucas Radebe in a hotel; he must have found it hard to resist letting his pre-match warm-up take him near enough to Rod Wallace for a sly selfie. Phillips’ interests were being looked after, though, and he left Elland Road with an Instagram life-story full of memories and a place in history given to him, said Bielsa, by God. He scored the only goal, so Leeds got the three points, and the people hidden on the West Stand roof could fire their glitter-cannons at full-time after all.
“Sometimes God puts things in the right place,” said Bielsa. “Phillips has continued playing here in the club and now he will stay in the history of the club for this goal. It’s a fair act from God.”
It was only fitting that those fire ‘n’ glitter folks, having conquered fear of heights in their work, should have encountered the vertigo that grips Elland Road near the end of every game: nervous tension is as much a part of Leeds United’s history as 7-0 wins and dancing around Southampton. Ezgjan Alioski tried to stage his own tribute to the backheels and flicks of 1972 with his own trick in the penalty area two minutes from the end, but one leg thought it was Giles, the other thought it was Bremner, and with Leeds defending a 1-0 lead, the fans were torn between laughing and crying.
True to recent form, this was yet another game when Leeds seemed so dedicated to not scoring goals that I wondered if they’ve been making their own tribute to teams of the past. George Graham’s side from 1996/97, perhaps, although they weren’t even trying; perhaps Don Revie’s team before he signed Jones and Clarke, back when Johnny Giles was top scorer. Maybe the 1950s in the Second Division, when Leeds didn’t score if John Charles wasn’t up front, and always conceded if he wasn’t at the back; although at Thursday’s gala night goalkeeper Royden Wood, United’s oldest living player at 89 years old last week, was asked if Charles was any good. “Well, he was okay,” he smiled, before reminiscing about the post-game bollockings he’d had to give young Charles while he was still learning his trade. You could understand why King John was always humble.
What Leeds United are trying to do this season is create history of their own, although most fans would prefer them to go into the record books for winning the league, rather than Saturday’s multi-shot trick miss being replayed for years. A long pass by Jack Harrison dropped over Pat Bamford’s right shoulder and the ball bounced, ready to be kicked, and that was the first problem; I think I have more confidence when swinging my standing leg than professional footballer Pat Bamford has about his right peg. Just try Patrick, please just be brave and try!
Instead he backheeled to Helder Costa, whose shot was blocked. The ball bounced to Stuart Dallas who could have shot; instead he passed to Mateusz Klich. Klich was inside the area and could have turned and shot; instead he bounced the ball back into Dallas’ path. Dallas shot, but it was saved — Bamford was closing in for the rebound, but the ball was cleared. It was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters teeing up trick shots and missing on purpose because they didn’t want the ball to go out of play and the fun to end. But the fun won’t come this season if they don’t start putting the ball in the net.
Leeds United definitely did want to score, and in the first half they deserved to. The pre-game rockets and songs seemed to inspire them, for Leeds were at their relentless best; Norman Hunter and Eddie Gray both said last week that they used to look at the players in white shirts around them and feel like they couldn’t lose, and similar confidence was being put to use by the modern team by fully expressing all that Bielsa has taught them. I kept checking the clock and attacks were coming once a minute like clockwork; Birmingham’s players looked seasick. Leeds pressed in packs, demanding the ball back high up the pitch, and only our finishing was missing. Or rewrite that: our only finishing is missing.
Eddie Nketiah was brought on for Pat Bamford at half-time, suggesting Bielsa sees them neck-and-neck as starting nines and was giving them a half each, and you can’t say fairer than that when it comes to recall clauses. But the substitution wasn’t enough to overcome the familiar frustration that had set in when half-time arrived without a goal; the big chance had come just a bit before then and seemed to change United’s mood. Pep Clotet also changed his side’s mood, by finding eleven players to fill the ghostly Leeds-away tribute kit that had been floating on the first half grass.
There was more to the changes in the second half than a simple case of Nketiah not holding the ball in attack as well as Bamford, but that was part of it; Eddie might be the better finisher, but Leeds couldn’t get out of their own half for long enough to give him something to finish. Tyler Roberts replaced Mateusz Klich and became the player to take the ball over halfway and pass it through for Nketiah’s runs, and for a few optimistic moments I wondered if, in Roberts’ lively brain and fragile body, we see the replacement we’ve been wanting for Samu Saiz.
But without Klich and Bamford to battle in Birmingham’s half, Birmingham found space in midfield, from where central midfielder for the day Stuart Dallas was moving wide right so Luke Ayling could join in as a centre-back, leaving Phillips no option but to retreat into the back line himself as standing in midfield on his own wasn’t working. Barry Douglas came on too, and perhaps this sixy-back line-up was another roleplay of the Peacocks’ history: defending in numbers with bodies on the line and last ditch blocks flying, running the clock down with help from ball boys and the South Stand. Jack Charlton once gave the South Stand hell for keeping the ball in the 1960s; Kiko Casilla seemed fine with it. Game management has looked like a problem this season. It still does. But there Casilla went at full-time, strutting off with another clean sheet.
And there went Kalvin Phillips, matchwinner and local hero. There seems to be a new bid for the Wortley Pirlo’s birthright from up the hill in Bramley, and perhaps that will only be sorted out when the decisions are made about where to place the statue and the heritage trail. For now, Phillips made history with his own iconic replay, helped by Jack Harrison as Bradley Johnson, seizing on Birmingham’s defensive mistake then charging into the box; his cross wasn’t deflected and the ball was a little further out, but Phillips’ falling, scruffy, determined finish was redolent of Jermaine Beckford against Bristol Rovers, and celebrated almost as chaotically in the south-west corner.
The crowning moment came when Phillips finally emerged from beneath the scrum of his excited teammates, and Luke Ayling, with both hands, shoved him almost over. It was if he had to bruise Kalvin to know this wasn’t all a dream. The season will need more than this to make all our dreams come true, but it was quite enough for one day. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)