It’s not hard to imagine an alternate reality in which Tom Edwards, Huddersfield Town’s chosen right-back at Elland Road on Saturday, plays for Leeds United. He promised enough in the Premier League for Stoke City to give him a long contract, and they still own him now. But they haven’t picked him for a game this decade. Instead, his best form has been in MLS during two seasons on loan at Red Bull’s New York branch. Now approaching his 25th birthday, Edwards’ career trajectory is of the kind – good initial top flight performances, two good years playing RB-ball – that used to attract attention from a certain director of football who until recently was compiling his databases in Beeston. If things had turned out differently, Edwards could be playing on loan for Roma right now.
Instead he’s on loan with Huddersfield, and that wasn’t his last bad decision of 2023. Just before ten minutes were up at Elland Road on Saturday, Edwards felt the need to assert himself by taking Crysencio Summerville down, ankles-first, from behind. The referee gave him a talking to but no card. Summerville, and Georginio Rutter, were not so generous.
If I’ve ever seen a full-back being so deliberately dismantled they were probably playing for Leeds between 2003 and 2018 and I’d rather not think about it. Instead, from the moment in United’s next attack when Summerville skipped both ways around Edwards to reach the ball and send the defender flying, the first half was all revelry. A while back Daniel Farke warned Georginio Rutter against using his skills to take the piss, but even when Michal Helik came across to help, the easy thing was beating them both, and the hard thing was doing it respectfully. Perhaps Rutter was whispering, ‘Je suis désolé’, as he discovered that kicking the ball between Town’s defenders and running after it was a simple, fun and effective route to goal.
Leeds were not playing as if Edwards wasn’t there. They were playing as if he was there and they’d noticed he was terrible. They took the lead with his help, though, when he was out of position. Town were slow and fearful and their best hopes were set pieces, so they made a great deal of the chance for a long throw into the penalty area after twenty minutes. Edwards, slowly, took it. Sam Byram nodded the ball down to Rutter. He tapped it into the air as he turned and let it bounce as he looked, and let it bounce as Summerville raced upfield away from Edwards, then stroked it north onto Summerville’s toes. The only question left was who would try to finish and whether they would succeed: from the textbooks, Joel Piroe ran a distracting path and Dan James kicked the ball along a direct one inside Lee Nicholls’ near post. Let’s not leave this all up to Edwards: their goalie was dreadful too.
Town in general were awful. Their idea of defensive organisation was to point at a player in possession and ask each other what was supposed to be happening. When Darren Moore took Sheffield Wednesday up from League One last season they had the third best defensive record in the division, so these feel more like the hallmarks of a team that was recently being trained by telephone from a comfortable country residence in Cornwall. It’s easy to imagine Neil Warnock agitating to bring in a player like Edwards, taking one look at him in training, then deciding he can’t do owt with this fella but he’s doing the chairman a favour so he’ll keep picking him and hope for the best realleh, but good luck to Darren, they’re an honest bunch of lads and maybe he can get a tune ourra them.
2-0 was too easy. Summerville took a pass from Piroe with three players between him and goal; he picked one, Sorba Thomas, beating him with a foxtrot and slotting a shot beneath the goalie, who shouldn’t really have had a ‘beneath’ in this situation but there it was anyway. Wilf Gnonto ran from the touchline to do more dancing with Summerville and got told off by the referee, another sign that this game was becoming joyfully unserious. It took a couple more minutes to become 3-0, because Town’s best new tactic was Helik following Rutter into his own half and kicking him there, but the ref played advantage and Summerville just had to run forward with the ball again and pass it to James again and let him shoot into the net again.
The fourth came just before half-time but was ten minutes late. Rutter had already tried beating his two markers and cutting back to Summerville, but the shot was too close to Nicholls. This time, after Glen Kamara corrected himself before passing to the right wing – remembering just in time that Edwards was doing his beleaguering on the other side – a backheel flick by Byram sent Rutter past the right-back to set Summerville up again. Instead of a first time shot, Summerville reverted to what worked before, some twisting with the ball, untouchable, until he could pick his spot.
I’d been wondering earlier in the game if Leeds would regret not taking their earliest chances. Huddersfield were running the clock down from the start, while seeking opportunities to make a local derby happen. If they could get close enough to a Leeds player to foul them and maybe start something, they did. It was a grey and miserable Saturday, a dispiriting early kick-off, and Leeds had made us suffer in midweek at Stoke. After the first twenty minutes, during which Pascal Struijk had let Delano Burgzong take a shot, and Illan Meslier had let Burgzong tackle him, the game was taking on a tone like a decisive Tom Lees header would earn underdog bragging rights.
Fortunately those thoughts lasted about a minute before Leeds scored so that was fine, but the match did succumb to some of football’s miserable gravity in the second half. It wasn’t as simple as Darren Moore taking Tom Edwards off. Town were laughed back onto the pitch, and after fifteen minutes it was becoming painfully obvious that their plan for the second half was to leave as many marks on Rutter, Summerville and James as they could. Then Joe Rodon tweaked his hamstring and the last half hour was a matter of managing ‘minutes’ and protecting key players.
The downside was that the fun ended. The upside, if you can call it that, was that even a miseryguts was given something by this game. Piroe had a chance to join in the scoring, but shot very precisely and deliberately one foot wide. Why is this his trademark? Pat Bamford came on amid boos, that were drowned out by songs, and with a chance in stoppage time, blasted the ball wide. Gnonto and Jaidon Anthony, who hadn’t sparkled in Stoke on Wednesday, joined in an easy game and didn’t sparkle here either. Rodon and Byram went off, Liam Cooper and Luke Ayling came on, and suddenly Town looked dangerous and, after James fluffed a counter and Ayling lost his man, Meslier let an easy shot bounce off his chest to Helik who ruined the clean sheet. Farke spent most of the half either slapping his hands against his legs or holding them out, staring at his players, looking for answers.
So it was something for everyone in the end. It was kind of nice, in a way, for fans who are sceptical of Meslier to get a reason to wonder whether Karl Darlow would have caught that shot; for others to point at Cooper and ask where Charlie Cresswell has gone. People enjoy football in different ways and that became a point of post-match discussion: being 4-0 up by half-time is all very nice, but is it better than a last minute winner? Elland Road used to get frustrated when Don Revie’s team wrapped games up in the first half and took things easy in the second, as if the players had stolen half the ticket money. The point where team sport meets entertainment is always an awkward meeting spot between fans who only want a win, and fans who want a good time. The pleasure of this game, in the end, was that it gave us both, with lots to savour, and lots to complain about, before playing Leicester City on Friday. Other pleasures in the meantime include that we’re not Huddersfield and Tom Edwards doesn’t play for us, I enjoyed their visit though. ⬢