The Square Ball Week: Beauty on The Hoof

In Free, Leeds United by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

I was already viewing Leeds United versus Port Vale as good versus evil, light versus dark, beauty against beastliness, football against the enemy, long before kick-off.

Only I thought that the good guys would probably lose. The good guys being Leeds United, by the way.

Port Vale just had too much on their side, too much that had ripped the heart out of Leeds United before. Browneh in the dugout, Tongeh and Pugheh on the pitch, Neil and Sharon watching proudly on the telly at home. “I liked Brownie, he was my favourite at Sheffield, the lads called him my son.” Those are Neil Warnock’s actual words. Chuck in the fact that our early season optimism had to run out sometime, I figured it might as well be now. Such is the bright outlook of the Leeds United supporter.

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To have gone from such mardy-arsed gloom to a private 747’s worth of euphoria in ninety minutes at Elland Road was like mainlining a case of Carabao; thank you, ye gods, for this sweet nectar you giveth. It was as glorious as it was unexpected, because normally when Leeds United are up against evil, Leeds lose and end up looking like the bad guys themselves. Check your World Soccer Histories under European Cup Final, 1975 for your starting point — a brave victory for plucky Bayern Munich over the Paris-trashing hooligans of West Yorkshire.

Quite apart from the individual performances of Samuel Saiz and Ezgjan Alioski, or the supporting cameos all over the pitch, it’s wonderful that United have survived this far into the season with the summer’s happiness not only intact, but increased. Yes, it’s only been two games, but this time last year we’d disgraced ourselves at QPR and struggled past Fleetwood.

We’ve scored seven goals in two games already, and even if you insist on comparing like for like, in ninety minutes against Fleetwood last season we only managed one goal, and that in the 89th minute, certainly not four; in the entire season in the league Leeds only managed to score three goals six times out of forty-six.

Is it too soon to get giddy? Michael Brown’s presence on the receiving end of Saiz and Alioski’s brilliance, and his team’s angry desperation to kick the confusing wizards until they went away, are a reminder that after the last few years at Leeds United we simply can’t get too giddy too soon.

Think back to the last days of the Warnock era. Not quite to the last match against Derby, when he threw Chris Dawson in out of his depth as if to prove that he didn’t favour dinosaurs over our youth, and when our best player Ross McCormack came off the bench to score an equaliser on our way to a defeat, and celebrated by yelling at Warnock to fuck off. But to the match before, a 3-0 defeat away at Ipswich, the infamous ‘blame Tom Lees’ match, when again Dawson was key: dragged to Suffolk to sit on the bench, while his teammates celebrated winning the youth league without him, despite his vital presence in their team all season.

Paddy Kenny was in goal, of course, because he was always in goal whoever Warnock managed. Stephen ‘no relation’ at left-back, club captain Pelts on the right. A midfield of Michael Brown, Michael Tonge, David Norris, Paul Green and Luke Varney. Up front was Steve Morison, and there was no room for Ross McCormack until he was brought on at 3-0 down; which was all Tom Lees’ fault, of course, and not any of the allegedly trustworthy pros with which Warnock had packed the rest of what was supposed to be a football team.

McCormack still bears the brunt of many fans’ disdain these days, due to a combination of his constant new contracting and his recent high profile failure at Aston Villa (never mind 38 goals in two seasons at Fulham along the way). Warnock clearly regarded him as a troublemaker, explaining in his book The Gaffer how he “called the senior players in, Lee Peltier, Stephen Warnock, Paddy and Brownie,” to discuss what to do about McCormack, when McCormack complained about El Hadji Diouf not travelling to Ipswich.

McCormack wasn’t the problem. Sure, the pay rises and contract extensions were annoying (although nowhere near as lucrative as you might think, especially under Bates). But why were Norris, Varney, Green, Morison and the rest never in the press demanding better pay? Because they, despite being among the poorest group of Leeds players to have pulled on a shirt in recent times, who never to a man looked like they cared anything about the club that was paying them, or contributed anything on the pitch to make them seem worthwhile, were absolutely coining it in on the cushiest deals of their sorry careers. Remember, Luciano Becchio was sold because he wanted more money; Steve Morison was signed and paid more money than Becchio had asked for. Why would Morison ever rock the boat, McCormack style, when the boat he was sailing on was made of actual solid gold already?

I take this detour away from our current happy days back to the miserable days of sin in full knowledge that, after a brief false dawn at first under Brian McDermott, things actually got much worse, but I do it because that Warnock-enabled group of mercenaries still represent to me a low point from which I’ve barely recovered: an era when I actively hated the people playing in our team, and dreaded going to Elland Road to watch them. That season, I decided early on that my only hope was Becchio, so I tailored my match reports just to be about what he was doing, so I’d have something nice to think about. And Becchio was doing a lot: sixteen goals in 26 matches. Then Warnock swapped the one bright thing in my life for Steve Morison. I haven’t forgiven, and I’m not over it.

Enter, then, Saiz, Alioski, Ekuban, ably supported by Vieira and Bridcutt. The way they danced Port Vale into submission on Wednesday night felt cathartic and necessary. I only regret that the game couldn’t have continued, so that Port Vale’s players could keep getting sent off for kicking them, one by one, until it was eleven versus one: and that one was Michael Brown, dragged out onto the pitch for a long overdue punishment for the pain of watching him in a Leeds United shirt he was never worthy to wear. This might sound like fantasy, but remember it was Browneh — and Tongeh — at the heart of Neil Warnock’s mission to get a Sheffield United game against West Brom called off, through a series of red cards and faked injuries, a hideous moment of anti-football that sums that whole crowd up. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see that attempted again by Brown as Port Vale were made to look increasingly ridiculous.

That they were made to look ridiculous by stepovers, dummies, flicks, through balls, dribbles and everything else you ever tried with a tennis ball in the street as a kid was another kind of cathartic. Pablo Hernandez alone has done his best to provide glimpses of festival football over the last twelve months, the team around him trying hard to get on his wavelength, and succeeding often enough to make last season a relative pleasure. To suddenly have a team of entertainers on the grass at Elland Road was a new treat in what has already been feeling like an all-new season, and I intend to treasure it and wring from every bit of it all the pleasure that I can.

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Unless, against Preston on Saturday, it’s even better. Our team, the champions in waiting of Division Two, haven’t even played a home league game yet. It doesn’t matter. There’s a fresh feeling, like we’ve never played a home league game ever, or at least, like the worst of the last five years since Simon Grayson was sacked never happened. Viva good stuff, viva Saiz, viva Leeds United. ◉

(feature image by Lee Brown)