Salute

Leeds United 3-0 Rotherham United: Leeds Leeds Leeds

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Archie Gray, looking very happy and giggly, celebrating with the South Stand at the end of the game

Leeds United Football Club has a power that draws people in and refuses to let them go. There are some clubs people can move on from, and some they can’t. Remember Jonny Howson, boyhood fan and hero of our League One promotion, not letting his seniority at Middlesbrough stop him from pulling Mateusz Klich aside on the pitch after losing to Leeds, and telling him, get promotion to the Premier League done. That promotion gave Sam Byram another reason to be frustrated by the way Massimo Cellino offered him a pay cut, wedged Steve Evans between him and the fans, and sold him. “With hindsight,” Byram told The Athletic in November, “if I’d known that the club would achieve promotion – to be able to play in the Premier League with Leeds – I’d like to say I’d have turned the move down.” Promotion took four years after Byram left. He’d have gladly stayed through all of that to be part of it, and now he’s back he’s hoping he still can.

For recent evidence this weekend’s game with Rotherham United presented Connor Roberts’ debut. Roberts wasn’t raised in Leeds, or as a Leeds fan, but says one game at Elland Road – for Middlesbrough, when the home fans were hissing and howling at Garry Monk – was all it took for him to want, one day, to be a Leeds United player. In his first interviews after arriving on loan last week he talked about how he “likes a scrap every now and again” and, coming on as a substitute for the last ten minutes of this long-won game, he played like someone who knows Leeds fans like a player who likes a scrap and was determined to make an impression. Did he need to scythe Sebastian Revan down in front of the north-east corner? No. Did it have fans nodding appreciatively and remembering with fondness the time Gaetano Berardi two-footed an Accrington player through the neck on his debut? Yes. That Accrington player, by the way, was a Leeds fan and former player. Will Hatfield is quite proud of being kicked by a legend.

Rotherham were not immune to the crazy on Saturday. Sean Morrison is not a Leeds fan as far as anyone is aware, and if he is, he must be more disappointed than anyone by a career spent playing for Huddersfield Town, Cardiff City and now Rotherham – the only bright spots being four goals against Leeds, from centre-back, and seven wins; he was also sent off at Elland Road for chopping down Eddie Nketiah in the closing stages of our 3-3 draw with Cardiff in 2019, although the greater crime might have been the Hulk Hogan style dyed blond handlebar moustache he’d grown for a Christmas party. But he was still spotted on Saturday giving a sarcastic Leeds salute to supporters who were annoyed by the time he was taking over a long throw. That’s cultural heft, right there: most people don’t really understand what the Leeds salute is, including the people who tried to make a cartoon of it into our club badge. But everyone knows what it is, so Morrison had somewhere specific to go when he wanted to take the piss.

This is how Paul Heckingbottom’s first interviews as Leeds manager ended up being all about how he’d hated Leeds as a kid: that was just what people did in South Yorkshire, he said, and beneath the initial outrage was an understanding that this is how things are with Leeds United. It was better to fess up to being a Leeds-hating Barnsley bastard rather than pretending not to care. Billy Sharp took the opposite tack when he moved to Elland Road, a Sheffield United fan-turned-player risking his super-Blade status by admitting, “even though Sheffield United fans are supposed to hate Leeds United, I always had a soft spot for them. I have always wanted to play for Leeds.” Heckingbottom hated Leeds. Sharp liked Leeds. Both wanted to come to Leeds. That’s the way it is.

Rotherham manager Leam Richardson didn’t bother hiding his allegiances in the build-up to this game. “I didn’t live too far from the stadium and have been there many times as a fan, player and coach,” he said. “I used to sit in the Kop with my brothers and dad and enjoy it from there. It was the time of Howard Wilkinson, Vinnie Jones, David Batty, Gary Speed and Gary McAllister. I’ve seen a few promotions and highs and lows, like many Leeds fans have.”

