Everybody at Leeds United is firmly on the same page. The Football League Championship play-off semi-final second leg against Derby County at Elland Road is no longer relevant. It’s history. It’s not even history: the page everybody is on is the diary entry for 15th May 2019, that has been torn out, screwed up and thrown down the well beneath the pitch, to moulder there with all the rest of our curses.
“I don’t link the match on Saturday with the matches of the last season,” said Marcelo Bielsa this week. “I know what happens on Saturday doesn’t modify what happened in the past.” Ezgjan Alioski, who is guarded in press conferences as if ten people like him are asking the questions, answered about the relevance of the game with a single syllable, “No.” Then he was asked about a new contract and he decided he wanted to talk about the Derby game after all.
He meant the Derby game that’s coming this weekend, which is what everybody at Elland Road is focusing on, or so they say. And that, in any case, only accounts for the playing staff. In the stands, Leeds United’s fans are not so easily resolved to moving on.
A lot of us are barely over the events of 15th May, and that’s why we need this game to be won. As Rob Conlon wrote in the first TSB magazine of this season, the story couldn’t end there, like that; as Flora Snelson writes in the new issue, “I strangely felt as though a part of myself, one that I had spent a season of my life building and nurturing, was lost.”
The players might want this to be just another game, but the fans can’t make such an easy distinction between May and September. This is now a game that has to be won, because even if victory can’t modify the events of the past, another defeat would certainly be linked to the last one, if only — only! — emotionally.
It has been one hell of a hangover, but it was one hell of a party. The anticipation, the arrival, the excitement, at first; then there’s a memory of Liam and Kiko doing a booze-run, coming back stumbling beneath more cans than they could carry; things got out of hand, Gaetano got into a fight; someone was crying, nobody can remember getting home. Then the morning after came the rags: regret, anxiety, guilt, shame.
You could tell fans were still processing it on their tentative return to watch Leeds draw with Nottingham Forest this season, and losing to Swansea City last time means there is a difference between United’s home and away form that is hard to resist linking back to May. All our memories run back to a half-remembered image of Frank Lampard half-stripped from his cheap-looking suit, like streams of cold sweat into an ocean of Lynx Africa.
But it means something to be feeling this way about football; to be feeling, at all, about football. As thoughts turn to Leeds United’s centenary, and backwards through its past, I’ve been thinking about the strongest memories I’ve gathered from a life given meaning by visits to Elland Road. Seeing Gordon Strachan lift the league championship trophy is one, although I was so young I’m not sure the photos and videos haven’t left a stronger imprint. The Champions League nights are another, especially Lee Bowyer’s last minute winner against Milan and, perhaps tellingly, Rivaldo’s last minute equaliser for Barcelona. The Bristol Rovers game needs no further comment. And then? Nothing, really. Nothing until Leeds versus Derby, 15th May 2019. It hurt, but it was memorable, and unlike any other game I’ve lived through.
Another thought is about players from the last decade, about who there was to admire, to take with you from the last ten years as part of 100 years of history. I will always argue for Luciano Becchio, of course, one of our ten best league goalscorers of all time, but Neil Warnock ensured he was gone early in the decade. Some of the current squad might become iconic, but their status is pending, depending on promotion. There have been players I’ve loathed, and you shouldn’t get me started, as Michael Brown begat Steve Morison begat Giuseppe Bellusci; and players I’ve loved against all reason, like Jordan Botaka. The young players who went elsewhere leave a wistful pang, and there were a few players who connected with the fans, like Robert Snodgrass or Ross McCormack. But when it comes to enduring, long serving presences through the 2010s, it looks like Rudy Austin and Tom Lees played a lot of games between 2010 and 2020 without really letting anybody down, and after them, there’s not many to remember. And neither Rudy or Tom have faces that inspire strong emotional responses, unless we accept stern as an emotion.
If you were stern at the end of the Derby game, or stoic or composed, I salute you. I, and I suspect you, if you’re honest, was a wreck. And I can still feel it clearly, when most of the preceding decade at Elland Road only left me numb: watching our seasons ground out into meaninglessness on cold February nights. When I used to long for Steve Evans to bring Botaka onto the wing, it was desperation for something to happen, whether it was good or bad, just for something to happen that would make me feel. For most of the years since, beating Bristol Rovers on 8th May 2010 felt like ancient history, but still the most recent feeling worth remembering.
I pity gloryhunters, because nobody should get into football for the success, and they certainly shouldn’t follow Leeds United. Our most memorable games, the moments that define our club, are the ones that hurt us the most. What do Leeds fans discuss more, Allan Clarke in 1972, or Franz Beckenbauer in 1975? By singing that we’re the champions of Europe, we internalise, ironise and reclaim the gravest injustice of the many done against us. The hurt makes us who we are. At 10pm on the 15th May this year, I knew exactly who I was.
While being absent from the Premier League for so long has robbed the Peacocks of some of our grandeur, the absence of the sort of shocking failure that befell us in Paris ’75 and May ’19 has also denied us part of our sense of self. Our first game in the Championship after relegation in 2004 was a home win over Derby County; it would have been poetically symmetrical to make Elland Road’s last match of fifteen years outside the Premier League another win over Derby County. But that sort of storybook ending would never do for Leeds, and that’s what made the first half against Derby feel so ecstatic after Stuart Dallas scored: it couldn’t possibly be happening to us. And, true. It wasn’t.
I don’t know what that means for the destiny of the three league points available on Saturday. But I know that the memory of the emotional crucible Elland Road became on 15th May won’t be forgotten by any of the fans who will be there, taking the same seats, looking at the same view, raising an eyebrow at the same people around that means, yes, we remember. But from 8th May 2010 to 15th May 2019, from six months after the start of the decade to six months from the end, there wasn’t anything like this to remember feeling, because there was nothing to feel, because there was no heart. Far from moving on, from cutting the link, ignoring the past, we should let that emotion sustain us, welcome the capacity to feel. It means the club has a heart again. It was never going to get promoted without one. ◉
(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)
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(photo by Lee Brown)