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blackburn 1-0 leeds united: heavy nova

blackburn 1-0 leeds united: heavy nova

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Football teams do lose games to Blackburn Rovers. But it’s different when Leeds United lose to Blackburn because of the weight we attach to games like these. 6,800 Leeds fans went to Ewood Park on Saturday. That’s some seriously heavy nova.

Simon Grayson, Glynn Snodin and Ian Baird had a lot to say about a lot of things at a fundraising event for Sherburn White Rose under 11s last night, and Grayson’s free, legally unrestricted swings at Gwyn Williams have grabbed most of the attention on Twitter and elsewhere. While it was good to hear it all in Simon’s voice at last, and Snodin’s revelation that Williams would hide in the dressing room toilets to hear what the players were saying about the management and the club was both eye-opening and depressing, a lot of it was confirmation of what I think most Leeds fans knew: Ken and Gwyn aren’t very nice people, and they did nothing for Leeds United. 

Their comments on pressure were more interesting. “We brought Jake Livermore here, he’s a Premier League regular now, an England player,” said Grayson. “Barry Bannan, Aston Villa and Scotland. But they weren’t prepared for the pressure here.”

They weren’t here long, but players who spent a lot more time here struggled to cope; John Pearson signed for Leeds in 1986 and left in 1991, started over 50 games, and according to Ian Baird he was physically sick before each one, and at half time. He would vomit to relieve the pressure of going out on the pitch in front of the Leeds fans. “I’d drive into training with him when he trained next to Elland Road,” said Baird. “Every day we’d pull into the car park and he’d say, ‘I just can’t believe this.’”

That’s Leeds United. This is the club with players who can’t believe they play here. This is the club with managers who, according to Simon Grayson himself, turned down big pay rises and Premier League jobs because they weren’t Leeds United. It’s the club that made Andy Hughes weep when he left; the club that Max Gradel tweets about on his birthday. It’s the club that takes 6,800 fans to Blackburn. And it’s the club that loses 1-0 when it gets there.

This is not to say that the presence of the fans costs the club points, like some sort of 12th man in reverse; but rather than, at any given point, Leeds United will have a mix of players, some who can meet the challenge of our expectations, some who are striving to meet that challenge, and some who just won’t ever get there. All players talk about adjusting to a new club. But they can’t put the adjustments required to play for Leeds United into words.

Paddy Kenny gets it. He’s had what is often called a ‘chequered’ career: fights, drug bans, promotions, relegations. Kenny has a song at Leeds, where many players in recent years haven’t, but he’s still felt by a lot of fans to be replaceable. Only Paddy Kenny would think to come up for corners towards the end of relatively mundane fixtures like Blackburn away at the end of November, though, and on Saturday he spent the last few minutes in attack as Leeds had a flurry of corner kicks in injury time in front of our own fans. A 1-0 defeat away from home isn’t the end of the world, even if it is in Lancashire. But Kenny, with some solid saves too, played as if it couldn’t matter more. “Billy Bremner used to have us playing five-a-side for a box of Milk Tray,” said Ian Baird last night. “And we’d go all out to win that box. That’s how strongly he’d put the will to win in us.”

Alex Mowatt will get it, but after his first few bursts of brilliance, his best place might be one out of the limelight for a while. One online betting company apparently quote odds on Mowatt playing for England before he’s 24: that’s too much pressure. And when you see him put his head in his hands after a misplaced pass goes to a Blackburn player, you realise he’s too young for that kind of pressure, too. Even David Batty struggled to meet expectations early in his career, under pressure representing both his father and his hometown club; and while Mowatt did chase back himself and nick the ball from David Dunn’s feet to prevent a goal and make up for his error, that instinctive gesture of horror at his initial mistake was a gesture from the academy pitches, not the Championship. It will be a while before Mowatt’s temperament and experience catch up with his awesome talent, but it’s worth remembering he’s not learning his trade just anywhere, but right in the first team for Leeds United. 

Then there’s Danny Pugh, and the one great chance Leeds made in this match. It’s not Pugh’s fault that Leeds only made one great chance; we should be making many more. But as a player with Premier League experience, a player with no shortage of Leeds experience, Pugh should have buried it. During his last run in the team at left back I watched Danny Pugh with increasing desperation, because he looked like he was coasting, like his performances were limited; this was not the best Pugh could play. Likewise with his return to the side: decent, but he’s given away a penalty, been caught out for a fistful of chances to the opposition, and fluffed a chance McCormack flicked onto a plate for him. I don’t know if it’s time catching up with him – although he’s not that old – or attitude, although McDermott says Pugh’s is excellent, and he’ll know better than me. And maybe he’ll be a player who gets a second wind, has a lower league indian summer and plays for another ten years. But I don’t feel it when I look at Pugh. There’s a gap there, between what I want from a Leeds player, and what I feel Pugh is able to provide. Perhaps he’s like Pearson, puking just to cope. Or perhaps it was just an unfortunate bounce, a smart save from the Rovers goalkeeper. 

It’s futile to classify players this way, though, especially when performances can change week to week; and from a fan’s perspective, your assessment is always at best an educated guess. Jason Pearce floundered last season and look ill-suited to this club; this time around he’s led from the back, and on Saturday he played his part in a defence that, although it switched off to allow Tommy Spurr to score, at least kept Jordan Rhodes quiet and kept Blackburn, most of the time, at a safe distance. 

But it never hurts to remember the weight on the shoulders of our players that isn’t on the players at Stoke, or at Crewe, or at Wigan Athletic. There are a lot of us, and we’re tough on them. And sometimes some of them break.

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