A Valentine’s fun fair occupied the car parks around the ground, as gaudy as the Premier League on the horizon. While happy couples whirled merrily together beneath the stars on the bright wheels of love, inside Elland Road United’s lovelorn fans stared at the pitch as intensely as at those blue ticks of delivery, reading between the lines of every Luke Ayling pass for hidden requital. After fourteen years outside the Premier League, would the 14th February find Leeds on top of the world, or have we misinterpreted this season’s intentions yet again, destined for an empty doormat and a heavy heart come May?
The build up to this game was nervous, because Leeds United fans aren’t sure whether their team has not been getting the results it deserves lately, or whether it has, which would be worse. Swansea City arrived from mid-table, discomfited by their own boardroom, their talismanic striker only fit for the bench, their nearly-Leeds winger playing from the start, as manager Graham Potter’s hints about protecting Daniel James turned out to be a reverse Bielsa. There wasn’t much in all that to bother Leeds United, but Leeds United don’t always work like that.
This time they did. From the outset they pushed Swansea City to the margins and got on with winning the game, with some of the firmest shoving for Daniel James. The last time he visited Elland Road he wore a Leeds shirt, told LUTV how happy he was to be joining the club, sat around for a few hours, and went home. On the pitch at last in a Swansea shirt, United’s players set about demonstrating how much work he’ll have to do if he wants to join their gang. Pontus Jansson was first, with two strong tackles and a consolatory high-five; as the Leeds fans sang ‘He wants to be Leeds,’ Luke Ayling followed him up the pitch, laughing in his ear. A chance to shoot was firmly blocked by Kalvin Phillips on the edge of the area; another block by Liam Cooper left him on the floor, now hearing, ‘You’re too soft to play for Leeds’. That might be true; Pablo Hernandez tackled him deep in Swansea’s half, and when James tried to get revenge, Pablo executed a matador’s sidestep that left James stumbling at his feet. Apprentice, meet the master.
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James’ performance matched that of Swansea’s; there were flashes of opportunity, but they were never allowed to play. Leeds commanded the game from the start, with so much control that Elland Road was singing about being Champions of Europe within ten minutes. United’s confidence could be seen when Ezgjan Alioski, of all people, started wagging his finger at Connor Roberts for diving; Kemar Roofe chested a pass to Mateusz Klich, who fired a cross back to Roofe, trying to set him up for the volley of the season. Leeds were winning tackles as early as they could, and that meant Pat Bamford winning possession inside Swansea’s penalty area, bringing their defenders rushing back to stop him.
The magic touch of the early part of the season, when Leeds used to capitalise on this sort of pressure and score, has eluded Leeds lately, but not this night. Before twenty minutes were up, a Leeds corner was cleared to Alioski, whose shot was blocked but ricocheted into the box. Space opened around Jansson, who span and shot past Erwin Mulder then ran to celebrate his goal and birthday with the South Stand and, you know, just being alive.
Jansson celebrated the second with Luke Ayling. His long pass from the right started it; Alioski crossed it; and Jack Harrison glanced it, a header that left Mulder dumbfounded, and Jansson running to Ayling while the rest of the team made for the scorer. Ayling’s name had been sung pre-match, the correct way to deal with a good player out of form, and was sung again at 2-0 up, although the cross and the header, from two more maligned players, were worth singing about too.
Ayling, Harrison and Alioski all played well, the last proving his worth to the team by using his energy to appear as a last-ditch centre-half should Cooper, Jansson and Phillips need help. That wasn’t often required. Phillips in central defence and Adam Forshaw in defensive midfield have been interesting experiments, but the results are conclusive; with these three in their right places in the right form, Leeds have the security to let their forwards play.
Phillips’ performance in particular came from somewhere beyond our highest hopes. He’s been rising to Marcelo Bielsa’s instructions all season, but this was the game when he matched his manager’s expectations, which are even higher than our hopes. I can’t remember him ever playing better, or with more confidence; a defender between him and Alioski was no problem, as Phillips would ping the ball within an inch of their feet, swerving it towards his teammate. An opponent running towards him was no problem either, as Phillips patrolled between halfway and the penalty area with interceptions, blocks, headers, tackles, and in one case, a fine old-fashioned shoulder barge that the referee allowed. It was like watching a strong athlete having a kick-about with kids; we were watching Phillips, for so long the kid, growing up.
United’s control continued in the second half; Swansea, without Oli McBurnie as an outlet, couldn’t get out of their own defensive third. That created its own problems with United’s attempts to score a third, and the bodies throwing themselves at the ball during one goalmouth scramble showed one reason why Leeds find that so hard. With Swansea so thoroughly penned in, whenever Leeds put the ball into the box it was packed with players, not allowing the time or space for a composed finish. Bamford and Roofe are trying to score while eight defenders descend upon them from eight angles, and it’s difficult.
It wasn’t a particular concern because, even after McBurnie came on as a substitute, Swansea still couldn’t get out; until they were allowed out for the final three minutes. The path of true love twists like the knot in Luke Ayling’s bun, and he made the end of the night much more complicated than it needed to be. The penalty he gave away just before full-time was the football equivalent of being invited into an end of second date snog and producing an engagement ring. Amid the awkward tangling Swansea’s Joel Asoro hit the floor, and from the spot McBurnie hit the net.
Earlier Pat Bamford had hit the floor after a wrestling hold and throw in Swansea’s six yard box but was given nothing, and that injustice hung over the last few minutes and four minutes of stoppage time; we’ve read that sort of script before. But even as Swansea launched free-kicks for fouls against Matt Grimes – they all seemed to be for fouls against Matt Grimes – into United’s box, they never carried an equalising conviction. It was a lot to do with McBurnie’s celebration; after scoring the penalty he ran to the South Stand while cupping his ear, the sort of self-sabotaging villainy that is punished in rom-coms and had to be punished here.
For once Leeds United were more romantic than comic; Phillips and Jansson letting us sigh dreamily while we compare them to David Batty and Chris Fairclough, then stealing our breath when we realise we might not need to compare them to the posters of old heart throbs on our walls any more. Now they might be about to do something that makes us cherish them for who they are, not who they remind us of loving. Love, now, is right in front of us. Can happiness be far behind? ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)
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