YouTube playlists of a sought after hot shot, private jets and hotel medicals, glossy unveiling videos cut from a big club template: they lifted the mood over the weekend but not the soul, like burning one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop candles she makes out of your own money.
Once the wick burned out we had to face kick-off at Elland Road on a wet Tuesday night, and face the fact that Leeds United was still Leeds United but worse for the occasion, with neither of the new signings in the team and a suspicious smell where Kalvin Phillips should have been. Big Kev was in the stands and Little Ian was on the bench, while on the pitch were the same problems that descended on Leeds in a recent moment of hallucinatory optimism halfway through our match against Cardiff City.
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Millwall brought the weather with them from Cold Blow Lane, and a calculated 5-2-3 set up that went to 3-4-3 in possession and pummelled Leeds on their most painful bruises. Three in attack forced Leeds to four at the back, meaning not only no Phillips in midfield but no Ben White either, while Pat Bamford was surrounded and our dangerous wingers were marked.
Leeds looked ready to give in. Ezgjan Alioski gave the ball and a chance away under the first and slightest pressure; Kiko Casilla and White passed out of defence to Millwall’s midfield; Ryan Woods, doubling Millwall’s usual danger alongside Jed Wallace, got to United’s byline and won a corner. That was the first goal, in the fourth minute.
Millwall got behind Leeds again for their second, although it looked like they took the ball out of play along the way; it was inevitable the decision wouldn’t be given to Leeds, and inevitable a Leeds player would foul Jón Dadi Bödvarsson. Alioski got there first and Wallace buried the penalty.
How soon good PR can be demolished once the football starts. The 0-2 deficit even spoiled the new unifying cause, against the referee, Darren England. His incompetence was at least raising the volume: when the big screen showed the excellent save by Bartosz Bialkowski that denied Stuart Dallas an equaliser, and that England had denied a corner, Elland Road was the fearsome stadium we dream it to be. All the hashtags in the world will never bring Leeds fans together like a stinking ref.
Conceding the second goal reset the atmosphere to its recent default disappointment, culminating in vicious boos at half-time, divided between the ref and the team. The game continued on Twitter, where chairman Andrea Radrizzani tweeted his protest, while in the corridors below his suite persons unknown from Leeds were said to be rattling the referee’s door, if not literally then metaphorically. Leeds United, meanwhile, needed to win the actual football match.
That was never ruled out. In the first half Leeds played as they have since drawing with Cardiff: good but not great, strong but without sparkle. The usual chances were being made in the usual ways, and missed as usual, too: Bamford shot in the six yard box, straight into the keeper’s hands; Dallas headed a corner to the same place, and had another shot tipped over the bar; Pablo Hernandez put one over without tips.
But just as it has been hard to tell from outside what put these players into their shells half-an-hour from the end of the game against Cardiff, only they can say how they came out for the second half here, long before Millwall, so ready to retake their grip on themselves. An early goal helped, and from a corner, too: the ball bounced through to the back post, where Jackie Harrison’s shot was saved on the line, and Bamford put it in from inches. That brought belief, manifested as volume, and relentless attacking.
The last time Leeds attacked with so little mercy was that first half against Cardiff. The final ball was sometimes wayward, as it always will be, but it rarely mattered, because Leeds had so many players forward they always collected the ball on the far side and tried again from there. Mateusz Klich was having fun in midfield, winning everything loose and sending Leeds forward again in tandem with Hernandez; Alioski and Helder Costa puffed out their chests, sized up their opponents, and revelled in the joy of beating them again and again. Attacks never fizzled out so they never truly stopped; for twenty minutes you couldn’t say when one phase of play ended and another began. Marcelo Bielsa talks about his aim of “unbalancing” an opponent, and Millwall looked sick with vertigo, battered by a force stronger than them and gravity.
Listing the chances is pointless; any of our players could have scored any number of times, and Costa hit the bar. The goals themselves were almost seamless parts of the cohesive attacking whole; Hernandez wedged his half-volley off a defender and into the bottom corner from just outside the box, and Luke Ayling aimed a perfect cross behind the goalkeeper where Bamford stepped perfectly behind the defence to head in from inches.
There were twenty-five minutes left, but even the nerves caused by Klich firing an easy chance over the bar and a late cameo by Mathieu Smith were more pantomime than true threat. Besides, as against Birmingham City, Leeds looked ready to keep scoring if that’s what it took; nobody wanted it to take that, though.
There were still weaknesses: without Phillips to stop them, Millwall were able to counter through the middle to take shots at Casilla, but rarely did; Liam Cooper, a new father, almost handed Millwall an equaliser and a cigar. But Leeds were dominant in a way they haven’t been for a long time. Near the end Ben White was deep in Millwall’s half, taking a Cruyff turn around their midfield and driving at their defence, a sure sign that these forty-five minutes hadn’t only brought three points, but brought United’s mojo back.
Any night that ends with Pat Bamford doing the hoolie dance to distract Millwall’s goalkeeper is a good night, and after all the Big Kev hype, Big Bambo was the night’s misfit hero. He continues to confuse, removing himself from the collective euphoria of his winner to clasp his hands over his ears and enter his own world, saying after the game that, “It was nice to score — I could say a lot, but I’m just happy to score.” It’s hard to find these gestures endearing after tap-ins, but rather than concern us, Bamford’s angst seems so permanent it should just join the list of quirks we embrace in a squad full of oddball behaviour that is all the better for it. Bamford acts his moods, Alioski bites Hernandez. We have to love them just the way they are.
Bambo is the player most threatened by Kevvo, and the one who probably paid most attention to the budget lavished on welcoming a new reserve striker to the club. But if we have to embrace Pat’s weirdness, he’ll have to embrace Augustin’s presence, just as Ian Poveda sprinted to pull Bamford’s hands from his ears and embrace him, bringing him back to the real world to celebrate the moment. Little Ian was the night’s true innocent, made giddy just by watching his new team; perhaps he’ll learn about Leeds, but perhaps we could learn something from his naivety.
Poveda was watching his new team, but we were watching our old one, without him or Augustin to help; a team that, over these long Championship seasons, have taken us to delight and despair with exhausting frequency, and will again before May. It’s in the nature of football that we endure the storm and stress of every fault in our stars, but when we take the hands from our ears, or our eyes, we can see what Little Ian sees, what Millwall’s manager and fans saw, what the league table shows: the best Leeds United team in years, top of the table, a painful quirky draining joy to be around. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)