Of all the disappointments suffered as a Leeds United fan, last weekend’s game against Sheffield United was relatively minor. Leeds lost, that happens, more often than we’d like. It’s what Leeds does.
But in its way it was one of the most dispiriting minor disappointments we’ve had for some time. Even if you weren’t in a hurry to see Thomas Christiansen leave, you can’t deny the little thrill that comes with a new manager. Everything kind of speeds up a bit; the introductory videos on LUTV make you look again at a mundane training session, the press conference — at twenty-five minutes, more than twice as long as a regular pre-match chat — finds some extra pep. You look forward to the new guy’s first game with lungs full of the most toxic substance known to football fans: optimism.
And then it was all exactly the same, or if anything, even more absurd: it took less than two minutes for Leeds United to confirm their obstinate refusal to let Paul Heckingbottom fool them into changing so easily. When Kemar Roofe went charging through a Sheffield United player on the halfway line, it seemed like we were even going to get the standard first half red card that would have had fans checking their Sky guides, smacking the side of their heads in confusion: didn’t we watch this episode last week?
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In appearance, Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom look like the detective and villain from some black and white French murder mystery; Christiansen, with his belted raincoat, sleepless beard and inquisitive nose, hunting in dark quartiers with a description of the despicable suspect. “Greasy black hair and small, cruel eyes, he had the hawk-like expression of every petty criminal in Paris,” his latest victim had gasped, after she escaped his clutches and ran to the police. “The face of a man born to hang, but only if you can catch him, Inspector Christiansen!”
Inspector Christiansen, tired of cold cobbled streets, has buggered off back to Barcelona, and can’t protect anybody from the Heckingripper now. But the laborious point of those old detective films was usually that the hunter and hunted weren’t so far apart; there was some good in the killer, some evil in the saviour, and all existence is ultimately futile anyway, so we might as well smoke cigarettes and see what happens, if it ever stops raining. L’ennui, c’est nous.
Which is where Leeds United are at right now. This has been a boring week, because the Sheffield United game had nothing new or bright to offer, nothing we could cling to that suggests Sunday’s match against Bristol City won’t be more of the same. Heckingbottom’s home debut is getting bigged up by the club, who since the crest fiasco lack the promotional self-assurance of earlier in the season: they’re going with ‘\#WelcomeGaffer: Cheer on Hecky and The Boys’, with a photo of Hecky peering out of the darkness as if down an alleyway, after his next victim. The only excitement it promises is that Hecky might leap from the dugout, sink his fingers into Ezgjan Alioski’s neck, drag him from the floor where he fell and straight down the tunnel, returning alone, peeling leather gloves from his hands, picking a few stray platinum hairs from his black gillet.
But otherwise it feels damper than a home debut ought to, because his away debut doused expectations and excitement so thoroughly, by being so utterly Leeds United. It’s a strange thing that we want. Heckingbottom dealt adroitly with his historic hatred of Leeds by placing it square in his childhood — “Not Oakwell, not Elland Road, the field behind my Mum’s, that’s where that was from” — and he had to, because we want every manager, coach and player here to understand the club, which means, prostrate themselves at its history and grovel in the gravel of their insignificance. But we also want them to change it. I wasn’t made sick by last weekend’s match, but weary, because it was so tiresomely Leeds, and we all recognised it as such, and we’d hoped this bloke was going to snap Leeds out of our eternal Leedsness. Just so long as he didn’t change anything, because we won’t have our eternal Leedsness changed by some kid looking fresh from nicking apples at Barnsley Market.
It takes someone brave and reckless to meddle with Leeds United’s Leedsness, as the crestroversy demonstrated so well. There was a sort of sense to that madness, in that the Leeds salute is about as Leedsy as it gets for a lot of people. But as soon as it was put front and centre, made the symbol of everything Leeds United was about, all hell broke loose, as if the incognito villain doing the saluting was that dancing red devil from Stretford, with his garden fork held out of view. You can sympathise with Angus Kinnear’s and Andrea Radrizzani’s despair, as I doubt either has had such an intense introduction to Yorkshire logic before. “But we thought you loved the salute?” Aye, that we do. “So what’s wrong with having something you love on the club crest?” If tha’ don’t know, lads, we can’t tell thee.
That’ll be sorted out soon, to general, inevitable dissatisfaction. The weeks since have been a parade of suggestions of what best represents Leeds United: roses, smileys, scarves, sheep, owls, peacocks, croissants. Kinnear and co have already moved too far beyond the only practical solution, itself deep rooted in a Yorkshire sensibility: they should have never asked our opinion, they should have just given us something we liked. “But we thought you liked salutes?” Aye, but you only thought that because you asked us, and that’s where you went wrong. Now they’ve asked us twice, so they’re really in for it, and I doubt they’re any closer to knowing what Leeds fans want than they were on the morning they unveiled the salute.
Hecky thinks he knows what we want. On Sunday, he says, “[The fans should] come supporting the club and the players because one thing I have always wanted in my team, and I will definitely get it, however long it takes I will definitely get it, is something I know the Leeds fans will love and enjoy, which is an intensity to our play. With the ball, without the ball, I want that, and I want the team that I pick and the team that I put out to reflect what I want to see.”
Bold talk from the Barnsley boy, to which the first response is, that he seems to know a lot about what we love and enjoy for a lad from Barnsley, and he should know what happened to the last lad who thought he knew a lot about what we love and enjoy. Angus, they called him. The second response is to sigh, remember how little sign there was of this intensity last weekend, when we’d all been looking forward to it so much, and assume it’s all bollocks. The third is to remember that he only had a matter of hours on the training pitch with the players before the Sheffield United game, and that coaching takes time, especially when you deliver your key messages by muffling the telephone’s receiver at the back of crowded cafes, making anonymous phone calls, and muttering vague threats in French.
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It was a false start in Sheffield, through no fault of Heckingbottom’s, and the time has dragged interminably since, so that we approach his home debut with deepening boredom. He’ll be approaching it with diligent hard work intended to make Leeds United a competent football team, but we can’t even tell him that’s definitely what we want anymore. We want them to be Leeds, and Leeds and competence haven’t been tête-à-tête for some time. The line between detective and criminal is a narrow one, and even as he brings the little Citroën to a squealing halt on the quay and prepares to bundle Felix Wiedwald from the trunk and into the Seine, Heckingbottom is grasping for the solution to a mystery as dark as any that Inspector Christiansen has reckoned with; the same mystery, in fact, that brings the villain and the law together as one.
How do you change Leeds United, when it’s so determined to stay the same? ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)