This is football, football as a nightmare, or many nightmares, a sequence of fetid images boiling out of your unconsciousness, dull with the depression of strong alcohol creeping through your blood stream and deadening your brain.
The pictures are disconnected, torn apart and fading in the sun. Pierre-Michel Lasogga waking up on a beach, his head burning, unsure how much time has passed. There was your horoscope this morning: today is a good day to relax with sport and meditation. Your lucky colour is white. Your lucky number is seven. A nightclub with no roof, Elland Road’s north-east corner as its backdrop, did the crowds burn the roof off? Is Roofe playing? And not Saiz? Okay, perhaps we’ve had a drink. Perhaps this isn’t a nightmare. Two pound down on Roofe to score first and Leeds to win. Why isn’t anybody here dancing?
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No, it’s a nightmare alright. Look at Leeds. From a distance the manager sounds like Howard Wilkinson, muffled common sense from another era. But Paul Heckingbottom doesn’t look comfortable in an Elland Road dugout. The players have been assembled using badly translated instructions and are being held together with glue, nails and gaffer tape. The kindest thing now would be to chuck the whole thing in a skip and buy a new sofa. The chairman moved his quarters from the East Stand to the West to be closer to the dugout and changing rooms, his indecisive stare burning a tattoo on Heckingbottom’s neck. Is he thinking, what is he thinking, and is he thinking, what is he thinking?
A game is starting, but never a match; for that, somebody would have to care. We stopped all that long before we fell asleep. Ten in white are playing, while one in green looks on. How many games before Bailey Peacock-Farrell is given a clean sheet? Maybe today. He has a new helper. Luke Ayling, a right-back of sunshine and banter, frolics on the wing, dancing like Ernie Wise. This has been a nightmare, but with Luke here, we can laugh until we wake up. Maybe that’s what doomed us to this wretched ordeal: did we take it all too seriously?
These hapless games we’ve endured, Pablo Hernandez and Samu Saiz losing each other in rainstorms, their flamenco steps sucking up mud, a long walk home without a taxi, forgetting why they even went out in the first place. It had been great when the gang got together, Pablo, Samu, Felix, Lasogga, but they ran out of things to say to each other, and by the end they were only saying things for themselves, saying them where nobody could hear them.
Was it the same day or a different day when Kemar Roofe scored an overhead kick? His leg split the scorching sky, and being a footballer is a dream come true, so why shouldn’t it also be a nightmare? Roofe shouldn’t even be playing, the guy who has never been good enough, but in nightmares you can do anything, even though it will never do any good. So why shouldn’t he score fourteen goals, cursed each time for his temerity? An overhead kick for its own sake is still an overhead kick, but what if we wake up and Roofe is still playing?
What happened was no longer important, because of the endless winter when nothing was happening. When Kalvin Phillips, returning to your nightmares like your favourite teddy bear that was thrown in the bin years ago, struck from the edge of the box, he hit out with bitter loneliness in his rejected paws. He was the only white-clad creature assailing QPR’s goal, intercepting the ball and charging it into the net. Big Kalvin Bear is what happens when you go to sleep. Nightmares are your toys coming alive, flashing eyes and broken springs sticking from their furry, snarling heads. Do not reject him again if you want to sleep peacefully again.
The legends had foretold a stormtank of the old school, who would stand and fire and never need to move, but the legends had not aged well. In his place came a schoolboy, tall and cragged as a cliff, fearsome as a moor-dwelling beast, the hero we need to pull us from our tormented hallucinations. Ryan Edmondson can help us, but first he must frighten us, a sixteen year old boy the size of a six-hundred year old tree. In the end Lasogga was dismayed by his own folklore, but Edmondson played as if he hadn’t even read his. He’ll bully everyone around him into writing the story he wants.
The sooner he starts, the sooner we can hope for the nightmare’s end. The lucky colour was white, the lucky number was seven, the bad luck was to end the game still sleeping. Nightmares are hard to know when you’re inside them, but there are lucid moments that break the shield between you and understanding. The season had minutes left, and the ball became a nightlight, glowing dimmer than the sunshine around it, absorbing joy and ruining it. Ekuban dribbled the ball side to side, and took it into the corner, where it could do no harm but where it could do no good. In this nightmare Leeds United have become petrified of risk, even when there is none, and in their fear of making mistakes they have lost the capacity for making fun. That has left them with only mistakes. Clinging desperately to a two-goal lead with two minutes left of a meaningless game of a meaningless season, those last two minutes were the metaphor that defined the nightmare this season became.
This was football as a nightmare, football drunk on its own neuroses, shattered by its inabilities, weakly submitting to unconsciousness, dull beyond endurance, tattered beyond repair. It’s football as played once the enormous monsters and pocket pixies brought together from folklore have wilted in the world outside story books, and limped away from the hard streets of LS11, their feet sore from dancing on the hard floor of the long-slumbering giant’s concrete chamber. Leeds can win a game, but it can’t win a match. It can’t wake up, and neither can we, and the nightmare will continue, and we’ll never be drunk enough, and we’ll never sober up. Here’s football, at Leeds United. It was not a dream. ◉
(feature image by Lee Brown)
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