Tyler Roberts has made Leeds United’s strongest case for finishing this Championship season, putting it in a new way this week.
“We are obviously not disregarding the guidelines,” he said, about the conversations in the players’ group chat, “But we are desperate to just show and prove in the last nine games that it is different from last season.”
The last nine games of last season began with a 1-0 defeat at home to Sheffield United, who took 2nd place from Leeds that day. Four more defeats and a draw, even with four wins scattered among them, consigned Leeds to the play-offs.
“I think the boys are more desperate to show people we’ve got what it takes to get promoted and win the Championship,” said Tyler. “I think that is why the boys are so desperate to play again.”
These Peacocks don’t want to leave the last nine games unplayed. That way, nobody can ever suggest they would have been bottled. As reasons for resuming go, that’s one of the best: better than national morale, better than needing broadcasting payments to meet disproportionate wage bills, better than the tatty curtain of ‘sporting integrity’.
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It’s an example of how this Leeds team have become one of my favourites. I’ve seen better players at Elland Road than Tyler Roberts, Mateusz Klich or Luke Ayling, but it’s a long time since I’ve seen a squad that is so determined, or that has so much belief in what they’re doing.
This pause, if that’s what it is, before the last nine games must be intensely frustrating for these players who, at the end of last season, became determined that collapse would not define them. Had they been promoted by March, as before Christmas it looked like they might, perhaps they would have felt short-changed. This run-in is important to them.
Leeds were written off after the end of last season. Those nine games, and the two in the play-offs, were all the proof the doubters needed that burnout will always be Marcelo Bielsa’s achilles heel. Teams aren’t supposed to be able to come back from that; history says that once the tether to Bielsa’s philosophy has snapped, it can’t be repaired. Mid-table and an ill-tempered resignation were due to follow.
It’s a testament to the players’ faith in themselves and their coach that they fought their way to being able to replay last season’s nine match dance with disaster, and that they remain so enthused by the possibilities Bielsa has helped them to that their pledge has persisted through lockdown. Plan A was working, although plan A was hard, and last season plan A was painful. All they want now is to prove themselves, and prove plan A.
That commitment could be worth keeping in mind as the UK, twitching for an end to its confinement, watches enviously as the Bundesliga restarts.
Back at the start of the lockdown, I described boredom as Covid-19’s partner in crime, suggesting that the longer we spend apart, safe from the virus, the more severe mental exhaustion might become among those of us not so far affected by the disease, or working essentially. Boredom might, I felt, be the thing that tempted us out of safety. Added to that, we’ll soon be hearing the siren song of German football.
Football on TV has been dangled throughout the crisis as a soothing indoorsy treat to look forward to, but when it’s being broadcast from Dortmund next weekend, it might not have such a mollifying effect. Already I’ve seen responses to the debates about restarting the Premier League, specifically responding to the 100 questions some club doctors want answering, asking why the Bundesliga can restart while English football is delayed.
The answer is in the question: the Bundesliga is doing better at this than the Premier League. It’s a better league in general, from its ownership rules to safe-standing to Erling Haaland, and if Leeds United could be promoted to any division I would choose one in Germany. That has helped the preparations for restarting be better; the difference, when doctors are asking the Premier League questions, is that the Bundesliga has answered them. Some players are worried and there’s no doubt the process in Germany is experimental, but they’ve reached a level of comfort allowing them to proceed. Even fans’ groups, initially vocally opposed to ‘ghost games’ behind closed doors, have accepted the economic necessity of playing matches; they’re still insisting on reforms in exchange.
Another answer is that, as a whole, Germany is doing better at overcoming the coronavirus than the UK. Even taking reporting differences and margins of error into account, and allowing for nitpicking over what statistical comparisons we can or should make, the United Kingdom is reporting more than 30,000 deaths and Germany is reporting less than 7,500, and it’s hard to imagine a system of accounting that might reverse those figures. The daily reports also contrast: the latest seven-day average number of daily deaths in Germany is 110. In the UK it’s 549.
A universal muffler of Covid-19’s impact has been the abstraction of those sorts of numbers. My regular writing spot is in front of an upper-storey window, that this spring has consistently presented an infinite, creaseless sky. It’s hard to connect such stillness with the horrifying glossary of verbs behind 500 people dying every day. This week is the 30th anniversary of the tragic fire at Valley Parade that killed 56 people, who have never been forgotten in Bradford. Yesterday’s report of deaths from Covid-19 was equivalent to that disaster happening ten times in one day, and yet we’ll never learn enough about them to remember the victims.
Social distancing has meant the stories that were written to commemorate the lives of the Bradford fans lost in 1985 can’t be written about Covid-19’s victims. Families can’t even hold proper funerals, let alone grant interviews to journalists, and even if it was possible, where would you begin, how many obituaries would you have to write to put across the facts of 30,000 deaths in a meaningful way?
Appreciation for the NHS has been distilled into a weekly round of applause, but unless we clap 30,000 times, or 200,000 times for every case that has been treated, or 5,000 times for the number of new cases every day, and think about what it looks like to have that many sick people coming to hospital wards every day, it’s too easy to go indoors after another week’s clapping, read about excess NHS capacity, look at the Bundesliga, and imagine we can probably knock the applause on the head pretty soon.
The horror of it all is unimaginable, but it’s what gives the lockdown the context we need to make it manageable. The last six weeks or so have carried with them, for me at least, many of the symptoms of a severe spell of depression: staying indoors, avoiding all contact, feeling disconnected, purposeless and alone, reducing life to necessities. But those are only symptoms. They’re easier to bear while knowing their cause is external, and that they don’t do nothing: they do something, out in the world, by helping to reduce the spread of the virus, hopefully sparing people from experiencing what 30,000 mourning families, or 200,000 worried families of sick relatives, have had to endure. Staying in bed all day feeling sad may never have helped more people than it has this spring.
The next phase of the lockdown is likely to be more difficult, especially now that whatever the Prime Minister announces on Sunday will have to compete with headlines from this week like, ‘Hurrah! Lockdown Freedom Beckons’. The treats of future easing have been dangled, and from next weekend, they’ll be visible in the Bundesliga. I’m fearing that, after taking too long to follow European countries into lockdown as the virus spread west, we’ll be too quick in following them out of lockdown, now what we see on the continent has become tantalising.
I was struck by a line in an article this week about Seattle, which has been coping better than much of the United States. ‘Looking ahead, the verb tense is important. Social distancing didn’t work. Social distancing is working.’
We’ve reached the point when even successful Bielsa teams can struggle. Plan A is working, and we’re feeling successful. But plan A has meant strict diet, punishing exercise, intense concentration and unnatural discipline, total devotion to ideas that were never contemplated before. It’s the existential battle Bielsa’s philosophy always faces: Neil Warnock got Cardiff City promoted without any of this kerfuffle, so after building up so much momentum, why do Bielsa’s teams have to keep working so hard?
Tyler Roberts’ eagerness to prove that Bielsa’s is the better way is also an argument for waiting patiently to prove it, until it’s as safe here as it is in Germany. We’ve had good preparation as Leeds fans by only watching what Tyler and the team have put in over the last two seasons; these lockdown days are our Bielsa double-sessions, hours of mental and physical fatigue to a harsh soundtrack of ‘Vamos!’ and ‘Carajo!’ We’ve seen that work pay off when Saturday comes. And we’ve seen the players’ refuse to slacken until that day. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)