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Leeds United 2-1 Preston North End: 101 minutes in the Champo

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Joel Piroe gets ready to take the penalty against Preston, while Pat Bamford looks on in the background

EFL Championship football at noon on a stormy Sunday in January is a hard sell, even more when it looks like this game did for most of its 101 minutes of play.

How much play there was, or was allowed, is something to enquire about in Preston, whose players did what they could to stop the football game by keeping the ball out of play, or fouling Leeds United’s players. And we could side-eye both teams about the quality of the play that developed between the stoppages. Then there was the referee, David Webb, using the match to define himself in the crowd’s eyes as an idiot. The game wasn’t thrill-packed, and there wasn’t great football to make up for the lack of incidents. But, in the end, that idiot ref and this stupid league division were a blessing.

The game started brightly, if that’s the right word for Leeds giving up possession and a foul in the first twenty seconds and conceding from a sloppy set-piece 45 seconds later, failing to clear Preston’s looping header and pair of miskicks before Will Keane finished from a couple of yards. That not very bright goal was very Preston North End, and the equaliser five minutes later was very Leeds United, in that it was much better, made rather than taken. Ilia Gruev tucked in and out of an opponent in midfield, opening up a big part of pitch for him to run into. He passed to Crysencio Summerville, whose ball to the byline was either a bit overhit or the perfect weight, or both, for Junior Firpo to clip it, first time, to the back post, where Dan James headed in.

Firpo didn’t bother too much with the celebrations, preferring to grab the ball from the net and get the game restarted as if this was a stoppage time equaliser and there were moments left for the win. But that urgency disappeared as the game slipped into the gear it was probably heading for without all this early excitement. Leeds had the ball, veering towards 80 per cent possession in one ten minute spell, but all the chances they made were nearly or not quite. This was the usual thing, of Summerville or Georginio Rutter trying to toothpick the lock of a rusted old safe, but with an added frustration now that Pat Bamford is in the team of ignoring Archie Gray, James and Firpo in space out wide, from where they each put in one dynamite-laden cross that made me wish they could do that again. That said, Rutter hit the post after Summerville dribbled up the goaline and cut the ball into the six yard box, so what do I know.

Preston, meanwhile, shrugging off those five minutes when they had three points in their grasp as if they’d happened to some other team in some other game, reverted to late fouls and rugby, well, fouls, while ref Webb meandered between incidents giving a free-kick for that but not this, a yellow card here or not there. One of two moments when Preston seemed to be the only people unaware that Dan James can run really fast included their goalie handling outside his area was all fine, apparently. That goalkeeper, by the way, Dai Cornell, wasn’t playing in our game at Deepdale the other week and was so generally bad he seemed to be dragging his team down around him.

The chief villain of Deepdale, Milutin Osmajić, was also absent, presumably still recovering from the bruising effects of feeling Illan Meslier’s glove on his chin in that game. Preston played in his spirit. When substitute Robbie Brady pushed Gray into the advertising hoardings in front of the Kop with ten minutes left, it was Preston’s latest bid for trying to goad another Leeds player into doing what Meslier did; when Ryan Ledson hacked down Gruev a few moments later, they nearly got their wish, as Joe Rodon led a good ol’ brawl in the centre circle. Bless David Webb, who picked on Bamford for a booking, presumably because he’s seen him on the telly or something.

Preston ended up getting the reaction they didn’t want, as Leeds became frantic for justice and David Webb found his eyesight and his backbone, giving a stoppage time penalty for Ledson’s handball. All this was the best part of the game, and the best part of being in the Championship. There’s an obvious contrast to the Premier League due to the absence of VAR, but that goes beyond the penalty and encompasses the general incompetence of Webb and Preston’s whole approach. Simply, you do not get games like this in the Premier League. In the top flight, video evidence could have made the case that three or four Preston players should have got red cards, but the price would have been minute after minute of standing around waiting while remote refs watch incidents over and over in slow motion, before telling the pitch-ref to watch it over and over again in slow motion. Frustration builds, in these situations, but anger dissipates. And it’s boring. And it denies the players the opportunity that Leeds United’s players revelled in at the end of two games of being kicked around by Preston – of sorting it out themselves.

And taken altogether, knowing every camera frame could be scrutinised from every angle against their interests, Preston would not have tried to play this way in the Premier League, which might have allowed for more football, but given how both teams were playing, what good would that have been? Would I want the time Cornell spent taking goalkicks back, just so Leeds could spend more time passing without purpose outside Preston’s penalty area? What I got instead was much better – anticipation growing of great things coming if Leeds could somehow find a winner, six minutes of stoppage time as reward for getting through the first ninety, and the sort of chaotic fun that can only happen off-replay, so much happening it’s impossible to take in. It was a joy that this game was in the Champo, because even if it was a bit dull, the game could still save itself.

At one point, with a minute left, Alan Browne seemed to be strangling Ethan Ampadu on the floor. That probably shouldn’t have been happening, but I was delighted while nobody was stopping it. Rodon, after wading in against Ledson, celebrated the winner by sprinting to the bench, then limping back to his penalty area, then outpacing a Preston player and winning a goalkick, then roaring at the South Stand, and just generally storming about the place as if on a five minute vendetta against the concept and history of Preston North End Football Club. It’s not like elite level football, where well-groomed athletes whisper their feelings into hiding with hands coyly placed over their mouths. It’s loads better.

About that decisive penalty. Well done Webb, because without a replay, he called it right. Preston really can’t complain when the handball was so obvious even this dullard spotted it. And well done Pat Bamford, because if that goal against Peterborough is the best thing he’s ever done in a Leeds shirt, his contribution here is up there with it. Daniel Farke and his coaching staff were in a state of conniption while Bamford hovered around the spot with the ball in his hand, chatting to North End’s keeper; they waved frantically, pointing at Joel Piroe, sending Rodon running to two-foot Bamford away from the ball if he had to. He didn’t have to. By the time he’d got to the eighteen yard box, Bamford was handing it over, and it looked like his plan all along. Farke and co just looked relieved.

Sticking to that plan can not have been easy for Bamford, not helped when a large number of the 36,000 there cheered the sight of him not taking it. This was not kind! And perhaps not the best way to help with the complicated question of Pat Bamford’s confidence. At Stoke earlier this season, and against Newcastle last season, Bamford was the MC Escher of penalty taking. You don’t want him to take a pen, but you don’t want anybody to tell him they don’t believe in him taking it, and you don’t want Pat to lack the belief in himself to take it, but you don’t want his confidence to suffer if he misses it, so what do you do? You watch him put the ball down on the spot, or more likely, you don’t watch, getting your head ready in your hands before hearing the groans around you. The only way out of this maze has ever been through Bamford himself, but at Stoke in particular, he responded by putting more weight on himself, trying to speed up his resurrection with a long-awaited goal. Perhaps that cracker in the cup has settled him, or the less elegant but just as welcome goals either side, but giving this pen to Piroe and celebrating with him as wildly as if he’d scored himself was what I wished he’d recognised at Stoke – that he doesn’t have to be the main man to be a hero. Maybe he needed those recent reminders of what heroics feel like to have the ease of mind to play his part here. I hope he enjoyed it, anyway. ⬢

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