Even with a 2-0 deficit they kept coming bravely forward, throwing a kitchen sink before them into stoppage time, praying for favours from Hope, always one of Elland Road’s cruellest spirits.
That was December 2018, when impossible late wins over Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers were Leeds United’s consecutive sixth and seventh, inspiring crazy belief that even with seconds remaining the Peacocks would find a way to beat Hull. Put Pontus Jansson up front and everybody except Bailey Peacock-Farrell just a few yards behind him, and why should three goals in ninety seconds feel beyond Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds?
They were beyond them, and the end of that winning run was the start of our disillusion. Yes, we’d had hope. When we came back to the Championship this August, we had to have it again.
Now it’s December 2019 and Leeds have won seven in a row again; they’re also unbeaten in ten and eleven points clear of 3rd place at the top of the division. The desperation to succeed that took Leeds through last Christmas against Villa and Blackburn, and kept them trying to the last second against Hull, has gone, replaced by a fraught excitement that is making 2020 almost too painful to think about. How can it hurt so much to be eleven points clear? How much pain will we feel if we finally get what we want?
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The difference in Leeds United compared to last winter was diagrammed by this game against Hull City. Leeds have been performing nervelessly for a while, with such total trust in their process that at times it has made them inert. They can play and play and play the same and never notice when the clock has run down and the game has gone.
That has been replaced in recent weeks by a more alert opportunism. Leeds still build for Bielsa the way they’ve been taught, but when a chance comes to profit by doing something else, they take it. Late, matchwinning counter attacks at Luton and Reading. A goalkeeper fumbling in the first minutes against Middlesbrough. A half-cleared corner Alioski’d on the volley, with a sucker-punch counter attack to put Huddersfield beyond help. Leeds still struggle sometimes to make the best of their own hard creative work. But if the door is left ajar, they’ll kick it down. Leeds have learned to be pragmatic, clinical and cynical. It means the kitchen sink can stay in the kitchen.
This was an old-fashioned game in some ways. On a dark and stormy winter’s night in Leeds, a cat explored the pitch before kick-off, Hull forced a change of ends, and one of their players took a Helder Costa shot square in his balls. There was a pitch invader and a broken public address system, and it wasn’t hard to imagine buying a Green ‘Un football paper and a full-size Wagon Wheel on the way home.
The throwbacks in United’s play were Costa’s increasingly effective trickery on the wing, Jackie Harrison’s side parting, and Gaetano Berardi’s thundering commitment to defending. Late in the game he rose to head above Hull’s tall striker Tom Eaves, and with his eyes firmly on the ball as he fell, cleared it away from danger with a hefty boot before he’d hit the floor. Anyone who thinks there’s no room for aggression in the sort of tactically intricate beauty Bielsa favours should watch Berardi playing for him, or Pat Bamford walking off the pitch like the leading man coming off set in a war movie, and see the warm crinkles of approval around Marcelo’s eyes.
Tactical intricacy was the thing Leeds were finding hard to finish. Hull were penned in throughout the first half, their nervous goalkeeper George Long switching to kicking long in hope of respite, but Leeds couldn’t get a clear shot at him. Attacking wide, Leeds pushed Hull’s dangerous wingers Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosicki into the full-back positions, but crossed when they should pull-back and pulled-back when they should have crossed. Even when missing their target Leeds would win the ball on the other side to try again, but the relentless attacking, while tiring Hull, might also have cheered them by coming to nothing by half-time.
Hull had more confidence in the second half and Bowen had more play; he roamed away from Stuart Dallas’ marking on the wing and made problems in other places. He put Eaves through on goal and Casilla had to throw up a strong hand to block his shot; Leonardo Lopes had to be tackled when he burst into the box. There was a sign of what was coming when, in the midst of ten minutes of Hull pressure, Costa started a move by passing to Pablo Hernandez and finished it by meeting Jackie Harrison’s cross, but the goal was ruled offside.
Hull were more confident and Long was back to playing short at the back, and nerves around Elland Road were increasing. It’s hard to say how many in the crowd knew Fulham were trailing to Preston North End, but even in December the chance of opening up a large lead at the top of the table was creating a similar pressure to that which crushed United’s hopes last season. But as the crowd pleaded for Leeds to get the ball away from Hull, Hernandez took it, and showed why we can save our money when bids are being made for Bowen in January. He curved a pass outside Hull’s defence and into Costa’s path; his pace did most of the rest, Jordy De Wijs’ deflection putting his cross in, off Long.
As against Huddersfield the best defence in Europe now had a lead to defend, with Casilla behind bellowing “No goal! No goal!” as they lined up to face a free-kick. Casilla has been playing as if determined to settle United’s promotion before his possible ban for using racist language begins, and put action behind his authoritative shouting with another strong one-handed save when a corner was headed at him on the goal line. Bamford helped the ball away to Kalvin Phillips, deep in United’s penalty area, and Leeds had their opportunity.
Phillips passed forward to Klich and the pitch opened up before him. All night Leeds were defending set-pieces with eleven behind the ball, but by the time Klich reached Hull’s penalty area, he could pick Costa or Bamford, running from one goal line to the other, for his cross. The ball went low to Bamford, who shot against the post and clattered into Long as the ball span to Ezgjan Alioski, who shot safely into the empty net.
The aftermath was a tale of two keepers. At one end the Leeds players celebrated with Casilla; at the other Long lay prone where Bamford had left him, needing lengthy treatment. Hull’s players were angry, and captain Eric Lichaj accused Bamford of trying to hurt their keeper on purpose — replays show he wasn’t even looking at Long when the keeper scrambled into his path. But nobody from Leeds cared. Unfeeling? Tell it to our FIFA Fair Play award.
What we are feeling is dizzy. Fulham’s defeat was unexpected, and after the game we looked at the league table as if seeing it properly for the first time. Leeds United in 1st place. Secure in the automatic promotion places by eleven points. In early December. I said of last season’s commanding position that it was going to be fascinating to see how Leeds messed it up and, well, I was right. This season?
Last season when we lost to Hull at Elland Road I wrote that Marcelo Bielsa was moving us beyond hope. Garry Monk gave us hope, Thomas Christiansen gave us hope. Last season, ultimately, all Bielsa gave us was hope. But hope and faith are different, and this winter is showing that Leeds have learned that. Hope is when you’re 2-0 down in stoppage time but still trying to win; or watching Izzy Brown lining up a direct free-kick against Derby and imagining it won’t go into the Kop. Faith is what we’ve got to have in Leeds United’s promotion chances in 2020. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)