By the end Elland Road looked like it was hosting a schools game, including the embarrassing angry parent being led away after confronting the visiting manager.
Elland Road’s dugouts are a symbol of Leeds United’s lack of progress since promotion in 2020. Back then, the talk between seasons was of how and when those Premier League, ‘proper club’ racing car seats would be installed at the front of the John Charles Stand, which is named for the player sold to Juventus to pay for its construction, in 1957. It was the first expected step towards demolishing the West Stand altogether, replacing it with something state of the art, or at least new. In the meantime giving Marcelo Bielsa somewhere comfortable to ignore while he sat on a bucket would make Leeds look a touch more Premier League on the worldwide feed.
As it turned out, the rules pretty much let Leeds stick with what they had, so without anybody to enforce a change Leeds just left the dugouts as they had been for decades. And this season, with new rules allowing nine substitutes to sit on a bench designed in the days of five, things have been looking a little cramped down there.
So it wasn’t just disappointment that led Jackie Harrison, then Rodrigo, to trudge off the pitch when their numbers went up, receive some desultory high-fives, and slump to the ground off to the side, off the bench. The bench itself was full of kids. In the centre was Illan Meslier, banging the dugout to support his teammates and throwing Adam Forshaw’s discarded shirt to the crowd behind. With him were seventeen-year-old Archie Gray, and Pascal Struijk, Brenden Aaronson, Georginio Rutter, Crysencio Summerville and Sam Greenwood — who came off at half-time — all 23 or under. It looks cramped and boisterous, and probably stinks of Lynx. Weary from the game and disappointed by not being part of it any longer, Harrison and Rodrigo preferred sitting on the grass with their coats and sports bottles piled on top of them. Rodrigo preferred, in some moments, to not even look at the action, lost in his own thoughts.
That wasn’t a sulk. At full-time both Rodrigo and Harrison were up to shake hands, clap people on the back, applaud the fans. It looked more like the same frustration Pat Bamford was feeling on the pitch. The feeling of being really good at something, and no longer being able to do it. It was painful for Jackie and Rodrigo, feeling like they could affect the game, decide the result, make the cross or shot that makes the difference, to be told to sit down and watch. And it must be painful for Bamford to find that, after two seasons fighting against his painful body, everything that took him from Nottingham to Chelsea to Leeds to England to being the Premier League’s fourth top scorer in 2020/21 isn’t working anymore. With all the talent he has, with all the work he has put into his career, with the confidence gained from setting up Leeds’ first goal against Newcastle, Bamford was justified to think he could score the penalty that would put Leeds 2-0 up.
And one point about the abuse he’s been getting on social media is that he doesn’t need any of that to make him feel worse then he already must, on top of missing the chance to win the recent game against Leicester. We could see how Harrison and Rodrigo felt about not being able to influence the game from their simmering funks on the sidelines. Bamford must have felt that too, but still out on the pitch, trying to shake off what Sam Allardyce called the “lead boots” that come on from being “hammered as much as they’ve been hammered”. Bamford at least had Robbie Keane, coaching alongside Allardyce, to tell him to get the miss out of his head, to go and score a goal. Keane missed nine penalties in his professional career, three of them in one-goal defeats, two of them in 1-1 draws. He also scored 325 goals. Keane knows how it feels to try and succeed, and try and fail, and since moving into coaching he knows how it feels to be a bystander to his own abilities: I bet he could feel the tingle of the 53 penalties he did score as Bamford picked the ball up, ready to shoot. Bamford, as he takes wise steps to block out the criticism around him, has one voice in his circle he should heed.
Bamford is far from being the only malfunctioning part of Leeds United Football Club, and in many ways good players losing the ability to do good things is the story of this season’s failure. Take Meslier on the bench, no longer able to demonstrate the skills that make him one of the best young goalkeepers in the world. Aaronson is there with him, sitting through the first setbacks of his career. There were others who only appeared at the end of the game because injuries are keeping them out of United’s attempts to save themselves: Liam Cooper, Tyler Adams, Stuart Dallas. That group could include Forshaw, one of the best on the pitch in the second half but not strong enough to play much more than that.
Then there are the players who are playing. Leeds were better against Newcastle than they have been lately, and Allardyce was right to say they were good enough to beat the Premier League’s 3rd placed team, a side only beaten so far by Liverpool, Manchester City, Aston Villa and Arsenal. He’d packed Leeds with as much experience as he could, Harrison and Rodrigo on the wings instead of Summerville or Wilf Gnonto, Rasmus Kristensen at centre-back ahead of Struijk, Joel Robles in goal, Robin Koch in defensive midfield, young Greenwood only in to do Forshaw’s running in the first half. Leeds excelled in commitment and tempo, in winning second balls, in aggression. The goals were perfect examples, Harrison’s quick attacking then good hold up play and a smart cross by Bamford on the left creating the first one, Rodrigo’s header well saved, Luke Ayling piling forward from right-back to bury the rebound in the six yard box. Kristensen, the deputy right-back playing centre-half, scored the vital equaliser by pummelling the ball towards goal after a cleared corner, letting the crowded penalty area take care of the deflections past Nick Pope.
What lay beyond the effort and application, that let Newcastle score two penalties and deny Leeds three points, could be summed up as a skill issue. People behind the scenes at Leeds were apparently concerned by Jesse Marsch’s lack of attention to build up play, and boy can you ever tell. Amid bad decision making, miskicks and general misunderstandings, Leeds’ players struggled to give the ball to each other, and the confusion this generated gave Newcastle their best moments. The penalty that put them ahead, from Junior Firpo’s handball, came after a sustained period of pressure prolonged by Leeds’ defenders disagreeing on how exactly to clear the danger. They were all trying different things at the same time, so the ball just kept coming back into the penalty area until — and it didn’t take long — one of them made a really stupid mistake. Many of us have wondered what became of the left-back Barcelona once agreed to pay €30m for. Firpo must wonder about it too.
This is what Leeds United have got for the remaining two games of the season, though: a group of players who, no matter what they do or how hard they try, can’t do the things they’re good at as well as they used to do. This comes for every athlete; think of Pablo Hernandez, unable to get into Leeds’ Premier League side because his body was telling him he was 35, just when his brain had cracked every aspect of the game. Age is not the issue here, though. For Harrison and Rodrigo, their frustration had an easy source: Big Sam had big-subbed them, and now they could only suffer. For Bamford and the others, still out on the field, the whys of it all are harder to identify, and arguably it’s not worth trying. It doesn’t matter much now why things aren’t working as they should. With two games left, all that matters is trying over and over to do them right and hoping, eventually, things go your way. ⬢