Pontus Jansson’s story at Leeds United was supposed to end with him raising the Championship trophy above his head in front of a quarter of a million fans, celebrating our long awaited return to the Premier League on the art gallery balcony, firing Gaetano Berardi out of a glitter cannon.
Instead it ended in Austria in the red and white stripes of Brentford, with a bemused expression on his face and a broken biro in his hand, and a claim that he’s joining one of the best teams in the Championship on his lips. “Maybe not the biggest team, but for me one of the best,” he added, “When they have a good day.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, and if Leeds had kept their nerve against Wigan Athletic at Elland Road in April, or found it again before going onto the pitch at Brentford’s Griffin Park two days later, things would be very different now. United would be back, promotion bonuses would be paid, salaries would be increased, expensive signings would be arriving. Aston Villa are showing us the way it could have been. In the Championship, you loan Tyrone Mings for a season. In the Premier League, you buy him for £27m.
We’re all hoping that last season wasn’t Leeds United’s last chance, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be Pontus Jansson’s. We thought the risk was that he’d go to the Premier League without us, not to a team nearer to what Leeds were when Jansson joined us, a club where he says nobody, except him, was talking about going to the Premier League.
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That’s all anybody has been talking about since Marcelo Bielsa took us top of the league last season, and that conversation has drowned Jansson’s voice. Once a bold sea-captain pointing the way to port, his ship has sunk while other, stronger swimmers surge ahead. “When I came here maybe I saw myself as the main man, but not anymore,” Jansson said near the end of last season. Marcelo Bielsa, “He’s the main man, he’s changed the club.” The adjustment seems to have been difficult. Jansson could stand head and shoulders above Paul Heckingbottom, but Bielsa has stood with some of world football’s best players and stared them down.
The tales coming out about Jansson’s insurrections — fighting with Kyle Bartley and Matt Grimes, “riding roughshod” over Thomas Christiansen, refusing to respect Heckingbottom’s ‘no caps in the canteen’ rule, the final disastrous requests for a special return date this summer — might be exaggerated, and they’ve almost certainly been put out to counter Jansson’s version, that Leeds sold him because they needed the money. Even his friends and family, alerting social media last week that Jansson was “being forced out”, were conceding that his transfer was Bielsa’s decision. There will be truth in both; the Leeds hierarchy might have tried to persuade Bielsa to keep him, as Jansson’s brother said, but it’s true too that an unexpected few million, less the cost of replacing the banner of Jansson that dominates the East Stand, will make the budget look healthier. Perhaps they can reconsider their contract offer to Kalvin Phillips, now.
But tales of Jansson’s temper are easy to believe because his temper is one of the reasons Leeds fans have loved him. From that first screaming, fist-pumping celebration of a tackle on his home debut against Huddersfield, Jansson’s personality on the pitch raised him above the team and into the arms of the supporters; he played like who he is, a fan who was as keen to lead Malmö’s Ultras as he was to lead their football team. The video of his goal celebration against Aston Villa two seasons ago captures it all: after his salute to the South Stand, the camera closes in on his face as he absorbs the adulation, visibly ecstatic, unable to take his eyes off the fans and trying to see them all at once, yelling and punching and prolonging the moment. Centre-backs are supposed to look surprised when they score, embarrassed by the rarity, but then Jansson started as a striker, and has to get his adrenalin where he can.
The flamboyance came with a trade-off we could see as well. Or not see, when he was dropped by Garry Monk after the scrap with Bartley. Then there was the distracting drama of his card count when missing the play-off places under Monk; his refusal to fist-pump with the fans when warming down as an unused sub, a ritual he’d initiated, now taken back as if to spite… someone; the mysterious head injury when he lay down in the penalty area while Preston scored; the argument with Bielsa about giving Aston Villa a goal.
The shots of him after the play-off semi-final defeat last season, the last we saw of him in a Leeds shirt, summed this side of him up. Pontus Jansson is emotionally heated enough that his slump against the hoardings, gazing disconsolate across the pitch where for ninety minutes he’d been excluded apart from his yells and shouts at his teammates, musing on his shattered dreams at the end of a promising season turned rotten at the end, might have been sincere, a person feeling sad taking a few moments to do what many of us did at the end of that game, and stare in disbelief at the pitch where so many unbelievable things had just happened. But he’s also cynically self-aware enough to know that he’d be on camera while he did it, and what message it would send.
The two motivations are not necessarily contradictory, especially in the social media age; it was the equivalent of posting a carefully posed ‘felt cute, might delete later’ selfie on Instagram, a statement intertwining confidence and fragility all at once. We’re just not used to brick shithouse defenders in their late twenties showing the emotional stability of a teenager on social media, but perhaps that’s our fault as much as his; we pay Jansson thousands to play a kid’s game, after all, and his childish glee while playing it — or while streaming himself playing Counter-Strike on Twitch — was part of why we loved him.
And perhaps part of why Bielsa didn’t. Bielsa, who once said if he had a team of robots he’d always win, apparently marked Jansson out as an excessively human problem during last summer’s video scrutiny, and a season in his company seems to have confirmed that impression to the extent that he’d rather Jansson wasn’t around.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said that, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two separate ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” To think, for example, that you love someone but can’t be with them, that you don’t agree with someone’s actions but you trust them anyway, or that selling a football team’s best player will make the team better. I don’t think any of us would doubt that Bielsa has a first-rate intelligence, and so we have to trust his belief that no Pontus does not mean no promotion party.
