Whenever Leeds United win promotion, whether it’s this season, another season or never, we won’t enjoy it. The Peacocks are in the Championship’s top two, but it doesn’t feel like we’re having fun.
There will be moments, like the final whistle of the game that clinches the prize, or like when Eddie Nketiah scores, climbing his ego’s ladder to head the ball through the starlit sky where he feels he belongs. Videos of the celebrations in the away end went straight to YouTube, where modern stars are made.
But everything else this season will be like the rest of this match, watching through grinding eyes our strong team playing excellent football, suffering the agony of being in the automatic promotion places. All the things that sounded good in theory between 2011 and 2018, but that we now can’t wait to be over.
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Leeds are well placed, two points off the top, a point and two places better than this time last year. But amid what has to be called this success, every game, and within them every goal, chance and even every cross feels like it could be the start of another low point. When Jack Harrison has the ball on the wing the situation is drenched with doom. Despite that, he’s got our last four assists. But each one feels like it might be his last.
Assists are one part of the puzzle. Pat Bamford’s habit of downgrading them to ‘key passes’, as the statisticians note down passes leading to spurned chances, has crossed over into obsession. One day somebody will force open the door to Bamford’s flat and find every shelf and table filled with Danny Baker’s gaffe videos, the only light coming from a television showing Ronny Rosenthal’s miss against Aston Villa on repeat.
Our statistician friends calculate that, when Helder Costa fed Mateusz Klich and he pulled the ball back to Bamford eight yards from goal, our striker had a 33% chance of scoring. His shot went out for a throw-in. That should be that, now: missing a one in three chance, that badly, suggests Bamford’s nought in eight run without scoring is not going to be changed by persistence.
Marcelo Bielsa said his idea of replacing Bamford with Nketiah was delayed while he was “waiting for Bamford to slow his play”, for his performance level to drop. But I’m not sure what could be slower or deeper than my slip into despair as Bamford’s effort rolled over the left touchline.
It is possible to appreciate Bamford’s efforts outside the penalty area, helping “to organise the team” as Bielsa puts it, while thinking that the problem with scoring goals is now so great that we need to find another solution to provide that organisation, that also gets Nketiah onto the pitch to score. United’s midfielders should have the wit to play without Bamford, and who knows, perhaps their work will be easier for having a striker in the box who can upgrade their key passes to assists.
That’s what Nketiah did with Harrison’s hanging cross to the back post: a percentage ball into a packed penalty area that was a good option rather than an incisive pass. Get it up in there, thought Harrison, and let someone make something of it. Expected goals ratings suggest that cross gave Nketiah a 4% chance of scoring, but how can you calculate the instinct for space, the leap, the hang, the control, the nod that drew the trajectory that could take a rocket to Mars, or a football into Preston North End’s net?
Nketiah’s got it. Nobody knows what it is, least of all Pat Bamford, or any of the strikers we’ve watched toiling up front for Leeds over the years. And when you’ve got it, whatever it is, you have to use it. Throw sympathy aside, assume enough loyalty has been shown so far that now sense can take over. Leeds United need goals. When Eddie Nketiah plays, he scores them. Anything beyond that is overthinking.
Nketiah’s goal rescued a point and was the least Leeds deserved. After the game Ezgjan Alioski overplayed the stoppage time penalty call — it wasn’t a foul — but Leeds were, as usual, good enough to have won 2-0 or 3-0 without any need for a last ditch equaliser. Preston are a good team this season, with five wins and a draw at home before Leeds visited. They were smartly onto their chance to score from a counter-attack, a risk that the Peacocks always leave open when they attack in numbers, but that few teams are alert enough, while they’re defending for all they’re worth, to take. It was the sort of goal you almost have to shrug off when Bielsa is your coach: his style creates that weakness, with the calculation that it will be exploited so infrequently and irrelevantly that it won’t matter. And it wouldn’t, if Leeds could score more.
Even that sounds churlish written down: only Preston have a better goal difference than Leeds in the Championship, and that’s only thanks to Barnsley letting them score five. Bielsa is entitled to compare his analysis of the season to our pained reactions and wonder, bemused, what more exactly we want.
The answer is that we want to be promoted in October, because season after season without promotion means that, on a Leeds fans’ calendar, next May has been and gone again and again and again.
Bielsa understands this. I often use his keystone quote about the ephemeral nature of winning and the five minutes of “effervescence” that generates, against “that enormous and huge emptiness, and an indescribable loneliness”, that follows once the adrenalin wears off and you return to the natural condition of supporting a football team, i.e., hating every moment that isn’t success.
But his style of football seems bizarrely, perhaps deliberately badly suited to soothing any of that angst. This team’s brilliance — and this is their second season of it — has blinded us to its own success, so that all we can see is some relentless pursuit of a conceptually perfect defeat — or, a hard-won away point, as it’s also known.
Nketiah saved the game last night, but when the ball crossed the line it felt like he was saving our season, because the only things Bielsa has been able to give us so far — hope, promises, dreams — are awful gifts to receive. Hoping is awful, dreaming is awful, waiting is terrible, because they all mean you haven’t got what you want. It’s worse when you’re hoping, dreaming and waiting for something that you could have, if only, if only. We’re Leeds United, unrequited.
Promotion is something we might have, and perhaps will. How will we feel about nights like this, come May, after we’ve gone up? And how will we feel about going up, come May, after nights like this? ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)