Week by week the Championship is feeling more and more like a good idea and a good place to be, which is a risky thing to say when within seven days Leeds will have played Stoke City and Huddersfield Town and everything could be very different. But right now, after a two-down three-up comeback win in the day’s most narrative laden game, it’s the right thing to say.
United’s trip to Norwich was a storm drenched first return by Daniel Farke to a club where he is revered, bringing with him a full set of former Norwich staff plus Sam Byram, whose rightful home was always Leeds; on the current Norwich staff is Andrew Hughes, another who belongs in Yorkshire, and on the bench with him was our promotion favourite Adam Forshaw. Their team is managed by David Wagner, a foe of ours for his entirely unreasonable intervention in the 21st century history of Huddersfield Town, whose successes were more tolerable when they were pre-1930s and owed, via Herbert Chapman, to Leeds. Wagner is a sort of shadow to Daniel Farke, preceding him as coach of Borussia Dortmund II, following him now at Norwich. Absent but interested were a supporting chorus of characters like Luciano Becchio, Steve Morrison, Jonny Howson, Bradley Johnson, Rob Snodgrass, hell even Adam Drury if you want; hero of ’92 Jon Newsome was doing commentary. And the best part of all of this was that the game was so good none of it mattered.
That it was good was down to guts, specifically Daniel Farke’s. It does not negate his abilities as a coach to take Farke at his word and believe that this match turned on feelings, instincts, a willingness to try, to believe that winning a game can be as simple as attacking until you’ve scored more goals than the other team can. Even if you have to risk them doing that to you. And even if you’ve let them score two before you have any, which is not best practice, but if you can score three and feel like you will, that makes the game more exciting and then what’s the problem? There is no problem.
“I got the feeling that I wasn’t (going to be) happy with the draw, I wanted to win it,” Farke said afterwards. “We brought more or less all our offensive players on, went more or less man against man all over the pitch. I wanted to go for it. My gut feeling was it’s our day and we’ll win three points.”
Farke described his winning formation as 3-5-2, engineered by taking off Glen Kamara and Sam Byram for Wilf Gnonto and Pat Bamford, but it looked more like 3-1-6. The players hadn’t trained for it — a bit in pre-season before a lot of them were here, no time this week for players away on international duty, just talks with players and “theoretical meetings on screens”. After the squad switched to coach travel when a skidding plane closed Yeadon Aerodrome, there were some lies: “I told the lads, ‘no, we are even better prepared’,” said Farke. “I had to lie. I wanted them to be on it.” The game changer, revelling in the space being created as Norwich tried to mark up the dynamic front six, was Crysencio Summerville, and Farke felt that coming from his vibe: “Crysencio is a baller, it’s a joy to watch him. When you see a guy touching the ball like he does, it’s heart warming … I got the feeling there was something in him today. He was on it, that was my gut feeling.” And, when momentum was United’s way after their equaliser, the other feeling in Farke’s gut was a hunger for danger. “We kept going at 2-2,” he said, “and wanted the risk of being caught on the counter so we could win.”
Gut feelings, off the cuff tactics, lies, ballers, warm hearts and danger. Is all this only possible in the Championship? The most common expression in the Premier League is stress, either on the faces of the coaches or, in Jesse Marsch’s case, in his comedic insistence that he was definitely, absolutely, one hundred percent not having a problem with it. Mikel Arteta alternates between being feted as the next great coaching theorist, and tweaking like a poisoned marionette through his team’s fraught encounters with other actual teams and a real size five ball. Pep Guardiola rivals Marsch for the least convincing not-bothered act in football. Jurgen Klopp, once upon a time, seemed nice. It’s impossible to imagine any of them tucking their long hair behind their ears, shrugging a little in their battered jacket and announcing to the press that they “wanted the risk”. What they all want is a long rest in a luxury sanatorium near a still, silent lake. Risk? On a Premier League manager’s salary?
