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the square ball week: last chance

the square ball week: last chance

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The last away game of the season, and then the last home game of the season, and then it’s all over. It’s not quite time to look forward, and it’s not quite time to look back.

It has been, for weeks, a time to look away. Nobody has wanted to watch what Leeds United have been doing on the pitch for most of the last five months, but with the takeover concluded and the distractions removed, there’s been nowhere else to look.

It was typical that our two most recent wins – only our fourth and fifth this year – should have happened away from the nation’s gaze, while our most recent defeat – our fourteenth in ’14 – should be broadcast on Sky for all to see. The figures published in the last issue of The Square Ball showed that Leeds have had average viewing figures of 400,000 this season, against a divisional average for games not involving Leeds of 279,000. A lot of people watched us lose to Forest, but even in the stadium there weren’t many who watched to the end.

Taking into account the awful quality of the football, the aimlessness of our season’s close, and the fact that all this is due to be burned down by Cellino in the summer, it’s hard to look forward with any optimism to the games against Birmingham and Derby. Most people are looking past them, to the World Cup or, too disaffected by watching Leeds United, to a break from football altogether. And yet the games will be played, and Leeds fans will watch them in large numbers, yet again.

I can’t find many hopeful words to say about our season closer against Derby. The only glimmer is that they may be concentrating on the play-offs, and not be up for a visit to Elland Road; the last time we played them on a final day, though, was 2006/07, when we were already relegated and they were duking it out for promotion with Sunderland, when the referee was stretchered off with a back injury and we played Robert Bayly (who was sent off), Tom Elliot and Fabian Delph and we lost 2–0 and we didn’t play in the division again for three years.

Derby’s team is also far too good. I’m calling shenanigans on Craig Bryson, who has scored 16 goals and got 11 assists this season, from central midfield – we’ve got Michael Brown playing there, and that’s just not fair. Five of their players have scored more than three goals this season, compared to our two, and I really think that like in the MLS we should be getting first picks on players next season to even things up. In the meantime, I can’t see anything other than shame and embarrassment for Leeds in our final match – followed by a lap of honour for the players, naturally.

If there’s a last chance to be optimistic, then, it’s against Birmingham on Saturday. Which is fitting, as the last time we played Birmingham was pretty much the last time I was truly optimistic about our team.

And with good reason. I wrote in the Barnsley match report how the performance in the other 89 minutes almost obliterated the memory of Ross McCormack’s one moment of magic before the game was even over, and the torturous end to the season has similarly destroyed every positive thing that happened to the summer. Almost. If you try hard, you might still be able to remember.

“Only Bliss,” was the slightly shoegazey headline I used for the match report the last time we played Birmingham, and it began by looking at the last time we had done all the things we’d done against Birmingham that day, and how long it was since we’d done them – almost three years since we’d last scored three goals before half time, more than a thousand days sinced we’d won 4–0 at home.

It’s worth pausing to remember just how good Leeds were that day. Two goals for Smith, one for McCormack, one for Austin, just as it should be; and Mowatt’s whipped cross on to Smith’s head for the fourth goal inspired legitimate comparisons with the best of Speed and Chapman.

Leeds had been stumbling; the six game unbeaten start to the season had given way to five defeats in six going into the Birmingham match. But Brian McDermott had used a fifteen day break after the 3–1 defeat at Derby to drill the squad’s best players in a 5–3–2 system that Birmingham simply couldn’t handle, and that seemed to suit our lads down to the ground.

Leeds only lost two of the next ten, and although the performances were rarely as good as they had been against Birmingham, the team still had the capacity to thrill. The second half fightback against Watford showed what could happen when the team’s quality matched its commitment, and how well they could play when on form with a rocket under them.

These were heady days, and they weren’t all that long ago in terms of days and months – but in football terms, they’re like another age. Fifteen defeats separate us from the Watford game now, and only six wins. It’s no wonder games like Birmingham, the second half against Watford, and injury time against Brighton on the first day have been forgotten, given the weight of the games since; or that the Brian McDermott who was buying the beers on the pre-season tour has been forgotten about, put in the shade of the Brian McDermott who can’t buy a performance from these players.

But what has happened? Can the Luke Murphy who was spraying Shezallister-esque passes around as Leeds fought back against Watford be the same player who couldn’t backheel the ball without falling over in the second half of the season? How can the same Marius Zaliukas save the day with a last ditch tackle against Watford, and then give the whole game away against Sheffield Wednesday? And how come every single god damn season Michael Brown sneaks his way back into the team in April?

There’s a time to ask these questions, and a time to answer them, and hopefully that time will be 3pm at St Andrews on Saturday. Because one factor that definitely played a part in that blissful and televised performance of the season against Birmingham was that it was against Birmingham, and Birmingham were and are awful. Luckily for us, Lee Clark has somehow remained in charge, and if this is Leeds’ one last chance to party this season, it might also be our last chance to do this to Lee’s face as he and his team disappear to League One.

The pressure should be off Leeds, but then we’ve been saying that for weeks. They should be able to put in better performances than they’ve shown this year, but we’ve been saying that for weeks too. For weeks we’ve been asking what it’ll take – do they need to face some opposition even worse than they are, managed by someone with even less of a clue than our manager, someone who looks even odder in a suit?

If that’s what Leeds United have been waiting for, then the stage is set. We might have forgotten it, and they might have forgotten, but this team can do good things when the right mood takes them. 20,000 odd fans are going to be in a right mood with them by the time of the final whistle against Derby, but against Birmingham it doesn’t have to be that way.

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