Leeds United’s achievements in the Premier League were rewarded with a game mingling relief, excitement and sorrow, where we might have expected tension.
Did anyone predict a final day like this? Staying in the Premier League was supposed to be a challenge on a par with getting into it, but in consecutive seasons Leeds have met their objectives with time to spare, making long seasons a little less arduous, still calmly outrunning, outscoring and outlaughing their opponents through matches that were supposed to be serious.
The Peacocks have been helped by a pathetic bottom three, of whom West Brom were the day’s party-victims, despite Sam Allardyce’s Canute claims that him and his team are great and it’s everybody else, and the league table, that’s wrong.
But that Leeds were so far above the relegation places was all their own work, meaning a final match that could have been a nailbiter on which survival was depending became whatever Leeds wanted it to be.
It was cathartic, most of all. I was not among the fans returning to Elland Road, but I was glad to see those who were, and that the disorientating trip into circumstances so unlike their memories was not multiplied by the spiral of a relegation decider. Fourteen months ago the pandemic dropped across the country and its football like an eyelid, only now being cautiously lifted to see, through tear-bearing lashes, flowers on the seats of people we lost, smiles on the faces of people finding their way again. Nobody wanted their day out spoiled by the football.
The football itself was pleasantly unmemorable, because while West Brom’s Conor Gallagher was determined to go through the motions of looking like he cared, the Leeds players, like the fans, seemed content to enjoy the nearest thing they’ll get to a day off from Marcelo Bielsa. It’s easier to wander in the space being given up by West Brom and score three times than to go through another bout of murderball. Rodrigo scored the first, rushing to bury a corner and enjoy the South Stand. Kalvin Phillips got his first in the Premier League by deceiving the goalie with a free-kick. The only danger to Pat Bamford’s chances of scoring a penalty for 3-0, given for handball, was Raphinha in a mood about the pecking order, wanting to show off in front of his new friends in the crowd.
Leeds could have scored more but they weren’t looking for the goal, they were looking for Pablo Hernandez. Presentations before the game to Hernandez and Gaetano Berardi gave the day a testimonial feel, as did Liam Cooper giving the captain’s armband to Hernandez, Berardi welling up in a TV interview, Ezgjan Alioski using three touches to set up, try and then block his own attempt at an own goal. As the clock ticked towards the pre-arranged departures, the desperation to give Pablo a goal increased, and he nearly took one himself with a spin and volley. But Kyle Bartley, the centre-half we once thought would take us to the Premier League with Pontus Jansson, couldn’t be persuaded to let him through, and Bielsa couldn’t be persuaded to let Hernandez stay on. I wonder if he dared look to see Pablo crying in the stand, ten minutes later, when Leeds were given the penalty he could have taken, Raphinha permitting.
This was not Soccer Dog: The Movie, this was Leeds United, so the cruel ending was inevitable and appropriate. Football around here is still played in the shadow of the oath sworn against star player Frank Machin in 1963’s drama of Wakefield rugby league, This Sporting Life: “He’ll have to learn he has to pay something for his ambition.” See Leeds United, promoted with John Charles in 1956, forced to sell him when the main stand burned down. See Don Revie’s team in the 1975 European Cup final, one of the greatest ever club sides being robbed by Bayern Munich. Look at David O’Leary’s team, finishing one league point away from financing their success. Ask Liam Cooper about the best night of his life, lifting the Championship trophy, in the worst way, at an empty Elland Road. You can achieve great things with Leeds United, but rarely the way you wanted to.
It’s not just about Leeds. Footballers are locked in a battle against time and their own bodies. Hernandez was sublime against West Brom, dictating play, collecting nutmegs. Aged 36, he is at the peak of his intelligence and his ability. But his body won’t keep him in the Premier League any more. The practice and experience that have made him a great came at the cost of his strength, given away to time. It feels perverse and cruel for players to become brilliant at the point when they can no longer play, and I suppose that’s why so many become coaches. They’re trying to transplant their brains into younger bodies and achieve football immortality that way.
In Hernandez’s case, Leeds United can only be grateful that the post-lockdown mini-season for promotion coincided with Pablo’s last great burst of form and energy, and remember that his two Championship seasons with Bielsa were among the best efforts this club has seen since Gordon Strachan.
Berardi is younger but has been at Leeds longer, and while Hernandez is dealing with the frustration of his talents, Berardi looks sated, his ambitions met last July. Typically, he paid for his commitment to getting Leeds promoted with a broken knee, and typically, he said it didn’t matter. “I was not ready [to be injured], but if there was the price to pay, I was ready for it. I never live my life thinking of saving my ass.” Berardi came to Leeds in 2014 to get the club promoted, an aim soon made laughable by that summer of Cellino and Hockaday, but Berardi wasn’t amused. Instead he was angry and unfocused until Bielsa came and purpose came back. Get the club promoted. Perhaps Berardi would have left last summer, his job done, but for the injury. The only hint that he is not completely satisfied came when his number went up, ending his game, and he dropped to his knees as if overwhelmed by feeling like this was all a mistake. It might only have been a moment, but it was football’s reminder, after the scars on his knee, that contentment doesn’t come without pain. What Berardi wants now is peace: getting it hurt a little, like the needle for the anaesthetic.
Back at the start of the 1970s, Jack Charlton and Don Revie had an agreement. In 1963 Revie had taken Charlton’s wayward Second Division career in hand and, amid much complaining from Jack, made him an England international aged 29, a World Cup winner at 31, owner of every domestic medal by his 37th birthday. Charlton owed so much to Revie, and said that when the boss decided he couldn’t use him for Leeds anymore, he would listen, pack up, and leave without question, just so long as Revie told him straight. Both were as good as their word.
Now Marcelo Bielsa has extended and ended the Leeds careers of Hernandez and Berardi amid more glory and pain than could have been imagined before he came to Leeds. It’s not just them. The best parts of the evening’s awards show broadcast were Victor Orta, hardly believing that Lucas Radebe was praising him on a Zoom call, and Stuart Dallas, trophies and beer bottles around his feet, looking like he no longer understands what is happening to him.
Football always leads you to failure in the end: after every promotion, the threat of relegation, after every title, the fight to retain it. Leeds, this season, finished ninth. Billy Bremner wrote a book called You Get Nowt For Being Second, so who knows what he’d think about ninth. I hope he would recognise what Bielsa has done with this team, that to some of them ninth in the Premier League is like a World Cup final. In a sport where the higher you get, the more dispensable you become, as younger, better players take your place for the next level, Bielsa has taken Dallas, and Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling, Alioski, Hernandez, Berardi and the rest further than anybody could have imagined, so that one day when failure comes for them, it will be at a higher level, with more achieved, and better memories, than their dreams ever promised.
This team’s new minimum could be seen for its glory and its cost in the last minute of the season, six or seven of them sprinting to stop one or two West Brom players on a futile counter attack, already relegated and losing 3-1. The bigger picture of the game and the season made so much effort unnecessary, but these players haven’t thought like that for a long time. The constant striving has taken them this far, so why stop now? They’ll keep going, even after seeing the payment coming cruelly due: Kalvin Phillips on the grass after a tackle, pain shooting through his shoulder, gasping for breath and delirious with the shock of his ambition to play in Euro 2020 being put into split second jeopardy.
That this is what people get for giving everything to Leeds United should make us even more grateful for the players who do what these players do. ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)