The first time I properly heard Marching On Together was towards the end of Leeds United’s 1992 title season, at half-time of a game away to QPR.
The song had been remixed as a baggy dance track to match the fashion of the time, anticipating a title celebration; the two taken together, the song and the trophy, could redefine delirium right when everyone thought the Hacienda and ecstasy had settled that once and for all.
The game at QPR was played on a Wednesday night in March, and the score was 1-1 at the interval; Leeds took the lead, but QPR equalised while Rod Wallace was off the pitch for eight minutes with a head injury. That’s when BBC Radio Leeds gave the track its first play, the 1970s melody meshing spectacularly with shuffling early nineties beats and Italo pianos.
At full time the score was 4-1 to QPR, central defender Chris Whyte had been sent off in the process of giving away a penalty for QPR’s fourth, and United’s bare squad – Jon Newsome replacing Mel Sterland; Mike Whitlow, despite a hernia of his own, for Tony Dorigo; Lee Chapman playing with a plaster cast on his wrist; mercurial Eric Cantona and uninspiring Simon Grayson on the bench – suddenly looked incapable of fending off Alex Ferguson’s better resourced and infinitely more popular title challenge.
Marching On Together sounded good, but the match commentary that followed was the sound of Leeds United blowing it. Now, there’s a sound that has never gone out of style.
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Leeds didn’t blow the title that season, but I’m not sure that’s the lesson here. I’m not sure there is one, other than sharing the source of the dread I’ve felt ever since QPR’s futile FA Cup involvement moved this game from a Saturday afternoon to a Tuesday night uncomfortably close to the vital Friday night match coming next against West Bromwich Albion.
I still remember the contrast between our club anthem of togetherness and the bitter frustration that followed full time in 1992. I was eleven years old, and I think I experienced my first hangover that week, regret and anxiety gripping the days until Leeds played again.
I feared repeating that feeling in 2019 and, sure enough, it’s the way I feel now. However this season turns out, the despair of QPR away will linger, perhaps out of all proportion to its significance, perhaps in exactly the right proportion, if it’s the game that costs Leeds in the end.
What would it have cost Leeds to win? Some better finishing, maybe some better luck. When Patrick Bamford and Stuart Dallas scattered QPR’s defence just by passing to each other, there could have been a goal if Bamford had taken the first chance to shoot, if Lumley hadn’t saved Dallas’s shot, if he hadn’t saved Bamford’s follow up header, if he hadn’t saved Bamford’s attempt to shoot the rebound. When two players miss four chances in five seconds something is wrong with your finishing and fate.
When Pablo Hernandez rolls a ball across the goal line and your striker still can’t get there to finish at the back post, there’s something wrong with your Bamford. He’s not the only player guilty of being timid in front of goal, but he’s the first who can do something about it.
A better referee would have helped. So would better defending just after half-time, when Massimo Luongo held off Kalvin Phillips and crossed low to Luke Freeman, who startled Pontus Jansson by flicking past Kiko Casilla from close range. It would have been good to defend better in general, so that Casilla didn’t have to make vital saves from efforts that could have turned the score into a calamity.
What else. Effort? That’s the one thing Leeds don’t ever lack. But the effort looked watered down by Marcelo Bielsa’s pragmatism, which is where I think Leeds are becoming stuck. It’s old news that there is no plan B, but the players’ faith in plan A has begun to look cultish, as if they think all they have to do is believe and goals will score themselves. Bielsa preaches patience as long as the team is following the way, but patience is making Leeds passive, playing with faith in place of urgency.
At full time Leeds looked like a group of church goers who, at the end of a sinless life, have discovered there is no god and no heaven waiting to reward them. Every day they did everything right but in the end they got nothing, except the realisation that they had let life pass them by.
Leeds didn’t start the season like this. Every game in August and September felt like an attempt to rack up as many goals as possible as soon as possible; there was very little late tension in games, because Leeds gave teams very little to play for after the first hour. Our breath was taken by our first contact with Bielsa’s attacking philosophy. In recent weeks the air around Leeds has become stifling.
Perhaps it’s a response to pressure. Despite his Loco reputation, Bielsa has been carefully calm all season, as if trying to provide sanity at the centre of the Championship’s madness. The message has been to keep cool and keep playing, and that’s what Leeds have been doing, and did against QPR, dominating and building attacks and watching them fall and then building them again, as if there was all the time in the world to get this right. Then there were only ten minutes left, Izzy Brown was on the pitch and confused, and there was no time left for things to be going this wrong. The referee’s whistle blew and it was over.
Bielsa was photographed after the game slumping despondent in a corridor outside the changing room. It was a rare public display of vulnerability from a coach who is careful about his public messaging. Perhaps it was a clue that the time for patient faith is over and that Leeds need to become evangelical again in their commitment to Bielsa’s beliefs; that it will no longer do to continue in serene expectation that doing the right things will get the right rewards in the final judgment. Instead Leeds will have to wage war on God’s heaven and take it by force.
Or perhaps Marcelo was understanding that he was feeling something he’ll never forget: Leeds United’s anthem in his ears, a brutal setback in the dark at Loftus Road in his thoughts. Perhaps Howard Wilkinson slumped with the same despair in the same corridor in 1992. Certainly he’ll know the feeling. We all do. It comes with the club. We’re not just fighting the rest of the Championship for entry to heaven, we’re fighting our own past sins. It’ll take more than beating QPR to overcome the odds against Leeds. But beating QPR would have helped. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)
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