Many of the Premier League matches I see now are static, nervous and one-sided. Creativity and excitement are crushed by fear, either of VAR imposing wild punishments for microscopic infractions of vague new rules, or of not winning. One consequence of the Premier League’s competitive imbalance has been that it’s harder for promoted teams to even hope they’ll break into the top places; another consequence is that it’s harder for the big clubs to maintain their egos and bank balances between ever narrower margins for error. Basically, when a quarter of the league is shooting fish in a barrel, you can’t afford to miss. Or risk missing.
The Championship? The whole thing is a mess, therefore a thrill. Everything about the Premier League looked designed to make Georginio Rutter suffer. In the Championship, perhaps only the relegated teams have any players like him, and he plays for one of them. Crysencio Summerville made a few headlines in the Premier League last season, but in the Championship, he’s learning to be a consistent creative influence. Would Archie Gray be getting so many games in the Premier League? Would Wilf Gnonto? We saw how things were going for Wilf in the top flight after his first few matches of delight. And it’s not only Leeds. Ipswich have come from League One straight up to 2nd place. Ryan Lowe’s mission to make Preston North End outscore their way to the top is stuttering because they’re conceding more; they’re 4th anyway. Last season’s play-off final between Luton and Coventry was the Premier League’s idea of hell, and everybody else’s idea of heaven.
It’s in this atmosphere that Leeds can go behind after four minutes by lacking at a corner and letting Shane Duffy head straight in — which he did again later, when it was disallowed — and this atmosphere that means we can avoid worrying about what might not be happening with set-piece training because, the gut says, we’ll still score two. And we can suck our cheeks in when Gabriel Sara wriggles free of all our defenders to shoot and score, because, well, what if we just take the defenders off and score three? What then?
We can let Leeds away with not scoring in the first hour, too, despite many good chances to, because good chances are what everybody wants and when you’ve got them, you should be happy. All you can really do in that situation, and all Leeds could really do to improve in the second half, is play a bit better. Kamara, after exchanging passes with Rutter, shot across the goalie and just wide. Joel Piroe, put through by Dan James’ defence splitter, aimed a precise shot just wide. Rutter, put through on goal by Piroe’s backheel, shot first time across the goalie and just wide. This all happened in five minutes. James, storming down the right and into the penalty area, bucked the trend by going near post and miles over, but the situation was simple: if Leeds put their shots into the net, they’d win.
James did it first, sort of, throwing precision in the bin by firing the ball across the six yard box and himself across the advertising hoardings, profiting from the ball’s ping off the goalie, a defender, and in. Goal number two was Summerville, taking the ball from Gnonto after a short corner, and bringing precision back into style with a twenty yard curler off the post. The winner, with five minutes of proper time left (ahead of eight more for impropriety) started at Norwich’s attacking free-kick: when the ball fell to Rutter, Summerville made his next move easy by sprinting into City’s half where the space was and where, thanks to Georginio, the ball soon was too. Some Norwich defenders got between him and the goal, so Summerville had to place himself between them before picking the far bottom corner for his shot. Then the chaos, the celebrations.
There was an autumn day in Norwich in 2016 when, under more topsy-turvy circumstances, Ronaldo Vieira scored with a last minute long range wondergoal to give Leeds a 3-2 win that had felt like a party since Pontus Jansson went wild celebrating his first for the club after equalising on the hour. Leeds had Garry Monk in charge, a new manager with — compared to Steve Evans at least — a positive reputation and, suddenly, we were watching games like this. Good games, that Leeds were winning, with a team of new players like Vieira and Jansson, and Luke Ayling, Pablo Hernandez, Kyle Bartley, Rob Green, Kemar Roofe. It felt, at long last, like Leeds United were beginning to do the Championship properly, to explore its capacity for pleasure instead of toiling in habitual grimness. The next game, at home to Newcastle United, was Elland Road’s first sellout for years, and of course Leeds lost 2-0. But it’s not a bad time if you feel like you’re having a good time, and the last half-hour this weekend was a good time. We wanted the risk and we got the risk. It’s good to have the option, better to be willing to take it. ⬢
(Photograph by George Tewkesbury/PA, via Alamy)