barnsley 0 – 1 leeds united: the waitBack
If you accept that much of watching football is about enduring the mundane while waiting for the sublime then boy, was Barnsley versus Leeds United ever the game for you.
The wait for anything at all good at Oakwell has been nearly a seventeen year one for Leeds fans – Massimo Cellino’s unlucky number, remember. There hasn’t been a win at Barnsley since 1997, a comeback in the rain and Derek Lilley – who scored the winner, his only goal for Leeds, wearing the no. 17 shirt. I’m not totally sure of the implications of all this on Massimo’s horoscopes, but I’m glad for his sake that on Saturday Ross McCormack delivered in the sixteenth minute, rather than waiting a minute longer.
The downside to the early, brilliant goal was that it turned the rest of the game into an attempt not to forget it had happened. As Barnsley and Leeds blundered around the pitch to no effect for another 74 long minutes (plus six minutes of stoppage time), it felt more and more like McCormack’s goal had never happened.
The curse of the football fan: you wait sixteen years for something good to happen, and then it does, and then you can’t remember it happened anyway.
The goal did happen though, and again with Ross McCormack it’s worth dwelling on it to try and derive the maximum enjoyment from the one thing there was to enjoy. There was another assist from Matt Smith’s head, but this was one of those goals like at home against Sheffield Wednesday and away at Ipswich, where an assist was not much more than giving Ross the ball within thirty yards of the goal and leaving him to sort it out.
If McCormack has a trademark – away from the angry badge kissing and yelling stuff – it’s tricking his way past the last defender to get one on one with the goalkeeper. This time he did it all in one movement, before Mathieu’s flick on had touched the floor; Ross clipped the ball backwards over his own head and that of the advancing Etuhu, spinning past the defender so that all remained between him and the goalkeeper was the bouncing ball. Ross’s next touch took the goalkeeper out of the equation – a low and firm strike through Luke Steele and into the corner.
There weren’t many moments between the ball leaving Smith’s head and its arrival in the back of the net, but those moments had their own sublime sort of class, or rather McCormack’s own sublime sort of class, because they all belonged to him. Almost everything good this season has.
You can bend stats to suit yourself, and this one can be used to both praise and damn: Ross McCormack has scored 28 league goals this season, and got six assists; that means he has been involved in 62% of our 55 goals, a remarkable feat for one player, and a number that should shame the squad around him.
Saturday was a microcosm of the season McCormack and Leeds have had. A brilliant individual goal by McCormack, in amongst ninety minutes of dreadful individual errors by the players around him. Two wins in our last two have been very welcome, but they have come against sides that are noticeably worse than us, and the only real change has been that we’re not allowing bad teams to beat us anymore. Apart from that, Leeds are still serving up some dreary football.
It’s wrong to say passes go astray, because the players don’t really pass the ball as such. If Tonge wants to play the ball to Warnock, he’ll kick it in the direction of the left wing, because Warnock is normally somewhere over there. If Wootton wants to give the ball to Murphy, he’ll send it somewhere around the far edge of the centre circle, because that’s where he might expect Murphy to be. The only pass that is played with any intent is to Smith’s head; when Hunt took over upfront, the pass du jour was vaguely to ‘the channel’, and if Hunt got there, well fair enough.
As often as not Hunt wouldn’t get there, and neither would Warnock or Murphy or anyone else. One side effect of packing the team full of defenders – only Murphy, McCormack and Smith could be called attackers in the starting line up – is that they seem to simply love to defend, and so were giving the ball to Barnsley at every opportunity just so they could get back to their defensive positions and get some blocks in.
Maybe you can’t blame them – we can’t really expect Tom Leesenbauer to be dictating play from defence, but if Brown and Tonge haven’t got the legs to dictate the play, and Murphy is trying to stay forward in case something he can use bounces off Smith, it falls to the defenders to try and set the pattern of play, and the pattern of play generally becomes tackle – try to pass – miss the team mate – win the loose ball – hoof it at Smith – repeat.
A full game of this ends up looking like the players don’t care, which is very possible given we’re safe from relegation and this end of season trip to Barnsley took place with the sword of Cellino hanging over a bunch who probably won’t be here next season, and probably should never have been here at all. But I can’t accept that they don’t care, so I started to think that maybe they’re just not interested, and then I realised that that’s the same thing and still sounds a bit harsh. I’ve tried to settle on ‘going through the motions’, while defining that motion as ‘swinging a listless leg at the ball and seeing where it goes’, but none of this has got me away from a pejorative description. Maybe they do deserve that after all.
What people deserve has been a big subject at Leeds in recent weeks – does Cellino deserve to take over the club? Does Brian deserve a longer chance at the job? Do any of the players deserve their place in the team? Does this side deserve the travelling support it gets?
What the fans deserve is more of what Ross McCormack has done this season, and more of what he did against Barnsley – flicks, spins, goals, brilliance; something sublime among the mundanity. The thing is, Ross has provided as much as he can, and when you watch a game like this one, you realise how come: it’s not tactics or formations, it’s that McCormack is by a large distance a much better player than the players around him.
How we got into that position is a long story, but how we get out of it needs to be a short one. Leeds fans can wait for the sublime as long as we can be fairly sure that McCormack will supply it, but that goose has laid a lot of golden eggs already this season. The other ten did their best in the hours and hours after his goal to make it seem like the good thing had never happened – but imagine if it really never had?
Seventeen years – sorry, Massimo, sixteen and a half – was a long time to wait for something so small as a win at Barnsley. Long waits and small rewards is what Leeds United is about right now, though.
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