Time was always against Sam Allardyce at Leeds United, but this weekend the problem was too much of it. He was given four games to try to keep the club in the Premier League. By the end of his third, he looked as sick as those of us who have been watching this all season. A match that started well went on too long, like the season, like the club post-promotion. Allardyce will talk the talk about playing Tottenham next weekend, and who knows, who knows. But even if a miracle keeps Leeds up, Sam and all the fans will be glad when this is over.
West Ham’s players brought their children with them onto the pitch. After their families were subjected to a lot of hoodied posturing at the end of their successful Conference League semi-final in the Netherlands, the Hammers were making up for it with bring the kids to work day. Declan Rice was possibly, probably playing his last home game and the Premier League was straining to make something of this sterile moment, cameras searching for tears in the eyes of the boyhood Chelsea fan, about to leave the antiseptic shopping centre that replaced West Ham’s heritage. He’s moving like West Ham moved, in pursuit of even more riches elsewhere. You’d weep, because if you didn’t, you’d be letting the brand down.
Against their distracted hosts, Leeds started well and took the lead, as they did against Newcastle. The goal put extra flavour in Big Sam’s Wrigley’s, as Weston McKennie’s long throw into the penalty area was forced home first time by Rodrigo. He celebrated by running to the arms of assistant coach Robbie Keane, and the moment seemed to be about confidence, Rodrigo going to the source of the self-belief that helped him finish.
Like last week, the start didn’t last. Allardyce’s time in the job is short, but the games are too long. His approach has been to make Leeds United’s time on the pitch as free as he can from incident. Long stretches of time have passed in these three matches as if we were under hypnosis, when Leeds were making sure that nothing was happening. If nothing is happening, nothing bad can happen: that’s what Allardyce gets from statistics. At Leeds, though, there is always time for something to happen, and everything always seems to happen at once. And everything seems to happen to Pat Bamford.
Bamford is not the cause of Leeds United’s woes but the fates have made him their vessel, winding their threads around him like a spinning-jenny until he breaks. Has he even been able to properly celebrate a goal since his late equaliser against Brentford last season sent him sprinting into hamstring damage? Then Jesse Marsch played him until his plantar fascia snapped, then every goal he scored this season came with too much circumstance to cheer it. He was at the centre of the Newcastle game, missing a penalty that could have made the score 2-0, moments before the Magpies scored a penalty to make it 1-1, incident rushing upon incident. This time he wasn’t scoring or missing, but limping, his hamstring giving way moments before Jarred Bowen dinked the ball over the six-yard box for Declan Rice to score a goal. Leeds, again, had too much going on at once. The Hammers celebrated like every East End mother’s son was coming home from prison.
The goal had been coming. There hadn’t been much wrong with Leeds’ defending leading up to it, except that it was all on the line and there was too much of it. The game had teetered back towards incidents and the Peacocks couldn’t keep control. They also couldn’t keep fit. In the second half, Rodrigo started limping, his plantar fascia hurting now. But Allardyce said afterwards, “We couldn’t take him off because, looking at the substitutes, who could replace him? We didn’t really have a centre forward to replace him.” Leeds did have Georginio Rutter, worth £35m to them back in January, but no good to Allardyce now.
Neither were the subs he did make. Brenden Aaronson achieved little when he replaced Adam Forshaw on the hour, presumably all Forshaw’s fitness would allow. I wonder whether Jackie Harrison is playing injured, as despite Allardyce’s line-ups speaking for his faith in experience, Jackie’s been off on the hour in every game. Crysencio Summerville replaced him, and got on the end of some things without making enough others. Wilf Gnonto had replaced Bamford, and his game was a good argument for relying on experience. Sam Greenwood and Marc Roca were supposed to create an attacking platform for Leeds in the last ten minutes but, well, no.
It was already 2-1 by then. Leeds were insipid after the break and went behind in the 71st minute when a long spell of possession from West Ham ended with Bowen being flicked through into the penalty area to finish. Leeds’ attempts to salvage the match, and their season, are best summed up by the goal that confirmed the defeat: in stoppage time, West Ham tried to keep the ball in the corner to waste time, but it turned out easier for Lucas Paqueta to go around Summerville, Aaronson, Roca and Max Wöber, beat Rasmus Kristensen to the byline, and clip the ball into the middle where Manuel Lanzini lurked alone.
On Saturday at Molineux a game, and the relegation battle, turned in Everton’s favour when the fourth official’s board showed nine added minutes. Wolves had already subbed Ruben Neves off for an ovation, and although they hadn’t been on the metaphorical beach while going 1-0 up, they didn’t look eager to play another whole tenth of an entire match. Under pressure from Everton, they conceded an equaliser in the 99th minute. At London Stadium, Leeds had been given seven extra minutes to save themselves, and they were the ones who looked sick about it. Declan Rice played to the end. The happy hungover Hammers could not have met a more obliging team for their knees up. For most of the second half, they had their feet up.
Sam Allardyce’s month of moving targets now comes down to trying to beat Spurs and hoping for the best. I wonder if you asked him, he’d agree with a lot of Leeds fans, and get the games played tomorrow so this can be over. I wonder too if you asked him, ten minutes into the game next week, whether he’d know by then if it was worth bothering with the remaining eighty. Leeds have ninety minutes of trying left but few of their games lately have gone that far. We’ve had six weeks of waiting for second halves to be over, wishing for less time even when time felt like the only hope.
What’s wrong with Leeds? Everyone with an interest in West Yorkshire has had a say, and you know what’s up. Allardyce does too but, when he was asked after the game, he wasn’t saying. “It’s private,” he said. “It didn’t take me long to work it out, when you have [managed] 1,155 games.” Working it out, though, hasn’t prevented his four games, that were meant to go by like a lucrative flash, dragging painfully.
Leeds fans know it’s not about Allardyce, it’s not about these four games. Everyone wrote their post-mortems pre-relegation, justifiably, and all we’re doing with the weeks going by is rehearsing them again and again ahead of the final reading.
Andrea Radrizzani spending his week trying to buy Sampdoria underlines the problem at Leeds since promotion in 2020. It’s a club that got distracted by a future that now will never exist. The next manager, the next sellable young stars, the next rebuilt stand, the next owners, the next project, the next modern football club: attractions coming soon! Meanwhile nobody in charge paid enough attention to the club they had. Even if Leeds, somehow, get out of this next week, it won’t be enough to bring any of that future back. After playing Spurs it will be time to pick through the wreckage, trying to retrieve the memories the fans deserve to keep, from where they’ve been buried beneath broken promises of a future nobody was asking for. ⬢