leeds united 5 − 1 huddersfield town: don’t want to playBack
It has always been daft to suggest that the ninety minutes of football on the pitch aren’t affected by events off it. This game proved it.
Try and list everything that happened at Elland Road over the last week: tot up everybody who was sacked, then un-sacked, then ‘sent home’ (in acting CEO Paul Hunt’s case); add the resignation then return of managing director, face of the owners and now a spurned new owner himself (for now, at least), David Haigh; have some Italians who don’t own the club or work for it hang around Thorp Arch all week and try to barge in on the bench against Ipswich; chuck in Luke Varney refusing to play, and then add the emotional impact on those at the club who knew Bobby Collins and attended his funeral; work your way through all that, and tell me the players were in the best state of mind to play a game of football on Saturday.
Everything outside came inside at Elland Road against Huddersfield; any pretence of leaving the stress at the door ended with the first songs of support of Brian McDermott in the first minutes of the match. The fire in the car park before the game was not, it turned out, anything to do with a protest, or the final conclusion of Tuesday night’s Chevy Spark mystery, but it suited the atmosphere to have a car burning while fans made their way first to the East Stand entrance to wave their shoes in anger at Massimo Cellino, David Haigh, Salem Patel, and anyone else who might have a part in this sorry carry on; and then inside the stadium, to see if anyone there could provide any clues about what was going on.
In the first half, there didn’t look like there were going to be any answers. United lined up with yet another new formation; Smith’s suspension and Varney’s refusenik status meant McCormack played upfront on his own in a 4-5-1. It’s often been said that Ross is no good alone in attack, based on his first season when he struggled to dislodge Becchio, Paynter and Somma from the job. There wasn’t much to suggest he was going to change that impression, and the whole team was struggling to make any kind of impression on Huddersfield.
Leeds were playing exactly as you would expect if the experiences of the week had got to them, so I’m going to go ahead and say that the experiences of the week had got to them. What snapped them out of it, though, was a lousy Huddersfield goal, begun when Cameron Stewart lost the ball cheaply and ended when Daniel Ward got round Sam Byram and scored. Stewart couldn’t apologise enough, raising his hand to every team mate, to the stands, to the sky; Ross McCormack, meanwhile, with Rudy Austin, gathered the players together near the centre circle for a conference. It was a captain-like and practical response. This week has obviously got to us, you could imagine him saying. So what are we going to do about it?
Starting with a poached goal at the end of the first half, Ross McCormack showed exactly what he was going to do about it; and the rest of the team followed. “He don’t want to play!” the Huddersfield fans had sung, presumably taking his interviews on Sky Sports on Friday night – first, saying he was happy to ignore bids from Cardiff and carry on playing for Brian McDermott, second to say how shocked and disappointed he was that McDermott had been sacked – as signs of a desire to get out of Leeds United. That’s a gross misinterpretation of the actions of a player who, even before he became captain and despite what some might think, has always taken his role at Leeds seriously. Badge-kissing has a bad name, thanks to football’s mercenaries; but the badge-kissing McCormack indulged in after his first goal wasn’t even meant to gain favour among our fans; it was purely directed against the Town fans for daring to question whether he wanted to play for Leeds. And he really wasn’t playing, either; this was serious business.
Ross McCormack is captain of Leeds United because Ross McCormack is the one player who would respond to the events of Friday night by scoring a hat-trick. Everyone at Leeds needed that on Saturday – Gibbs and Redfearn on the bench, McDermott at home, the fans in the stands and glued to the radio – and McCormack delivered it. His team mates needed it too, and I doubt we would have seen the transformation in Kébé’s performance, and to a lesser extent Stewart and Austin, if Ross hadn’t been taking responsibility both for goals and for on-pitch meetings.
Kébé’s improvement was the most notable; not only his goal, when he made and then filled a beautiful space in the Town penalty area, but his overall play was much better even than Tuesday. So far at Leeds he has looked leggy and tired; suddenly on Saturday he had pace and energy, and wasn’t nearly so wasteful. Stewart looked like his mistake for the first goal would destroy him, and there was a definite sense of ‘here we go again’ in the stands, but he got an assist for McCormack’s hat-trick and showed signs of becoming useful. There were signs from all over that the team was becoming more accustomed to having wingers; often ignored for passes against Leicester and Ipswich, now players made deliberate driving efforts to run round the outside of Kébé or Stewart and press down the flanks.
Austin was also the powerful presence in midfield that we’ve longed for him to be again, steaming into tackles but also showing the composure that he does have, although he hides it well, when passing. As he burst through from midfield in the build up to the third goal, I think most people expected him to screw up a pass, or shoot into the stands; instead he read the play perfectly and released Byram, who crossed for McCormack to score. Rudy also gets extra points from later for picking up McCormack and sending him, arms flailing, right back to the floor as they celebrated Ross’s hat-trick.
Byram deserves a word too, and we can start with that goal, which came from a swift counter-attack – not something Leeds have been known for this season – that he started by passing to Austin from the edge of his own penalty area; Sam was then off down the wing, and his run made it easy for McCormack to take the defenders inside and for Austin to play the right pass back to Byram. Sam’s a rare player at Leeds, in that he won’t only see the opportunity to play an eighty yard one-two, but he’ll pull it off as well. If Mowatt – and the elder Murphy – can learn from Byram to apply their ability and creativity to their actual actions, and nab some of his unflappable temperament even on a crazy weekend like this one, then we’d have three excellent players. Murphy took steps towards that by getting much more involved; and Mowatt’s first goal, a calm lob after Alex Smithies punched the lights out of his own defender, suggested his place is firmly back in the side, too.
The second half wasn’t without its moments of danger, but the way Leeds dealt with Huddersfield was emphatic, determined, and to the credit of every single one of the players and staff. It’s not often that referees get into the spirit of a game, but as United played out injury time by passing the ball among themselves, to the olés! of the crowd and recalling – and I’m totally serious here, especially given the dramatic context of this game – the ‘almost cruel’ treatment of Southampton, Graham Salisbury seemed happy extend time added on to let the players and the fans enjoy the moment as much as possible. "We’re Leeds United," sang the 31,000 crowd, "We’re taking the piss." Was it really an accident that Salisbury blew for full-time when the ball reached the feet of Ross McCormack, so the hat-trick man could pick it up, raise it to the four stands, and carry it from the field?
No, football is not impervious to outside influences; Cellino, Haigh, GFH and the rest all had their impact on Saturday’s game. But football is one place where you can, if you’re strong enough, shrug off those outside influences and play how you want. 5-1 was unexpected, it was almost ridiculous in the circumstances, and we were soon back at the circus when we switched on the radio afterwards to find McDermott un-sacked. But 5-1 was not an accident. In fact, thanks to McDermott, Gibbs and Redfearn; and McCormack and the players; it was the one deliberate, useful and clearly understandable act of the weekend. Ross McCormack does not want to play. He’s leaving that to the people on the board.