I’ve known some bad moments while following the fortunes of Leeds United. Going a goal down to Blackburn inside eighteen seconds under Steve Evans. Going 4-0 down to Brighton in the first half under Steve Evans. Pretty much everything that happened under Steve Evans, in fact, including being so crushed down there that I couldn’t see a horizon beyond him and thought he should stay.
There was relegation from the Premier League and relegation to League One, the worst sporting level Leeds United Association Football Club have fallen to in their entire 100 year history. So that was pretty bad. Ten years ago this week Leeds were knocked out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy by Carlisle amid collapsing league form that had many convinced Leeds were throwing promotion away and would be staying in the third tier. Things didn’t turn out that way; it’s funny how things turn out.
Memory makes it hard to submit to the drama surrounding the terrible recent form that has put Leeds United 2nd in the Championship with fifteen games to play. For fifteen years we’ve wanted a fight for promotion to the Premier League, and now we’ve got one, it feels like an odd time to choose to give up.
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Leeds United’s team are not making that easy, because they’re playing as if that decision has already been taken, or taken out of their hands. It’s difficult to write about events in a game like this because, if you’re a Leeds fan, you’ve either seen it already or heard enough that you don’t want to know. But for the sake of routine:
Leeds didn’t capitalise on early pressure, then were caught out when an attempt to counter attack went wrong and, facing Sammy Ameobi’s shot, Kiko Casilla went worse at his near post. Lewis Grabban should have made it 2-0 when he wrongfooted the defence and goalkeeper but shot straight at Casilla on the ground instead of into the empty net next to him; Liam Cooper should have equalised but headed a corner straight at Brice Samba, whose reflexes to keep the rebound in front of his line were spectacular.
It’s pointless to break down the poor Leeds performances individually because they were all bad, but Jean-Kévin Augustin did give the side new impetus when he came on as a substitute. As against Wigan last week, though, Leeds didn’t play with the conviction that a goal was coming. Like in a kid’s football game when bottom lips start to tremble, they needed someone sympathetic to put the ball on the line so one of them could kick it into the net. Instead Joe Lolley did that for Tyler Walker in the last minute to make it 2-0 to Forest.
If you don’t want to watch the game, Luke Ayling’s face in his post-match interview will tell you just as much. For ninety excruciating seconds he answers Bryn Law with the expression of a dog being given a bath. I don’t know what other face he could wear after a game like this, so meek disbelief it was. No explanations and no excuses, just a wish that everything was over.
Sometimes it just isn’t your day. Ayling reminded me of two FA Cup final memories of Billy Bremner’s: in 1965, when losing to Liverpool was like a waking nightmare, and he’d prayed from the start for a draw so Leeds could try again with a better mood in a replay; and the replay in 1970, the last game of a 63 game season when Leeds tried to win everything, and lost a 1-0 lead over Chelsea with ten minutes to go, and lost the cup in extra time. “I thought we were going to win right up to when Chelsea equalised,” recalled Bremner. “As soon as they scored, I knew we weren’t.”
That’s the feeling enveloping Leeds fans now, and Luke Ayling on Saturday night; the feeling that nothing can change what is happening, that even when you align yourself completely with the ideal to ‘Keep Fighting’, as Bremner did, there are times when you can feel the fight will be a waste of time.
But Bremner and Ayling were talking about games of football, discrete events when your actions are limited by the game. We’re talking about a third of a season ahead.
There’s been a rush, based on form, to hold an inquest before there’s a body, a sprint to win the race of hindsight before we have a result. The social media hysteria of Manchester United fans a few weeks ago, convinced their club is a catastrophe six points from qualification for the Champions League, has been replaced by the doom laden predictions of Leeds fans who can’t imagine a path to promotion from 2nd place, punctuated by unhelpful pity-me tweets about ‘frustration’ from Andrea Radrizzani. We’ve skipped the analysis — what is going wrong? how can it be changed? — for the post-mortem, asking how Leeds failed in 2019/20, answering that it was inevitable, and moving straight to finger-pointing at the funeral for our season. There’s no coffin for the grave, though, and the calendar and league table are being ignored the way Marcelo Bielsa has been ignoring the need to drop Kiko Casilla.
That’s one change that can come. There are others. Jean-Kévin Augustin can begin making the impact that was eagerly anticipated a fortnight ago; Ian Poveda, too. Kalvin Phillips’ return from suspension will make a big difference: for all Ben White’s qualities as a defender, his range of passing from the key midfield position at Forest stretched from the advertising hoardings on the left to the advertising hoardings on the right. The return of White’s assurance in front of the goalkeeper — please, Meslier, please — will end the swapping around of Ayling and Stuart Dallas on the right of the defence. Balance and order, where lately there has been chaos.
Leeds were struggling before Phillips was suspended, of course, but they were playing brilliantly before they were struggling, so there’s no reason to think that winning football matches again is permanently out of reach. The first half at Arsenal was only one month ago, and offers other clues: the team was helped by the space in Arsenal’s half that they’re not given in the Championship, but also by Jackie Harrison inverting from the right wing, stepping inside with more threat than cross after cross from the corner. It’s not asking too much of anyone to do that again.
Bielsa won’t make major changes to his style now, and nor would he be wise to, because opposing teams won’t: no Championship manager will be fooled into an expansive game, even if Bielsa did tell his players to sit back and concede possession. They’re still playing Leeds, so they’ll still defend and scrap, and they’re still playing Bielsa, so they’ll think new tactics are an illusion.
But the change we’re looking for is not to different, but better; to the play that took our breath away at Arsenal, that demolished Middlesbrough, that won seven consecutive games, that was defeated only once in fifteen matches, that made a mockery of Cardiff: until we let them make a mockery of us. None of this is ancient history, none of this is out of reach, and it’s not delusion to think that Leeds United, a good team, can play well and win. The evidence of bad form is in front of us. The evidence of good form is just a little to the side.
A charge against Bielsa at the moment is that he’s taken his players as far as he can, got from them all there is to get. But we’ve seen that level, and it’s put us in the automatic promotion places that we’ve lusted after for fifteen years. These are not the days when appealing for more from Luke Varney and Marius Zaliukas rewrote hymns of futility but we did it anyway. We’re appealing for more from a team that has it.
Beneath Luke Ayling’s depression, there was resolve. “It’s about scrapping those 31 games and starting again. Now we’re back on equal points with other teams, and we’ve got a certain amount of games to outscore the other teams. We start again now.” Leeds United have a team and a manager that can be promoted to the Premier League, but they’re going to have to fight for it. Perhaps the biggest mistake Leeds United have been making is thinking it was going to be easy. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)