In this excellent article, Jon Howe compared Jansson’s sale with the end of Howard Wilkinson’s patience with John Sheridan, who had dominated the team throughout the 1980s in Division Two; there was outrage when Shez was sold, but within a year, Leeds were a First Division football club again. But there was more behind Wilkinson’s frustration than having the club’s star player up on drunk and disorderly raps. Sheridan was one of the best passers of the ball in the whole Football League, but Elland Road’s pitch was suffering badly from being shared with Hunslet Rugby League, and there were few grounds in the division with much better than a farmer’s field to play on. Sheridan was numbed by the lack of grass, and was replaced by Vinnie Jones, and a new emphasis in midfield of getting the ball rather than keeping it. It would be hit long to Ian Baird and Lee Chapman and the game would be played around the opponent’s penalty area; a player like Sheridan didn’t have a role in that plan.
Don Revie shocked fans the same way when, after buying Allan Clarke to help Mick Jones solve his young team’s scoring problems, he sold Mike O’Grady, the winger fans had assumed would keep supplying the strikers. But Revie was mistrustful of O’Grady because he’d bought him rather than raised him, and he didn’t have a steady girlfriend. And he’d seen something in Peter Lorimer, who had been agitating for a transfer because he couldn’t get ahead of O’Grady in the team, that would give more to the side than an out and out winger. The fans thought Revie was mad. Leeds became the best team in the world.
Even without Bielsa’s insight, it was easy to see Jansson as the odd man out last season. He missed the pre-season indoctrination and, in his first League Cup appearance, looked dramatically out of his depth. His old self assurance returned with his match fitness, but he never found the subservience Bielsa craves. It was always Liam Cooper playing the mandated diagonal passes to the wing; and always Pontus Jansson charging forward with the ball at his feet, until he lost it, the Leeds bench screaming at him and tearing their hair out.
Howard Wilkinson once said that signing Paul Beesley meant he could sleep better, and perhaps replacing Jansson with Ben White, the loanee from Brighton, will give Bielsa better rest in the two hours of the night he doesn’t spend analysing his VHS collection of Danny Baker’s Own Goals and Gaffes. Young, trained in the Premier League ethos of being good on the ball and careful in the non-contact tackle, with a little roughness added from loans in Leagues One and Two, Bielsa can take White and shape him into anything he wants, without sulky dissension. He has Berardi and Cooper for strength, and a preference for playing midfielders at the back anyway; let’s look forward to, rather than fear, the coming Tano Berardi – Adam Forshaw defensive pairing. We’ll miss Jansson’s aerial dominance defending corners, but if I know Bielsa, his solution will be to fix Patrick Bamford so that he scores two to the rival’s every one; and that’s how you solve your defence.
When Jansson arrived United’s only option was to accommodate him; it was inconceivable that our head coaches might have an idea of playing that didn’t include him, even if they did toy with it by dropping him. But that changed when Bielsa arrived. Jansson’s dream was of leading Leeds United into the Premier League, but Bielsa’s instructions are to follow.
Bielsa might be wrong; dramatically, painfully, catastrophically wrong. But having your team coached by Him — with a capital H — is unlike it being coached by any other. You give yourself utterly to Him and your faith is rewarded when He descends as if from heaven, as He did at Bootham Crescent, and puts out a team that calmly, implacably and stylishly crushes York City. After taking a moment to lift a child from a wheelchair for an embrace, He was gone again, after making everything right again with this turbulent summer.
Leeds defeated York not only without Pontus Jansson, but without Kalvin Phillips, who is expected to and, for the sake of our souls, must play at Guiseley tonight. The change in circumstances around Jansson and Phillips is interesting. Selling Jansson last summer would have felt like selling one of the lions from outside the Town Hall, but now he looks like a pussycat in his new Bees top. It’s Phillips who is the town treasure now; ready for and wanted by the Premier League, he’s the must-keep lynchpin upon whom everything depends. That it’s no longer Jansson in that position perhaps says something that’s possible about Phillips’ future; if his coming season with us is average, perhaps it’ll be Ben White we’re pleading to keep, with Phillips sold regretfully to Barnsley to fund it if necessary.
But the change is most relevant to right now. “When I came here maybe I saw myself as the main man,” said Jansson, but by the end of last season, no matter how much he made us look at him, and how much we wanted to, he was the main man no more. Who, now, is? Phillips, the local lad? Cooper, the captain? Klich and Alioski, the ever presents? Helder Costa, the big signing? Bamford or Roofe, the star strikers? Kiko Casilla, the highest paid? Marcelo Bielsa, the god?
By the end, Pontus wasn’t raising himself above Liam Bridcutt or Matthew Pennington anymore, dispelling the bad memories of Giuseppe Bellusci or Scott Wootton. “I saw myself as the main man,” he said, “but not anymore,” and there we have, in a line, the story of Pontus Jansson at Leeds. It was a good story while it was about him, but we’ve got other stories now. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)