There can’t have been many better venues for assessing the magical status of the FA Cup than Elland Road this Saturday, treated to a weekend tie for only the second time in eleven years, and it’s Plymouth. The visiting fans sang, ‘You’re in the same league as Argyle’, taunting that Leeds are not famous anymore, but it wasn’t any more about fame or status than Maidstone United’s miffedness at drawing Ipswich (until they beat them) and now Sheffield Wednesday or Coventry (until they beat them): it’s just hard to get excited about playing a team we’re not bothered about, and were due to play twice already anyway.
The FA Cup should and still could be a thrilling novelty but there’s not much drearier than drawing a divisional rival, especially when that division is the Championship. The 46 league games at this level mix standard EFL slog with the pressure caused by the financial rewards on offer for promotion, and Leeds bring their own dose of big club sickness to create the absurd situation that a lot of people would prefer it if their favourite football team had not been playing football this weekend and were taking next week off.
It’s a state of affairs that should instruct the impresarios who imagine a European Super League is the way to drag the attention of future armchair fans away from TikTok or from playing as digitised versions of their favourite stars instead of watching them play. They think they can get more viewers by making football matter more by bolting on more meaning, like sequins. In fact, making football matter more has been the ruin of fixtures like this, because it has made fans stressed about things that shouldn’t be their problem. Promotion or not will be the difference in millions of pounds pouring or not into the club’s bank account. The extra load of a replay could send our overdrawn players into the ‘red zone’ and put them out, injured, from the already anxious enough league games ahead. There’s only so many profit and sustainability calculations a fan can do, only so much time to spend triangulating individual minutes played, trying to work out if a game is going to be worth playing and if a strong team is going to be worth picking, before sacking it off, picking up a controller, and getting on with the fun stuff instead: booting a ball around, even if only through a vicarious screen. Virtual reality is coming, FIFA my friends, so you might need to think of some ways to make real football less stressy before all your potential customers lose themselves in the relative relaxation of their own first-person risk-free football careers.
In the meantime, down at Elland Road, Leeds United’s game suffered from the 2024 cup squeeze, although almost imperceptibly. There were six changes, but a strong enough team for irregular fans to see some of the current stars in the flesh – Ampadu, Rodon, Rutter – plus some old faves, like Cooper and Gnonto. The last time Leeds played at home in the FA Cup, last year’s third round replay against Cardiff, was the last time Wilf Gnonto scored at Elland Road, starting with his spectacular superbike volley. It’s a sign of how much has changed in the twelve months since that my main memory of Gnonto in this game is of him lying prone in front of the West Stand, felled by a tackle, flat on his back with his ankles together and his arms across his chest, like a boy king lying in state awaiting his grieving public. Instead he had several thousand of his unruly subjects bellowing at him to get up, drowning out the sound of young fans with marker pens crossing ‘Willy’ off their ‘Can I have your shirt…’ signs and scribbling in ‘Jaidon Anthony’ instead.
Gnonto’s lack of spark was the game’s glaring disappointment because the other letdowns were more subtle, in the sense that Leeds actually played well. There’s not much to complain about from getting eight of eighteen shots on target against Plymouth’s two of seven; Anthony hit the post, too, before giving Leeds the lead, and despite the changes United didn’t look much different in the first half. The one thing lacking was the one thing that always seems to be lacking, the ‘brutal’ finishing that Daniel Farke says he wants, a lead taken early then extended. The team had close to its usual spine – Meslier, Rodon, Ampadu, Rutter – but the partnerships were changed from the recent good weeks, so Rodon with Cooper, Ampadu with Gruev, Rutter with Piroe. The wings were their reserve versions, Byram and Anthony, Shackleton and Gnonto. And for forty-five minutes it was all near enough to normal service to think Leeds don’t have to worry too much about squad depth.
It turns, out, unfortunately, that might all just have been Argyle being terrible, because once they stopped being that, things changed. Plymouth’s newish manager, Ian Foster, said that was on him. “I take responsibility for the first half performance,” he said. “Maybe the language I used around our out-of-possession strategy wasn’t clear. We made it clear at half-time and were much better.” I’d love to know how he managed to make ‘don’t give them space’ so confusing before the game, but once he’d enunciated it loudly and spelled it out in simple terms Leeds were soon doing what they did against Norwich on Wednesday night: dropping south out of midfield and looking short of ideas in possession. They really were following the usual script, then, including still creating more dangerous chances than their opponents did, with one vital exception: when Jamie Shackleton was caught upfield, with Ethan Ampadu still in the centre circle instead of dropping to right-back, Plymouth broke on Joe Rodon, switched sides into Sam Byram’s absence, and Adam Randell scored an equaliser.
Rodon looked distraught at full-time, throwing his arms in the air as the whistle blew, but as this echoed his reaction to Argyle’s goal, I wonder if he was more upset about the defending than the thought of spending so much time in the south-west of England in the next three weeks. It was hard not to feel like our promotion rivals Ipswich got the better deal of the weekend – if they can get over the embarrassment and the dented confidence after being beaten at home by sixth tier Maidstone, at least they brought some happiness to Kent and won themselves some time off. At Elland Road, in stoppage time, a Plymouth attack was halted by Liam Cooper’s last ditch block in the penalty area, but his heroics felt a bit unnecessary when so many people would have been more content with a Plymouth win than a draw and a replay.
The worry all feels a bit misplaced. Travelling fans have good reasons to groan, committed to a 600 mile midweek round trip with all the costs of time off work, fuel, wearing down tyres and pistons as an MOT approaches, or placing doubtful faith in kranky cross country trains. That’s as nothing, though, to the concern being expressed about our professional football team’s ability to play so far away so often, when that should actually be the easy part, and should be the thing we welcome most: we love football and we love Leeds, so Leeds playing more football should equal more fun, right? It’s the sport’s problem that not enough people seem to feel that way.
It’s good news, though, if the few facing it cheerfully include Farke and Ampadu. Farke has alluded to Ampadu’s desire to play every game as a consequence of his raising at the same Chelsea farm that kept Pat Bamford in limbo until his mid-twenties: in the last four seasons, Ampadu has had four loans in three countries, notching three relegations. His permanent move to West Yorkshire has given him a permanent place in our team, and he doesn’t want to give it up, no matter how far the travel and how often the games. Born and raised in Exeter, he might even be looking forward to February. “Believe me,” said Farke, “all the players, they’d rather play football games instead of training sessions.”
The FA Cup, Farke said, is “always a chance also to write a chapter of history, even if it’s not the most likely, but it’s always a chance and also for the players.” And, amid the grumbling and sourness about all the stuff that isn’t kicking a ball into a net and being happy, there was one player taking the chance the FA Cup offers to share something magical with the crowd. Perhaps, however long it goes on for this season, United’s FA Cup will be a chapter of great goals, as Bamford’s mustard volley was matched here by Jaidon Anthony, skipping past two players from the wing, keeping the ball stuck to his boots with sure, close touches, beating one more player and shooting into the far corner. He missed a great chance to score against Norwich on Wednesday night, and he’d hit a curling shot off the post already this afternoon, but when you know you know, and his shirt was coming off almost before the ball hit the net, revealing a tribute to his mum he must have been desperate to show since losing her last week. As a winger, spending much of this season waiting in the wings, Anthony must have wondered when this moment might come, so instead of waiting he made it happen with verve and skill and all the things that made him a professional footballer in the first place, the things that must make his family proud to watch him. It was a reminder to everyone watching that, even in the FA Cup, or especially in the FA Cup, every game means something to someone. ⬢
(Photograph by Actionplus, via Alamy)