leeds united 0 – 2 norwich city: make it easy on yourselfBack
Leeds United made this game easy for Norwich in the end.
Actually, we try to make it easy for every team we play: the publication of the latest set of accounts on Tuesday morning was only the latest reminder of how effective Leeds have become at beating themselves at what should, in theory, be an easier game to win.
There are well run football clubs out there that must look at Leeds United’s annual turnover and weep at how it all goes to waste on interest and loan repayments and whatever else. Then there are well run football clubs out there that look at Leeds United and think, well, if they’re not going to take advantage of what they’ve got, we will.
Of course Jonny Howson scored. I’m just glad Bradley Johnson didn’t play as well, because looking at how well Norwich have done this season, and looking at how badly Norwich played in this game without him, I can only conclude that he is the midfield heartbeat that makes this team come alive. And while losing 2–0 and having Howson give them the crucial advantage was bad enough, I’m not sure I could have handled seeing the pair of them running things in a 4- or 5–0.
That might be giving Johnson too much credit. But much as we might like to pretend that in some way Howson and Johnson regret leaving Leeds, the facts tell a different story. Sure, they got relegated from the Premier League last season. But at least they played in it. And with that experience and their natural maturity they have become what anyone could see they were ready to become at Leeds: confident, effective players at the heart of a team on course for promotion out of the Championship.
That type of player is easier to keep than to find. And we had them; plus Snodgrass, plus Max Gradel. If you want to know how big a mistake it was to let those players go, just think about how much it would cost to buy them now that their potential has been fulfilled. And then look at the gulf last night between Leeds United, who don’t have them, and Norwich City, who do.
To tell the truth this was such an awful game until the goal that we can’t draw too many conclusions about the teams’ relative qualities from these ninety minutes; check the league table for that. The foul for the penalty might be the most significant example; Liam Cooper pulled Howson down on the edge of the six yard box in one of those bollock-brained moments that remind you he was playing for Chesterfield in preseason. Cooper had done the hard part, steering Jonny away from goal and turning him around safely; but then a tug, another tug, and finally a drag and a rush and a push and the penalty was theirs. And the penalty was hammered against the crossbar.
It was after the goal that this game really became hard to watch. Or, more accurately, during the goal; as soon as the ball was played to Howson, with pitch to spare in every direction, that sharp jabbing pain that heralds a Leeds United defeat could be felt around Elland Road.
Then we doubled down on the hurt. I’m not going to watch the video back to confirm it, but I swear down that after Norwich had the lead there were full five minute spells when no Leeds player touched the ball. This wasn’t Leeds toying almost cruelly with Southampton in the seventies; Norwich lacked that bravery. This was simply one team kicking the ball around among itself, surprised that there didn’t seem to be any attempt forthcoming to stop them. You’d assume stopping them was Granddi Ngoyi’s job, but apart from one well slid through ball that cut Norwich open, his debut was not the refreshing thunderstorm we might have hoped. That pass found Scott Wootton, by the way, which I don’t think anyone was hoping for either, even him.
Once Norwich had that lead and that dominance it was all over, and without wishing to single out an innocent bystander, it’s a fair bet that when Brian Montenegro is on the pitch the game is gone. Such is our squad, and such is the frustration at the core of games like this.
Howson and Johnson and Snodgrass’s absence from our side shouldn’t matter when we now have Byram, Mowatt, Taylor and, injured, Cook. But imagine if we were bringing Byram, Mowatt, Taylor and Cook through into a side where Howson, Johnson and Snodgrass were the experienced professionals; instead of a side where Byram and Mowatt are themselves the experienced professionals.
And imagine if the accounts published today hadn’t shown enormous debts and expensive interest repayments that, if your only focus was the bottom line, would make the cash value of your assets something you might seek to realise sooner rather than later. That would perhaps make Leeds fans sleep easier despite this defeat, because it would feel less like a nightmare Leeds are doomed to repeat.
Howson scored against us; of course he did. And as his plaintive gesture to the South Stand was meant to communicate, it wasn’t his fault. Jonny, as he did against Carlisle and Bristol Rovers, held his nerve under pressure. He held his nerve the way nobody in the boardroom in recent seasons has held their nerve; held their nerve and realised that, whatever his faults then and now, Jonny Howson was better held on to than let go.
All we can hope for now is Howson-like nerve at the top, rather than Bates-like jelly. Massimo Cellino – our owner in all but name – seems like the kind of guy who has a lot to say about balls. One of the many questions waiting to be resolved about his ownership is this: does he have the balls to keep Byram, Mowatt, Taylor and Cook at this football club, until they mature and lead Leeds United back where we belong?
Or was this ghostly visit from Howsons of the past only a precursor for terrifying visits yet to come, from Howsons yet to happen? Or, put another way, what shirt will Byram, Mowatt, Taylor or Cook be wearing next time they score at Elland Road?