The sun was shining on Leeds and it was dangerous. Everywhere were sunspecs, bare arms and optimism, and the packed FanZone behind the north-east corner of Elland Road had the feel of a well attended pre-season friendly, everyone there because they’re looking forward to something, yet to discover all the reasons why they should have never been optimistic and then drift away. Even the pitch looked resplendent, as if it had been freshly rolled through summer. Perhaps there’s something about Marcelo Bielsa’s football that smooths grass and fertilises soil.
Like the opposition in a pre-season game, Wigan Athletic were almost irrelevant. Their team was named to a general lack of interest, as it was interrupting TV coverage of Sheffield United’s game against Nottingham Forest. A referee from Huddersfield gave Sheffield all the help they didn’t get against Millwall last week, leaving Forest down to ten men and chasing a deficit the way Sam Byram, their right-back, was chasing his lost youth. The result, 2-0 to Sheffield United, was unfortunate but expected. Leeds fans still had high expectations of their day.
Nothing much was expected from Wigan; 21st in the Championship, they had only won one league game away, and that was last August. They’d taken an early lead against Leeds at the DW Stadium in November, but three points to the Peacocks were soon sorted out; Wigan had recently surprised a few others in their home games, beating Aston Villa 3-0, drawing with Middlesbrough, Brentford and Norwich. At Elland Road, though? No. Not after the way Leeds beat Sheffield Wednesday, almost a perfect performance, six days earlier.
And surely not with ten players. Cedric Kipre’s red card looked harsh; sliding at the back post, Luke Ayling sent Jack Harrison’s cross bouncing back in the direction it came from, where Pat Bamford blasted it back towards Ayling, along a path that might have been parallel to the goal line rather than over it and into the net. Kipre dived in front of his keeper, diverted the ball with his upper body somewhere, and the referee gave a penalty and sent him off. Wigan had conceded 42 goals away from home. They didn’t need to see one of their centre-halves gone after less than fifteen minutes.
They didn’t concede from the penalty; Christian Walton dived a long way to his left and tipped Pablo Hernandez’s shot onto the post. That was strike two for the wayward, Bamford’s shot and Pablo’s pen, but within ninety seconds Bamford had scored the harder way, that to him seems to be the easier way. Running from defence, Mateusz Klich passed to Ayling on the right touchline, and his low cross was a bit ahead of Bamford but not beyond his control. Bamford bounced the ball around Chey Dunkley, who moved as slowly as the registrar who had to record baby Chey’s full name — Cheyenne Armani Keanu Roma Dunkley — and could do nothing to stop Patrick James Bamford from shooting neat and low beneath Walton into the far corner.
I had been wary of that pre-match optimism because it never normally ends well for Leeds, but this was great; less than twenty minutes gone, a player up against the team with the worst away record in the league, and leading 1-0 for the 21st time, after winning each of the previous twenty times. I like to think I’m as cynically weathered as any other Leeds supporter — I’d noted gravely that Wigan made us change ends at kick-off, just as Sheffield Wednesday had, meaning that not only were Leeds playing the wrong way but Luke Ayling had lost two consecutive coin tosses — but we’d beaten Wednesday and now, surely, we were beating these.
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But after twenty minutes I heard, “We’re second best today!” and I couldn’t disagree with the speaker. One of the privileges of watching Leeds United from the press gantry this season has been watching games near to Norman Hunter. One of the thrills is feeling the tap on my shoulder that I felt today before kick-off, and getting a smile and a handshake from one of the greatest footballers ever. (Earlier in the season I stood through a game so he could have a seat, and we’ve been on good terms ever since.) He’s there every game, and has been for years and years, giving himself the best view available to kick every ball and groan at every error. Just try counting the kicks and errors he must have seen since arriving at the club as a schoolboy in 1958.
“We’re second best today!” said Norman, to everybody and nobody; he sits apart, as if wanting his own space, and I’ve given some thought to quoting him here for that reason. But as the game gets a grip on him he turns to people around him to share it with, so when I heard that, “We’re second best today!”, after just twenty minutes, then saw Norman Hunter looking at me glumly, shaking his head and raising his eyebrows, I knew something was up. Norman Hunter can read a game, and he was reading this one to me.
The Leeds players were reacting to their advantages the way fans often react when optimism is rewarded: in a sort of giddy panic. Gaetano Berardi tried a no-look backpass to Kiko Casilla that had players scrambling to stop Wigan from scoring, ending with Berardi and Casilla in a tight apologetic embrace. Leeds were sending crosses in from the right, but the final ball wasn’t good enough; on the left Harrison brought back memories of Luke Murphy and Mirco Antenucci, yelling at Ezgjan Alioski, “Run!” Hernandez took a free-kick from a dangerous position in Wigan’s corner, but pulled one out of Gianni Vio’s old playbook, needlessly complex and doomed. Mateusz Klich tried to dummy in the box as if he could surprise the ball through to Bamford; he ended the half arguing with Hernandez about who should have taken a shot from the edge of the area.
