The Square Ball Week: Statuesque

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

A row of five on the edge of the six yard box, a row of three on the edge of the penalty area, and a goalkeeper, like nine pins standing rigid, ready to be bowled over. Only Bailey Peacock-Farrell ended up on the ground, but as Josh Murphy scored Norwich City’s second goal, my respect for the others fell to the floor.

We’ve all watched this Leeds United team disintegrate this season, but at Norwich we saw its remains congealing like vomit on the grass. We’re now past the point where anybody on the outside can explain what has happened. Somebody on the inside knows, but they’re not saying.

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Nobody on the inside is doing anything at all. Norwich’s goal was the culminating moment of a team that froze in winter that no amount of hairdrying by Heckingbottom can thaw. Leeds United stood like children playing musical statues for the first time: the music had started playing again, but they didn’t know the rules. They just stood there, and Norwich walked past them with the ball and scored. Describing a goal should need some more exciting verbs than that.

Rather than ostracise Pierre-Michel Lasogga and Jay-Roy Grot for the balloon party’s worth of static they brought to the field at Villa Park, the rest of the team copied their example of minimum effort for minimum reward. After the game, Paul Heckingbottom sounded like a man butting his head against a detuned acoustic guitar, and even his criticism of Tom Pearce seemed half-hearted. I expected him to give him up mid-sentence the way the team gave up mid-match. ‘There were too many balls coming down that side and… and you know what… let’s just forget it shall we? Not really any point.’

That would have been just as effective as anything he did say. The players didn’t look as though they’d be listening closely to any post-match analysis. Watch the video in training? Just stick on one of those long steam train journeys they show on TV in Norway. You could probably have run an interesting test; hand out exam papers, with questions about what had happened in the game at Carrow Road, and see if any of the players could remember anything. Take in the blank papers at the end, and marvel at the blankness of their minds.

After reaching their nadir in Norfolk, what do they have left for the final home game of the season, the Category A entertainment promised against QPR? I have seen many meaningless end of season games, but even the glummest have avoided being grim. But if there’s to be a carnival atmosphere on Sunday, it’ll be a carnival as if provided by a circus of terrifying hysterical clowns with their oversized shoes nailed to the floor. We’ve been saying this for a while, but after the last game, nobody wants this game. The shame at Norwich was at least defrayed by being displayed away from Elland Road. Does anybody want to see Leeds United play like that at home?

Which will bring us to the lap of appreciation. If it resembles the Norwich game, it will be like watching a delivery of breeze blocks going by on a lorry. Other clubs have pointed and laughed at us for the way we acted as if the league was won in September, but in retrospect, we didn’t go far enough. If we could rewind, the Official Beating of Burton ought to have ended with a vigorous lap of honour, a trophy presentation and a parade. ‘Let’s pretend we’ve scored a goal!’ is still as popular a cry as ever these days, so why not ‘Let’s pretend we’ve won a trophy’? Tin pot, you might say. I’d take a chamber pot these days.

If September is too early, how about late January? Millwall’s two late goals meant we never truly saluted United’s players that day, but it was those two late goals that truly united this team with the fans, for the last time. Hardly since have the players looked as though they felt the pain of a defeat as severely as the fans, but coming so soon after the euphoria of the fightback from 2-0 down to 3-2 up, there was enough emotion sloshing around the pitch and terraces for the players and fans to all jump in the same joyful, hideous bath together. Maybe there’s a lesson in Thomas Christiansen’s team’s finest moment being a defeat: that we ought to treasure the good defeats when they come, because they’re as likely now as any kind of win.

The shame of it is that we’d regret saluting those players now. Should he show his face on the pitch after the game on Sunday, nobody will be thinking of Lasogga’s goals against Millwall and running to slap him on the back. If he’s keen to avoid a slap round the face, he may choose to skulk in the stands like Mirco Antenucci. The absolute worst case scenario is that he ‘plays’, because now when Lasogga ‘plays’ you can see the inverted commas enclosing his big full stop head, and one more game of that might be enough to cause a riot.

That’s the meaning of the game on Sunday; anger management. The points earned from a win or draw might be wretchedly inconsequential now, but the performance could dictate whether some of the players make it out of the stadium in one piece. Some players might know they’re leaving and be caught in a quandary; they don’t want to risk an injury and ruin a move away, but equally, when they wave goodbye at the end of the game, they don’t want a stray ‘Together’ flagpole aimed at their damnable eyes.

There is another angle. The idiotic, insensitive tour of Myanmar is stretching this season beyond credibility, and for the players, too. If they can’t motivate themselves to play in the Championship against Norwich, what state will they be in after a long jet-lagging flight to the other side of the world to play two ill-advised games nobody cares about? If you can find a market, stick your money on a double for the two Burmese teams. It’s as moral a way to make money as the tour itself.

I wonder how interesting the game with QPR might be if the players were told, ‘anybody who ends this game fit will be on the plane to Myanmar.’ Imagine Samu Saiz climbing Mathieu Smith so he can throw himself off the top and break a leg. Liam Cooper headbutting the goalposts as if it was a bus stop on a Friday night. Kalvin Phillips teasing his braid-bun as high it will go, hoping to be struck by lightning. Ezgjan Alioski jumping up and down, hoping to fall down the old well beneath the pitch. Felix Wiedwald turning his weekend walk in the Dales into a week-long survival camp; if they can’t find him, they can’t make him go.

They can’t make me go to Myanmar, but somehow Leeds United can still make me go to this match on Sunday, like a moth buzzing forlorn around the never-lit lightbulb above Eunan O’Kane’s head. If I could, I’d take along a huge old fashioned broom, and use it to beat the dust from the backside of every single one of the players for letting us down so badly this season. Ground regulations will prevent that, so perhaps I’ll just try to smuggle in a large sheet. At some quiet moment when all the Leeds players are stood still — during a QPR attack, for example — I’ll sneak onto the pitch, and throw the covering over all of them. Then we can turn out the lights and lock the doors, and there we can leave them, mouldering beneath an old dust sheet, like unwanted furniture in a sinister house. The class of Leeds United, 2017/18. ◉

(feature image by Jim Ogden)

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