“He’ll be a legend here in a few years,” Neil Warnock said of Steve Morison at Leeds United. “The fans will love him to bits.”
There was always that chance. Football gives players a chance to define themselves, to write their own biographies, decide how they want to be remembered. Few would have predicted, when the name ‘Luciano’ appeared on Leeds United’s teamsheet for a pre-season game in Ireland, that Becchio would force his way into Leeds United’s all-time top ten league goalscorers, becoming as near to a legend as United’s modern status will allow, earning the love of the fans, who loved him to bits. Earning being the important word, as is love.
Given the same chance at Elland Road, Steve Morison took a different route. “I was crap when I played here,” Morison said after the game, and only he knows the reasons why that was the case, and only he knows why he now wears that crapness like a badge of honour.
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Millwall put the ball in the net three times in the first half, although the first was ruled out because Morison was standing offside in front of Felix Wiedwald. Three times Morison split from his teammates to celebrate on his own in front of the Kop, screaming into the crowd, turning and pointing to his name on the back of his shirt, then touring the East and West Stands to give them the same. “I was getting plenty of stick and they never like it when it’s turned on its head, do they?” he said later, but this was a lie; Morison had barely registered in terms of crowd reaction before he began his antics.
This was what he came out to play for: to revel in being hated. Which would be fine; Leeds United are hated. But the hating of Leeds United has its roots in the club’s brilliance in the sixties and seventies; we were among the greatest teams of the era, and that split opinions. Morison is hated because he has defined himself by being crap for Leeds. He uses his failure at Elland Road as something to go to war with, as if he’ll show us — show us what, exactly? What is he trying to prove by revelling in his own failure?
If that’s how he wants to be remembered, as a crap player that people hate, that’s up to him. Morison is still crap now. He’s scored two goals in 23 starts this season, and his team hadn’t won a single away game before Saturday; the mighty Lions no better than timid kittens away from home. The two goal lead they took at Elland Road — and they could have led by five or six — wasn’t a terrific Millwall performance to be celebrated. Leeds United were a shambles, Millwall took advantage, and Morison claimed the Ballon D’Or for dislike, the best he’ll ever achieve. He had the chance of love when he joined Leeds, but took the easier route, defining himself by mutual hate.
After a dreadful first half, Leeds United created their own chance to define themselves in this game, and came close to making a statement of brilliance. What’s defining them this season, though, is an unreal ability to ruin good things. The first half was so bad it defies analysis, although three key themes ran through it: first, Pierre-Michel Lasogga missing three great chances to give Leeds a lead that might have established some confidence and kept the shambles-wolf from the door; Liam Cooper getting sent off after a lousy tackle inspired some referee-influencing shenanigans from Millwall, that he caved into; a failure from the bench to respond to being down to ten players, so that Matthew Pennington wasn’t brought on until after Millwall had doubled their lead, possibly due to both assistant managers being sent off in the aftermath of Cooper’s tackle meaning Leeds had nobody to fill out the paperwork.
United only had themselves to blame for the situation, but I’d love to know who to credit for the second half turnaround. Fifteen minutes in the changing rooms with Thomas Christiansen changed everything. I want this team to be good, and I want it to play like it did after half-time forever. There was fire, anger, and a tangible determination not to let the first half define them. Rather than revel in being crap, Leeds United gave everything to remove the crap first forty-five from the record, and put something unbelievable in its place. Kemar Roofe’s equaliser was everything Leeds hadn’t been in the first half, or for much of the season, with Lasogga, Alioski and Roofe forcing the ball over the line through sheer effort and determination. If only they started games with this kind of inspiration.
Roofe had already set Leeds up, by feeding Lasogga at the start of the second half, who now had his radar ready. He belted the ball right-footed into the back of the net and gave Leeds belief; then, when Pablo Hernandez pulled the ball back to him again outside the penalty area, that 30,000 fans were screaming at him to run into, Lasogga shot left-footed, with even more power, and accuracy that took it into the bottom corner, that gave Leeds disbelief, and some severely bruised limbs in the stands.
After the defeat at Newport I decided I’d lost interest in Lasogga, as he played as if he’d lost interest in football, but this performance had me fascinated again. His first-half misses weren’t bad efforts; his second half goals were wonderful. He made that third goal with a powerful run through the middle of the pitch, and his strength and energy gave Leeds the forward impetus they’d desperately needed.
For twenty minutes after half-time every Leeds player was as good as Lasogga; Pennington and Alioski bombing up and down the right wing, Laurens De Bock working hard on a promising debut, Pontus Jansson restoring the defence, Hernandez staying calm in midfield. That it all unraveled in the last five minutes felt undeserved, but typical.
Thomas Christiansen is not getting the breaks he deserves this season, and every error is being punished out of all proportion to the offence. First there was the barely deserved red card for Cooper, making it three red cards in three games, two in first halves. There was the failure to bring on Pennington quickly, that cost a goal. Then Kemar Roofe, apparently exhausted, was replaced by Stuart Dallas; a sensible substitution in itself, as Dallas would provide fresh legs and hard work. But it coincided with an injury to Lasogga, who played on for five minutes, but was limping severely by the time he had to be taken off. Conor Shaughnessy replaced him, bringing with him as he always does a bag full of black cats.
The cosmos had already put ex-Leeds striker Tom Elliott upfront as a sub for Millwall, and he got the equaliser; Jed Wallace waited until two minutes into added time to score a deflected winner.
If Steve Morison’s reactions to Millwall’s goals said much about him, the reaction of the Leeds players to their winner said much about them. They were gutted. Elland Road looked like a battlefield, players lying prone all over the pitch, except for one surprising figure walking among them; our Florence Nightingale was Felix Wiedwald, whose character has been called into question all season, and since he was nicknamed ‘Milk Baby’ back in Germany, but who had a fine game and made several very good saves, and now went from player to player, picking them up, telling them they should still believe, that there was still time for an equaliser.
There was; good play by Dallas, Hernandez and Phillips created a chance for Shaughnessy to score from close range; Lasogga would have flung a boot at it and scored, but all Shaughnessy had were his black cats, and all Leeds United got from this game was nothing.
Or not quite nothing. What Leeds did in the second half was incredible, and deserves better than to be dismissed as a brief spell of light in an otherwise dark game. Leeds teams have been saluted for glorious failures before; one of the greatest games of the Howard Wilkinson era was a 4-5 defeat to Liverpool, when Elland Road saw a first half as shambolic as this against Millwall, and a second half that took the team as close to glory. Despite the result that day in 1991, the fighting spirit in that performance helped define that team in the eyes of the fans; even in defeat it had all the best qualities of Leeds United.
The difference then was that defeat to Liverpool formed part of a larger story about a return to success. This performance against Millwall could define the current team, too, but whether that’s for good or for ill won’t be known until we see where they end up. If this was the start of something — Wiedwald becoming an influential and capable goalkeeper, Lasogga becoming a devastating and energetic striker, Pennington becoming a strong and confident defender — we’ll look back at those twenty minutes as the origin story, the moment when Thomas Christiansen’s Leeds finally declared an end to giving in to adversity. If, against Hull City, Leeds revert to their first half version, and lose the chance to declare a new beginning, they’ll only have themselves to blame.
There’s a chance for Leeds United to decide how they’ll be remembered. This game has gone now, but much will depend on what we end up remembering of it. ◉
(feature image by Lee Brown)
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(feature image by Lee Brown)