By that time it was 1-1. Taking a short pass from Casilla, Berardi forgot his reprogramming and boomed a long ball towards the ghost of Mathieu Smith. Wigan were real enough, and sensing Leeds weren’t set, went tearing towards Alioski; he bounced off Gavin Massey and was left floundering on the lush grass, while Massey didn’t even take a touch on the pass before lashing the ball inside Casilla’s near post.
Bielsa’s reaction at half-time was extreme and the results were dire. Tyler Roberts was taken off, replaced at number ten by Kemar Roofe; Kalvin Phillips was replaced by Adam Forshaw. I wonder if Bielsa expected that, with any away point vital for Wigan’s chances of avoiding relegation, their manager Paul Cook would replace one of his two strikers with a third centre-half, so Phillips wouldn’t be needed in defence, and Roofe could be useful in attack. It didn’t work out that way. Even with ten players, Cook was as faithful to his pre-match plan as Bielsa is to his. Leeds don’t play well against two strikers, especially without Liam Cooper; Berardi and Pontus Jansson weren’t playing well against these two. So whatever was happening behind them, that’s what Wigan were sticking with.
On the hour, they scored again, Massey again; Forshaw was no contest when Leon Clarke rose for a high ball at the back post, and his header went past Berardi and reached Massey before Jansson could get near. Three defenders and a goalkeeper couldn’t keep Wigan out. Second best.
Leeds weren’t just second best after half-time. They were awful, and dominant. There was no composure and no relief. Leeds were on a treadmill that started with possession, then moved through attacking, crossing, trying to pass in a six-square-yard space on the edge of the box, shooting badly, losing the ball, getting it back, then recycling: possession, attacking, crossing, etc. Klich’s dummy in the first half was annoying; by the time Jansson was doing it, twice, trying to get the ball to Roofe, I’d had enough. One of my notes from the second half reads ‘Patrick Bamford — backheel in box — I’ll kill him’, which sounds a bit extreme now I read it back, but captures my frustration.
Everyone was frustrated. United’s insistence on intricately passing their way into Wigan’s six yard box was confusing because they were struggling all day to find each other with simple passes. That Bamford shot for the penalty that was probably going wide, and Hernandez’s penalty onto the post, and Ayling’s assist that Bamford had to stretch for, were all signs that even when it had been working, it had been only just. It hadn’t taken long to stop working, but Leeds kept trying to kickstart their dead motor anyway. Hernandez kept prodding and poking, trying to get at something he couldn’t have that normally came to him so easily; Alioski broke down entirely, bringing the anger of the stadium upon his head in stoppage time when he overhit a pass beyond Harrison. Alioski wasn’t the only one, but he’s the one who always makes it obvious.
59 crosses. 36 shots. Ten on target. Fourteen blocked. Walton made eight saves; Casilla made none. There were a couple of good saves in Walton’s repertoire but only one of United’s 36 efforts was convincing, and that’s the one Bamford scored. Leeds were terrible. They attacked relentlessly and badly. “Destiny gave us a hand,” said Bielsa, “a red card for the opponent, a penalty we missed, 15 chances to score.” But there was no luck. You’d think one more of those 36 shots might have squirmed over the line somehow, one of those 59 crosses might have deflected in? Perhaps we needed a shot to hit a divot and catch the keeper out, but the pitch was too perfect for that.
The day was too perfect to end like it did, but Leeds were second best, today. Second best in the league, in the end, would be enough for promotion; but second best behind Sheffield United will not. That gap is now four goals in Sheffield United’s favour, and while the disappointment of losing to Wigan is massive, the gap to 2nd place is not. Few people expect Sheffield United to drop points in their final three games; few expected them to drop two points against Millwall last week. Nobody expected Wigan to beat Leeds, but here we are.
“I’m very sad,” said Bielsa, “but I’m very motivated … The only relief we can get is to get promoted. What we’ve done so far is not enough.” That would have been true regardless of this result; after Sheffield United beat Forest, beating Wigan wouldn’t have been enough. Beating Brentford and Aston Villa might not have been enough, and might not be enough, if Sheffield United keep winning. But even if I don’t know as much as Norman Hunter, if I do know anything about Leeds United, optimism, fate and the Second bastard Division, I believe this promotion race is going to the last game. Which, after this game, does not feel like great news. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)