For the first time this season Leeds have racked up four wins in a row, with just one goal conceded in those games. Pat Bamford has scored three in them, and so has Dan James, with two assists too; Junior Firpo has made four. With the help of playing this rearranged game, the gap to 2nd is just two points. And Joe Rodon has a song.
The song might be the most significant part of beating Norwich City this Wednesday night. As a game, and as a victory, and most of all as part of a march to promotion, it didn’t quite satisfy. Leeds got a vital and brilliant goal right on time, after quarter of an hour, a whipping James cross put properly into the net’s corner by Bamford’s head. And after that, Leeds got bogged down by some of the most frustrating elements of Daniel Farke’s football, as we’ve seen it so far: if you want to show someone how Leeds have been playing this season, the good and bad, give them a video of this game.
For fifteen minutes after half-time, perhaps after our fave knows-he’s-Leeds-dogg on the Norwich bench, Andrew Hughes, gave their players a bollocking to rival the one he’d given the fourth official, the Canaries kept the ball. Anxiety grew around Elland Road, although this period showed the gap between the two teams: Leeds didn’t have the ball but weren’t giving up chances, while Norwich did have the ball and were giving up chances, as if they were trying to roleplay Jermaine Beckford’s winner against them from 2009. Either side of that, the Peacocks flipped between their own slow keep-ball, and the roof-raising tricks of Georginio Rutter, caught again between their desire for a goal, or a second one, and their inability to just bloody score. In one haunting moment in the second half, our all-new prolific Bamford was replaced by the exasperating Champo Bambo of 2019, flinging his left leg at a cross and sending the ball spiralling wide, when his right leg was the right leg if he’d wanted to score.
That Pat throwback was appropriate to the mood around him. The Elland Road atmosphere has been odd this season, and as the second half became more difficult and the crowd became more roused, we heard the songs of United’s current heroes of choice: Pablo Hernandez, Gaetano Berardi, Mateusz Klich. Last week, after Luke Ayling left, the full ‘Luke Ayling and Berardi, Pontus Jansson, Kyle Bartley’ got an airing; a while back the South Stand broke into song about Samu Saiz. People often wonder what a player has to do to earn a song at Leeds United, and at the moment it seems like the answer is: leave.
It must be weird for the current side to play to that accompaniment, but I think it’s more about last season than this one. 2022/23 was a whirlwind demolition job – Aaronson, Kristensen, Roca, Adams, Sinisterra, Wöber and McKennie all came, got us relegated, and left. Liam Cooper’s forlorn screaming at the end of the last game – yelling in the dressing room that anyone who didn’t want to be there could fuck off – was as much him wishing that bunch of bastards had never darkened his dressing room door in the first place. It’s hard, after that, to keep trusting, and Elland Road has been refusing to rush to love.
This month might be changing that, contrasting bitter Christmas. Those old songs for old players are safe songs because the folklore is finished and we know what those players mean to us, while we’re still working things out about the team on the pitch, much as the team seems to be working things out about itself. The best part of this match with Norwich came about because of all the worst parts that I listed above, so that instead of getting one of the champagne football exhibitions Farke loves to see, we had a team making us suffer from watching them suffer, and by suffering with them, we came to love them.
To put it a simpler way, if this game had been 2-0 by half-time with maybe a third soon to settle things down, it would have been boring. Instead, we got tension, and heroics. And songs. When Jaidon Anthony slipped from our own short corner and Norwich attacked, they were chased through midfield, unstoppable, and it was only Archie Gray’s brilliance that blocked their equaliser. His name, and that of his wonderful family, was sung loud. Through minute after minute of stoppage time Angus Gunn, the Norwich goalie, was up front for set-piece after set-piece, and this went as follows: a free-kick was headed away by Joe Rodon, a long throw was headed away by Joe Rodon, another free-kick was headed away by Joe Rodon. It’s taken 26 games, but as Rodon limped exhausted down the tunnel after full-time and a lap of the pitch, Ethan Ampadu was bouncing around him, pointing to him, delighted that the South Stand were singing Rodon’s name.
That limp tells another part of this season’s story, though, and about where the wariness comes from. Dan James, after a first half when yet again his reward for an assist was getting smashed off the ball by the opposition, went off injured at half-time. Archie Gray was subbed near the end with what Farke says is hopefully, optimistically, not serious ligament damage. In 61 days since kick-off at Rotherham, Leeds have played fourteen times, eight of them in the last month, and after the bruising match with Preston on Sunday became an attritional second half against Norwich on Wednesday, Farke’s approach was to make fewer substitutions than he normally does. The same players have started the last three games, in eleven days, getting kicked progressively harder, their playing time growing longer.
Perhaps the FA Cup match with Plymouth on Saturday is Farke’s marker, allowing him to keep playing his first eleven in these games before a break at the weekend – well, probably not for Ampadu, but the others. But like the boredom that can creep in when Leeds are feeling uncreative, like the reliance on individuals to make magic, like the reversion to counter-attacking when Leeds have the lead, Farke’s apparent slowness to tactical changes and his flogging of the squad keep making it difficult to completely buy in to what Leeds are doing. There’s a nagging doubt, that’s audible at Elland Road, about whether all this is actually going to work, and it’s holding the crowd back from minting new heroes. We need to know, first, if our doubts are real: if Junior Firpo is real.
But, meanwhile, Farke keeps calmly explaining that he knows how to win this division, and the team keeps winning difficult games, and discarded players – Bamford, Firpo, James – keep playing better, and the gap to 2nd gradually gets smaller. And Joe Rodon puts his body on the line, showing there’s no question in his mind about what Leeds United are doing, and then the songs start. ⬢