What a treat for him, then, not just to work with former Leeds captain Lee Peltier every single day, but to be the main man in the dugout for a big game at Elland Road. I can’t pretend to know Richardson’s usual matchday routines, but I can wonder about what he was thinking when he came out of the tunnel five minutes before his team, waved to the few Rotherham fans who had paid the unreciprocated pricing and travelled, then went to sit alone on the bench for a while. This might be his usual pre-match routine as a manager, but this was not his usual view of either a Rotherham United game or of Elland Road. As he looked out at the pitch, could he avoid remembering Vinnie, Batts, Speed, McAllister? Replaying the two titles he saw those players winning as a kid? Was he feeling inspired by his Wilko’s eye view of the pitch? Perhaps he was contemplating the patch of grass in front of him, that Tony Dorigo made his own in the 1990s. Richardson was a left-back and close to joining Leeds as a youngster, but his parents advised him there’d be more chances to play at Blackburn. Maybe he was remembering his debut for Rovers, at Elland Road in the League Cup, and losing to a late Danny Mills goal. “It was a dubious goal,” he said last week. “The match came and went in a blur, but it was a great experience, a proud moment.” Maybe he was thinking about being assistant manager with Wigan when they came to Elland Road, in April 2019 and February 2020, and won, putting severe dents in Marcelo Bielsa’s promotion plans. It must have been weird for a Leeds fan, to be a contributing factor to Elland Road’s ongoing misery, but at least he had the excuse of working for Paul Cook. This time, up against Daniel Farke’s promotion ambitions, a win would be his to own. With this Rotherham side that felt unlikely, but in the dugout waiting for the teams, waiting to hear Marching on Together and the roar from the Kop where he used to stand, he had a place to dream.

That was the last time all day that Rotherham had a dream of winning. Despite Richardson’s Mick Henniganesque barking from the technical area, Leeds were easily better than the Millers from the beginning, taking only ten minutes to take the lead. Joe Rodon’s surge started a good move with Glen Kamara and Junior Firpo, and however the ball went in the net – whether off a Rotherham defender, or Pat Bamford’s arm – we can strongly suspect the latter because a) Bamford’s celebrations were a full over-the-top Tardelli ’82 as if he’d scored the undisputable volley of the century (again) while running away from the lino so they couldn’t see the guilt in his honest eyes or the waggle of the arm that he couldn’t resist when he was far enough away; and b) because Bamfs went and told everyone it hit his arm, apparently including the referee, much to Richardson’s chagrin.

From there, this was a standard Farke’s Leeds performance, meaning they should have had ten more goals by half-time but still only had one. Midway through the first half, when Crysencio Summerville hit a gifted opportunity over the bar, Farke simply turned and went to sit in his dugout, trying to hide his anger; he gave up on that tactic as the misses kept coming in the second half, marching across his technical area with palms raised to the skies, pleading with the heavens for answers. Leeds did, at least, get a second soon after half-time, Junior Firpo’s tackle giving possession to Summerville who sent Rutter through, to beat one player then thread his through ball between the legs of another. Summerville got to it, went one-on-one with the goalie and slotted in. He got another goal before the hour was up. Wilf Gnonto was doing his best to be more direct and fed Summerville in the box; he won a penalty and, after a fake-off with Bamford and ignoring Gnonto’s pleas, put it away with a panenka. “I’m too old for this generation,” Farke sighed after the game. “In terms of penalties I’m a bit more old fashioned,” he said. In terms of scoring goals in general he’d really like these kids to just, like, do that. “Sometimes it seems we make it a bit too complicated in front of the goals, and we just can score in a complicated way,” he said, bemused by a gang of forwards who can’t score tap-ins but thrive off twenty-five yard volleys, elbows and panenkas.

Richardson tried some half-hearted complaining about the first goal but he knew it didn’t make any difference. What I’d like to know is whether, when he went straight into the Leeds’ dugout to find Liam Cooper at full-time, he was delivering a Howsonesque ‘get this done’ message, or even, ‘please let me play in your testimonial’. Then he stood by the tunnel waiting until every Leeds player had completed their post-match lap so he could shake them each by the hand – last off, Rutter seemed very apologetic about making him wait. I’m sure Richardson does this against every team as a matter of course, but I’m also sure that he doesn’t give every player quite the same arm around the shoulder he gave to Archie Gray, a chance he’d also taken when handing the ball to him for a throw-in and a chat in the first half. The latest in the Gray line has that effect on Leeds fans, a seventeen-year-old legend you can’t help being excited to meet, the embodiment of all that’s great about your favourite club. Then you go down the tunnel, walk reluctantly past the historic home dressing room to yours, close the door, and try to think of something to say to Pelts. Something that isn’t, just, ‘Leeds Leeds Leeds’. ⬢

(Photograph by James Heaton/News Images, via Alamy)

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