As I walked towards the Kop on Sunday afternoon, I was passed by a van driving the other way, coming from the Valentine’s Fair on Fullerton Park on the far side of the ground. It was pulling a trailer, taking away a dismantled ride, now that the season of love is over.
The metal frame of the ride was studded with lamps, and you could imagine them glowing and flashing, illuminating carefree lovers as they indulged Cupid, feeling the way Leeds fans felt about their team earlier this season when Burton were thrashed and Leeds United were top of the league.
Given everything that’s happened since, you could also imagine that ride being driven straight from Elland Road, past me, to the nearest landfill, thrown on a rubbish dump and burned on a pile of old tyres, broken hearts, and other useless waste.
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There was no love at Elland Road for the first hour of the game with Bristol City, but Leeds United played without the heart required to earn any. The fans don’t really want much at the moment, just a sign that Paul Heckingbottom can makes things better. Such a small desire creates an expectation — surely we can at least have that? — but the only expectations Leeds United were filling were of their constant never ending failure.
Leeds lined up nominally in a 4-4-2 formation, but we were never given a chance to find out if this was a tactical improvement, because Bristol never let Leeds have the ball long enough for us to see Heckingbottom’s intentions in action. And once Bristol had taken the lead, all the players forgot what they were supposed to be doing anyway.
The goal was pure incompetence. I have been slowly coming round to Felix Wiedwald lately. He’s been making some very good saves, and taking on a leadership role in a side that has been missing the few vocal characters it has: Cooper, Ayling, Berardi. Wiedwald has even been seen catching crosses, and under pressure, too. But here he outdid himself and undid it all. I don’t know if he felt a false sense of security after the referee gave him a foul as he tried to punch clear early in the game, but as a long throw came over, Wiedwald charged from goal, under its path, and through a crowd of players, as if expecting one of them to impede him and the referee to blow. Instead everybody stood and stared as he made his getaway from the goal line, and Bristol controlled the loose ball and scored.
That was bad, but conceding from another long throw moments later was sickening. This time Wiedwald stayed put, but the defence seemed so agitated by waiting to see what their keeper was going to do, that they completely forgot about defending the throw in. Even so, Eunan O’Kane took ignorance to another level. As the ball dropped to Marlon Pack at the front post, O’Kane stood on the goal line, no use to Leeds but very useful to Bristol City because Bobby Reid was stood behind him, grateful to O’Kane for keeping him onside. The ball was hit across goal, past O’Kane, and Reid had put it in the net before O’Kane had even reacted to the one thing that is supposed to set his synapses afire with action and movement: the fucking football.
O’Kane was dire again in this game, so that all that can really be said about 4-4-2 is that it’s yet another system for O’Kane to hide in while Adam Forshaw bails him out. The other key changes were Caleb Ekuban starting, but never getting going, and Stuart Dallas reminding me why I find him so frustrating on the wing: he’s slow to react and easy to read, so whenever the ball goes near him the full back only has to take two steps forward to intercept it.
All this left Elland Road distinctly not loved up inside barely twenty minutes. The anger coming from the stands was general and incoherent; nobody could agree on a target, and there were so many to choose from, that catcalls, insinuations and complaints swarmed from the terraces. Some of it was unfair. Leeds finally managed to keep the ball for a moment, but as they passed it sideways, looking for a way through Bristol’s three lines of timewasting defenders, the howls grew louder, demanding the players do something. The jeers and whistles increased with every pass, until suddenly the ball was whipped across Bristol’s goalmouth, and Ekuban was a toe from scoring. Every pass of it was scorned and hissed, but it had been Leeds’ best football of the half. At least at the end of it we could still justify the complaints: it wasn’t like Leeds had scored.
The poisonous atmosphere continued into the second half, Wiedwald in particular a target every time he caught a ball, but the poisonous play was continuing on the pitch, so each was as bad as each other. Elland Road is a tough place to be at times like these. I felt no need to get up and leave or head for the bar after either of Bristol’s goals, until Laurens De Bock, Pontus Jansson and O’Kane put themselves under idiotic pressure and set Bristol up for an attacking spell that lasted several minutes, swinging the ball from wing to wing then through the middle then wing to wing then through the middle, as if it was only a matter of time before a goal. Even attempts to foul a Bristol player, any Bristol player, just to make it stop, missed the mark.
