Wheel of fortune

Spiritually: Top of the League

Written by: Flora Snelson
Photograph by: Lee Brown
A photograph of Sarah Danby playing for Leeds United Women against some team in red

“Hey Leeds, you deserve that, well done,” injured captain Becki Bass called from the sidelines as United struck first in a decisive promotion battle at Durham Cestria. The Whites would have to keep their record perfect for the final seven games of the season in order to out-point the four teams ahead of them in the queue, but scoring a goal against a side closer to salvation was the right place to start.

This was the sixth successive game in which United have scored first, but Katie Astle celebrated the goal with more animation than we’ve seen this season as she made a mark on a team much more likely to get out of the division than hers.

This was justice, according to Bass, nothing but a fair reward for Leeds’ efforts. It’s nice when that happens. It doesn’t always. The equaliser by which Leeds Modernians kickstarted their unlikely County Cupset against Leeds last month was described by the club website report as ‘fortuitous’. After United opted not to publish footage of the tie, a highlights reel uploaded by the Mods showed what the report meant.

It was fortuitous for Modernians that they had the desire to win, that their opponents’ ‘keeper wasn’t great with her feet that day, that the Mods club captain could be arsed to charge down the clearance and that these facts combined to produce a ball that flew into the net by such a bizarre path that the losing side could comfort themselves by putting it down to a fluke.

It was rough luck that fortune, dual-signed for Cestria, equalised in similar circumstances again on Sunday. By some cruel chance, when the Leeds midfield parted for a striding blue shirt she spotted the run of teammate Jordan Atkinson on the wing. It wasn’t Leeds’ fault that Atkinson, caught between crossing and shooting, then thought ‘let’s give this a welly’ anyway, or that her hellishly unjust punt-taking caused the ball to sail ‘rather fortuitously’ into the back of United’s net.

This time it was Whites midfielder Kath Smith’s turn to assess the justice of the game. “Hey girls, come on, we didn’t deserve that,” she shouted as Cestria celebrated their leveller. Football players and spectators are obsessed with matching reality with our perception of who is deserving. How often have you heard back-to-back missed chances chased with the assurance that ‘it’s coming’? After knocking on the door enough times, eventually, it should open.

Conversely, I felt a touch guilty when my team, Leeds Hyde Park, robbed a late equaliser and a point from Farsley Celtic last month. We hadn’t worked to earn anything from a game in which our hosts had all of the ball, I’d felt — but then, how deserving was the team who couldn’t convert possession into chances, or defend a single simple corner?

Football doesn’t go how you expect it to all of the time, but wildly inappropriate moments and results don’t come around often. For every ‘fortuitous’ goal you concede, there’s the missed chance you’re lucky to get away with. At Durham, United survived one inside ten minutes, when ‘keeper Abi Megeary met a free-kick with an unconventional volleyball scoop. Her quick reactions, and those of defender Ellie Dobson, halted the feeding frenzy inspired by the dangerously dropping ball.

There was nothing chancey about the goal that gave Durham the lead. Granted, Leeds had little to do with the impressive weaker foot with which Vicky Neuefeind beat the the wall and found the net, but wasn’t it the Whites’ collective desperation to keep a Cestria side finding their rhythm at bay that led captain Olivia Smart to concede the set-piece in the first place?

It is unequivocally fortunate that super striker Jess Rousseau is back from injury. Sitting out the last two games is one reason why she didn’t finish a lofty half-chance of the sort that Erling Haaland might freakishly stab home. The other is that it was nothing like a sitter, and this weekend showed that even the Norwegian giant misses sitters. Nonetheless, so familiar is the sight of her getting it in against the odds, the United match report rues Rousseau’s failure to convert a slim hope. “When you don’t put away a chance when you can, it can come back to haunt you,” manager Simon Wood said after the final whistle.

With a win at Durham Cestria the only viable path to promotion, Leeds’ one-goal deficit was enough of a challenge without the hosts tapping in a third from a corner. As luck would have it, the offside flag kept United in the game as the linesperson failed to notice that a Leeds head had made the first contact.

But when Megeary inadvertently passed the ball into the path of a Durham player, the fortunes refused to give Leeds a third lifeline. Who is deserving? Leanna Giles’ far-corner strike was the decisive bang of the gavel.

Substitute Izzy Elliott appealed the ruling with her first touch of the game, finishing the scraps of a Rousseau strike to make it 3-2 late on, but the Whites’ plea went ungranted and the game ended in defeat. Five points adrift of fourth-placed Barnsley, Leeds are falling behind the chasing pack — but the numbers won’t stop manager Simon Wood getting an elite vibe from his side.

“They’ve shown they’re competing with a team that’s top of the league because we’re in that group of teams,” said Wood. “What we’ve got to do in the games going forward is take the chances and opportunities that win us those sorts of games. And then we come out with positive results, and the girls are on top of the world rather than feeling frustrated.”

Spiritually: top of the league. Actually: failing to take the chances to get the results that would put them there. If the division was decided with consideration for ifs and buts and ‘nearly scoreds’, we’d all be getting promoted — though I don’t know how Leeds might explain away the misjudged foul and howler by which their game against Cestria was actually decided.

Wood’s emotional post-match interview speaks to the cruelty of football. “We could have been back at 2-2”, he said. Things might have been different had Leeds not “ran out of time”. I think we can all agree that no one who works “extremely hard” should be sulking into their Sunday roast.

No sportsperson is without a tale of trying their best and falling short, but it feels like Leeds United Women have had more than their fair share. The best tonic is remembering that hard work doesn’t guarantee success, but when success comes, it feels so good that the pain of endeavour is forgotten. ⬢

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