It’s been difficult lately to tell one nerve from another at Elland Road, hard to trace the endings back to their individual sources. That means, on afternoons like this one when Beeston seems anxious, we can’t describe exactly why. It all blurs into one unavoidable idea: that when people say Elland Road is a throwback, that might mean that Leeds United fans are sensitive.
In the Premier League — well, okay, at Brighton, which is somehow a venn diagram — a goalie with the ball under his feet is celebrated, the longer a centre-back spends with his studs on a size 5 the better. People go wild for their circus. In Brighton I suppose its novel, and it would be a mean heart begrudging their fun after the years at the Withdean and all, but I can twist this argument to suit my own idea that Leeds fans are closer in our minds to Pep Guardiola, at least in that clip from the other week when he forgot himself and let his face show what he thought of his goalkeeper, Ederson, beating a player with a Cruyff turn. It was the face of someone who knows this is how football must be played now, who popularised it in fact, now experiencing the pain of its effects. Am I going to stretch this far enough to compare it to the Oppenheimer film? No, I’m going to stop here.
Stop, like Liam Cooper on the ball after 66 minutes, waiting and watching like a Premier League footballer off the telly, which, don’t let the last season or so fool you, he is. There’s been a lot of talk this season about how Leeds United are going to play at home to Daniel Farke’s specifications, based around the idea that the players will have to come up with something extra to get through teams that come to West Yorkshire determined to defend. That’s one problem. The other is coping with the expectations of the home support, whatever those expectations actually are, and that’s why it was good to have Liam Cooper on the ball after 66 minutes, rather than, say, (insert player name from last season). The crowd howled, as it had howled before, pleading with Cooper to get rid of it or do something with it or just stop faffing around with it. And Cooper, as he had before, just got on with things, very used by now — nine years — to rising or falling by his decisions in front of this crowd.
I was thinking during this game that these moments, and there were several when the crowd was on the back of either Cooper or Illan Meslier or the team in general for taking the ball too far back and not doing much with it, that perhaps the unreconstructed thrownbackism we revel in at Elland Road means Leeds fans aren’t ready for the new game as it is being played, unless Marcelo Bielsa is in charge of it. Maybe there’s some of that: there were plenty of supporters wanting ‘rid of it’ to a big man when the Big Man was the boss. But that’s what I mean about the confusion of the nerves. Because it’s hard to discern one particular note of pain out of the crowd at Elland Road when Leeds have only won nine of the last 41 post-Covid league games there, none of the last eight, been relegated, been mocked by the moves of half the players who took the team down; when only on Wednesday this season went from delirium at Millwall into the grip of one of the nightmarish, Leedsish joy-suction exercises Kingston upon Hull specialises in, that we were supposed to be saving up for our rations of torture at home.
Or to put all this another way: Leeds battered Watford from the first minute of this game, and that meant that every time Cooper paused in possession, it was a reminder that the most obvious result was a home defeat.
The pause in the 66th minute, though, was the last time Leeds fans had to worry, and maybe we won’t have to worry again until — well, Southampton, next weekend. After Cooper, Leeds almost let possession get away from them. With Crysencio Summerville and Jamie Shackleton zipping around to regain it, Pascal Struijk won it, and gave the ball to Ethan Ampadu. He knew Watford had been sucked in, and knew the time for patience was over. The ball went to Georginio Rutter, in midfield, taking his cue to bring the action to life by skipping around two tackles. It was simple from there. He drove over halfway and played the ball wide to Dan James. James, carefully aware of the full-back and watching the six yard box, sent a cross to the exact point by the back post where Joel Piroe, switching into no.9 mode, wanted it for a tap in. And, moments after the anguish at Liam Cooper’s feet, there was delight everywhere for the last thing anyone expected to happen next: Leeds scoring a goal. Which, I guess, is why Farke tells Cooper to do it.
Here’s another reason the crowd might have for wishing Cooper would hurry. Look what happens when you give the ball to these forwards. Summerville has yet to turn his direct dribbling into end products this season, because if he isn’t getting blocked along the way, he’s making shots too difficult or picking wrong options. That will change and in the meantime it’s fun to just watch him frightening people. James, after celebrating that assist with a kneeslide to himself and following it with another, a pinpoint corner that Sam Byram headed straight in, ended the game with more tricks than I imagine he’s tried since his Swansea youth. Jaidon Anthony, on as a sub, almost scored after megging some loser, then did score when more of Rutter’s skill in midfield ended with a pass to send him away — 3-0 to close the game. And Rutter. Why wouldn’t you want Liam Cooper to just always give the ball to Georginio Rutter, every chance he gets?