The dreadful quality of the football and the crescendo of insults from every direction combined to make me seriously consider how I was spending my Sunday. We’re used to boos at half time or full time, but here were boos mid-game; and then the sarcasm started in the South Stand, further provoked by the unpopular introductions of Hadi Sacko and Kemar Roofe. Successful Leeds passes were oléd while the fans sang about going up and winning the league, busting out the early season repertoire, although nobody could stomach ‘Leeds Are Falling Apart’, as that would have meant pouring such lavish irony upon so much sarcasm that someone could have an aneurysm.
In the midst of it all was a subplot. Simon Hooper, the referee, had given Leeds nothing, and given in to Bristol’s constant timewasting, but halfway through the half he gave Leeds a free kick, and it was cheered like a goal, long and loud, and Beeston woke up. The song sheets were shuffled to reflect defiant pride rather than pisstaking — Marching on Together, then Champions of Europe. Amid the carnage of United’s attempts to play, Adam Forshaw, Pablo Hernandez and Pierre-Michel Lassoga were the three trying to take responsibility, and now Hernandez span like a twirling scarf, chipped the ball to the back post, and Lasogga threw his feet at it, scoring, striking a burst of terrace noise straight into the net.
Everything had come together, although you couldn’t put your finger on how; noise had become support, support had become action, action had brought results. Nobody understood what was going on, but they understood what they had to do: keep going. Bristol’s failure to understand that cost them United’s equaliser. Simon Hooper finally booked a player for time wasting as he limped off the pitch, and when the corner he had delayed was finally taken, the ball zipped to an unguarded back post where Roofe, anticipating it, slid in to score, lifting pandemonium to bedlam.
What Roofe meant by running away from the scene with his fingers in his ears is hard to say, and probably not that interesting. Lasogga’s body language was easier to read. He grabbed all the players he could, pulling them back to the centre circle, windmilling his arms at the crowd, grinning seriously as if he’d just heard there was a lock in at the beer hall and there was no time to waste.
If the door had been closed when Leeds got there, Forshaw, Hernandez and Lasogga would have hammered until it opened. Forshaw, carrying his barrel chest like a midfield enforcer of the 1960s, passed and tackled and passed and tackled, and when nobody else wanted the ball he forced his way to the edge of the box to shoot, punching the ground when the ball went just wide. Hernandez always wanted the ball and he didn’t care where he got it, because he always had a clear idea of where he was going to put it, and if that didn’t work, he’d come up with something else. Often that would be a pass towards Lasogga, a player who has been transformed from the sloth we saw at Newport, who loved nothing more than running deep to give Hernandez an angle, knowing he would get the ball no matter how difficult the pass.
These three were playing like the crowd’s representatives on the pitch, and the crowd recognised it; the dials of hell from the first half replaced by virtuous circles of singing and playing. Sacko was the most obvious beneficiary, playing with rarely seen poise and intelligence, threatening Bristol with his pace and making good on his threats with well thought out crosses and passes. He was also the most obvious victim, becoming so caught in the atmosphere that, in his haste to keep Leeds going, he killed the momentum with a foul throw in stoppage time.
With Hernandez around, Leeds always have a way of creating new momentum. In the final seconds he ran with the ball into a crowd of players, as if diving into a foxhole, firing wildly, emerging the other side with the ball, his enemies vanquished. Lasogga was in the box, and Hernandez’s cross was ideal, but Pierre-Michel’s inverse law of goalscoring — the easier the chance, the more likely he is to miss it — applied. Lasogga’s header smacked the crossbar, and the referee saved him the trouble of getting up off the floor, blowing his whistle for full time.
What would Elland Road have been like had that gone in? Longer term we might be grateful that it didn’t, because it would have caused the kind of celebrations that could take years off your life expectancy, and there’s been enough of that recently, all inspired by adversity. This game secured a point where the attempted comebacks against Millwall and Cardiff got none, but I left the game with no clearer idea about whether I love football or hate it. The first half made me hate everything: the players, the referee, the fans, including me. All the love I had ever felt for football felt like a total waste.
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Then the last twenty minutes reminded me why I need to save my heart from being thrown on the back of a fairground trailer and taken away to be burnt, because football will make sure I need it, even if only so I can be hurt again. I loved those last twenty minutes, and all that love and hate is what football does, and why we go, and it’s a wonder we can stand it at all. ◉
(feature image by Lee Brown)