If there was any lingering trace of a cliched Championship clash about Leeds United playing Charlton Athletic at Elland Road, it was the clash of stories.
This was a match between a team relieved by closing one horrendous chapter, digesting their pleasure before starting the next. That’s Leeds. Charlton are still gripped by the ongoing nightmare of Roland Duchâtelet’s ownership and, by the looks of this game, bereft soccer.
The team without a story were able to put all their spare language into their football, and had no problems winning while Charlton added more dense typescript to their gothic scroll.
Charlton’s manager, Lee Bowyer, had a big part in the story of Leeds United’s rise and fall. In the last week the Peacocks have drawn a line under the sixteen years since relegation from the Premiership, but then someone says, ‘What about Malaga at home in the UEFA Cup?’ and you realise you have to move the line again. We forget that things at Leeds were terrible for a long time before they got worse.
At the time of writing, it’s nineteen years, two months, fourteen days, fourteen hours, thirty-one minutes and forty-nine seconds since the BBC website published its match report at the end of United’s Champions League semi-final in Valencia. You knew Leeds were really in trouble when television commentators stopped counting.
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Charlton knew they were in trouble when they saw Leeds, half-drunk and delirious, sweeping Derby aside like champagne flutes to the floor, making room on their table for sambuca shots. Then Marcelo Bielsa promised Leeds would take their game against Charlton more seriously.
And they knew they were in trouble when Ben White controlled a cleared cross on his chest and volleyed into the top corner after a quarter of an hour. Leeds, to that point, had 84% of possession.
A little over ten minutes later their possession was still at 80% and the score was 2-0. Pablo Hernandez made it happen by nutmegging a through ball to Stuart Dallas, who wasn’t in the penalty area to receive it, but who Hernandez knew soon would be. The goal was the joy of Marcelo Bielsa’s ideas being made real by Hernandez for Leeds.
Speaking of stories, Hernandez and White may have been closing their own with these moments. What will Hernandez’s role be in the Premier League? Well, we wondered the same about him before the start of this season, so maybe there’s no problem. But what about Ben White? He looked shellshocked by scoring, and in the celebrations said something that had Luke Ayling roaring with laughter. They say to leave ’em laughing, but don’t leave ’em while they love you, Ben.
Those subplots prove that football never stops telling stories and the second half offered a prelude to Leeds United’s next chapter. I yearn for Tyler Roberts to stay fit and bloom into the player he could be, with more headers like his for 3-0. Illan Meslier, restored to goal and about to sign a contract, made saves to prove that’s a good idea.
And the fourth goal was a kids’ birthday party: Pascal Struijk with a long range diagonal pass, Ian Poveda with a touch and pass disguised by his body’s intent to dribble and shoot, and Jamie Shackleton, the youth team star everyone’s been waiting to make it since he was fourteen, swept in his second goal in two games.
The Premier League offers big transfer budgets but the pandemic has taken away the time to spend them. With around seven weeks to kick-off, Leeds have to factor in the demands of Bielsa’s pre-season education processes. No matter what ambitions the club has in the transfer market, it seems likely the present Under-23s will be relied on, and while I might change my mind when I see Struijk floundering against Kevin De Bruyne in December the way he did against Lee Tomlin last December, for now, I couldn’t be happier about it.
After ninety minutes the game was as done as it had been after fifteen, and it was time for the Championship trophy, and some ill-advised dancing on and around a bus.
In the few days between winning the First Division and lifting the trophy in 1992, Leeds manager Howard Wilkinson told Look North’s Harry Gration that, “It’s silly little things that start to make an impression.” He gave an earlier example of his Second Division winner’s medal. “Right until I opened the box I never even thought about the medal. Then, as soon as I opened the box and saw the medal, it was quite an emotional moment.”
Now, he said, “I keep seeing the trophy. I saw it last night on television. I never realised how big the trophy was.”
And somehow I never realised, until I saw the famous photo of Wilkinson walking through Elland Road with the trophy in his hand being shared this week, that Liam Cooper was going to be lifting the same Football League Championship trophy. It turns out you can move the line under those sixteen years to any date you want.
And I didn’t realise, until I saw Marcelo Bielsa lifting the trophy, what an emotional moment that would be. A trophy in the hands of someone whose philosophy, when you strip away the formations and the tactics and the stats, is all about finding ways that football can make people happy.
A while back The Square Ball interviewed artist Paul Trevillion, inventor of Leeds United’s sock tags and so much more, and someone who, for more than eighty years, has loved letting football make him happy.
Paul has spent a lot of time around footballers, particularly United’s FA Cup winning team, and he told us that, to him, trophies and medals are for the players. That’s what they go to training every day and work for, harder than most fans can imagine.
The trophies and medals aren’t for the fans, he said. Our reward is the pleasure of being able to watch the players trying to win them, to admire and appreciate and celebrate all that skill, science and work.
That might never have been truer than with Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United, who have worked harder than anyone and played more exciting football than anyone. And they have won the Championship at a time when months of Covid-19 have forced us apart, while keeping the fans feeling closer to them than to any team I can remember.
In the end, Liam Cooper goes to bed with the Football League Championship trophy, the blue and yellow ribbons spreading across his sheets, and we get to look at the photograph, and to look back on the pleasure of watching his team win a title, and forward to the pleasure of watching Leeds United in the Premier League. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)