Almost everything about Rutter is an example of how badly Leeds United’s board got things wrong when they tried to ‘transition’ from Marcelo Bielsa. You know the big stuff: the fee, the timing, the stupidity. Leeds United might still be a Premier League club if the board had just overpaid whatever it took to buy Joel Piroe in January. But the small stuff is about how Victor Orta built a squad stuffed with players like Rutter — hybrid striker-wingers, drenched with skill and flair — and gave them all to Jesse Marsch, a coach of chaos who didn’t believe in creating space to play because the ‘frame is in the middle’, and who flaunted his working class credentials to fit in with one of the foundation words Andrea Radrizzani wanted to build Leeds United upon: ‘graft’.
It’s easy to look at the history of Leeds United and think that graft is what the fans want. Billy Bremner, a tiger. Norman Hunter, biting legs. Paul Madeley, playing every position and agreeing to sign a blank contract just to play for Leeds. Or David Batty or Vinnie Jones, hard workers who we loved in midfield. But the point is that it’s easy to look at our history like that. What’s harder, but necessary, is to look deeper.
Billy Bremner was one of the most talented footballers of his generation. Norman Hunter made brilliant and intelligent use of his cultured left foot. Paul Madeley didn’t only play every position because he was a selfless grafter, but because he was better in every position than most players at other clubs. David Batty’s passing ability was ridiculous, and when Pep Guardiola started putting ball playing midfielders into his defence at Barcelona, Batty would have been the best. And the thing about Vinnie Jones at Leeds is, that was the season when everyone agrees Jones cut out the silly hard-man stuff and played. He scored as many volleys as he picked up yellow cards. Then he was replaced in midfield by Gary McAllister, because Howard Wilkinson knew Leeds could cope without Jones’ graft in Division One, but couldn’t flourish without McAllister’s skill.
It’s important that anyone who wants to understand what Leeds fans want should watch all the clips of scraps and fights and the players fighting for each other. It’s also important that they watch the players doing tricks at the end of Leeds United 7-0 Southampton in 1972, and listen to the crowd hailing them. Consider how quickly, in the Wilkinson era, the fans took to Eric Cantona; clutching for his skills like he was Tony Currie come back. And hear the roars, at Elland Road this weekend, as Rutter rotated between defenders, flicked the ball to teammates with his heels, brought the ball under toe control to beat a player; and did it all with the goal in mind, his mind not fanciful but determined that what was fun should also help Leeds to score.
Graft has its value, but like an old map, it shouldn’t be followed without thinking twice. Graft gave us Kevin Blackwell with Danny Pugh on the wing. It took us to Neil Warnock with Danny Pugh in midfield. It led us to Steve Evans, telling us all that, “If we’re thinking Sam Byram is the saviour of Leeds United, we’ve got problems, haven’t we?” Against Watford on Saturday I watched Sam Byram skipping between defenders as he dribbled into the penalty area with Rutter and Summerville backing him up, and being saved by Sam Byram looked like the least of our problems right now.
“It’s important he’s not enjoying himself too much,” was Daniel Farke’s reckoning of Rutter after the game. “Yes, enjoy your football, but make sure it’s not over the line. It should not be embarrassing for the opponent. Handling it with style and class is important. I think he did that today.” Perhaps Farke was talking more to himself, after taking all the crowd’s attention by bringing a ball down out of the sky and behind his heels onto his chosen blade of technical area grass, in stoppage time, 3-0 up. Right in front of Watford’s bench, too.
Between the full-time whistle, and throwing celebratory fist pumps at the Kop and the South Stand, Farke had remembered his responsibilities as a serious football manager and pulled Rutter aside for a little on-pitch chat. “I said all our magic touches worked out in the end, but once we’re chasing a game or defending like the last game, then don’t use the backheel that much.” Right. Got it. But, other than that, it’s all good, yeah? Please? ⬢