Still Bill

Luke Ayling is committing to the bit

Written by: Rob Conlon
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Luke Ayling going after the ball during the game against Sheffield Wednesday, his eyes on it very intently

The definition of Luke Ayling has changed at Leeds United over the years. Bill used to be a totem of everything great about the Marcelo Bielsa years. These days, at least on certain sections of the internet, his name is a shorthand for everything Leeds was meant to have moved on from, ignoring the fact he’s always been low on our list of problems. It’s no wonder, then, that when Bill was the first player to get off the team bus at the Den, he looked delighted to be greeted by shouts of, “Get a fackin’ haircut! What’s that on yoor ‘ed, Ayling?” The perception of Luke Ayling might be changing in Leeds, but back in Bermondsey it was a relief for him to discover he’s still the same old prick with a ponytail.

As one of Bill’s biggest fanboys, it’s painful watching those moments when he’s chasing back after a lost youth. Sure, his legs sometimes fail to compute his brain’s instructions and stop working. Yes, he occasionally looks like a pensioner stumbling out of a pub on a Sunday lunchtime. But it’s not his fault he’s still better than Rasmus Kristensen and Cody Drameh. Even when his legs malfunctioned during the panic of an aborted Ayling flop at the Den, he had the nous to keep his hands out of the way, courage to stick his head where it might get kicked by a Bermondsey boot, and spirit to win a tackle and clear the ball while he was still getting up. It was a slapstick start to the finest goal Leeds have scored in years. Daniel Farke said it was so pretty you could put it in a book. No wonder Gary Rowett had to ask the fourth official to explain it to him.

I loved Ayling at the weekend, genuinely admiring his commitment to being as Luke Ayling as possible. He can’t be anybody else, not that he’d ever try. He’s the hero to the anti-hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning‘s Arthur Seaton: whatever people say I am or think I am, that’s what I am. He started the game clumsily conceding a corner after being knocked over by Pascal Struijk and later attempted an overhead kick with all the grace of my grandad lowering himself into his favourite spot on the sofa. He also began the moves that led to Leeds’ first and third goals, almost created another for Cree Summerville with the type of first time pass over the defence that Farke wanted to sign Nadiem Amiri for, and stopped Kevin Nisbet scoring at the back post with a last-ditch header that left his opponent face down in the six-yard box.

After Ayling won a throw-in from Allan Campbell midway through the first half and consoled the midfielder with an arm around the shoulder and a few whispers in the ear, the pitchside microphones picked up the pigeon squawk of angry cab drivers. Bill responded by winking to a teammate with all the self-assurance of David Batty showing off to his mate Macca while tormenting Sampdoria in the Makita Tournament. Right on cue, the away end started singing Luke Ayling’s name.

For all the talk that Ayling is ‘finished’, he turned 32 last month, meaning he’s only two years older than Sam Byram, the eternal teenager. In Gaetano Berardi’s column for the upcoming issue of TSB, he writes about how the signing of Djed Spence puts Ayling in a similar situation to what Bera faced when Leeds signed Bill to replace him. Berardi knows the qualities Ayling brings to a team that aren’t always apparent to supporters in the stands. ‘In my opinion,’ Bera writes, ‘he deserves to play at the moment as long as he is physically well and physically prepared. He knows what to do.’ ⬢

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