leeds united 0-3 blackburn rovers: football’s not straightforwardBack
“Football’s not straightforward,” Neil Redfearn told BBC Leeds’ Adam Pope after the game on Saturday.
The complicating factors are what make it a game worth loving, though. Two teams of eleven players each, one pitch, two goals one ball; it would never be enough on its own. In a vacuum, played by automatons, football would be nothing.
The more random, difficult elements you add to the game, the more enthralling it becomes; it becomes about more than just kicking a ball into a net. It becomes about a referee, inexplicably devoted to the opinions of his linesmen, giving a red card out of thin air to a team’s key player. It becomes about a central defender, embattled abroad, failing to overcome the suspicions of many in the stands about his malevolent influence as his play gifts goals to the opponents. It becomes about a head coach, bewildered, undermined and abandoned, watching as a tactical change blows up in slow motion in front of him; like almost everything he does blows up in slow motion in front of him, one way or another.
Football is about all of those things, and more; and winning at football is about controlling all of those things, and more. You have to remove as many of the complications as you can, and minimise the impact of the others, so that this game with its bouncing ball and twenty-two personalities, plus benches, plus officials, plus tens of thousands of spectators becomes as predictable as possible.
So that the plans you worked out in training can be put into action and work. So the players you choose to play can be focused on the jobs you give them. So you can end the game with eleven players on your side, without giving any easy goals away for nothing. So that you can win the game of football which, in the middle of the tempest, is still the point.
Leeds United didn’t win this game of football. The complexities – and it feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of the complexities at the club – were more than Neil Redfearn, without assistance from Steve Thompson, could control. “If the events of this week were designed to disrupt then it worked,” he said, and that’s without even taking into account the normal football stuff that befell Leeds between 3pm and 5pm.
The opening half was not bad at all. Rodolph Austin isn’t Lewis Cook but he can play like him in many way; mainly the get-the-ball-and-charge-forward-fast way. With Austin at the heart of things and Murphy as ever loving an angled pass, Leeds were on the front foot, which was fortunate as they were utterly dozy at the back. Waves of decent Leeds attacks would be interrupted by the clearest chances for Rovers to take the lead, while Jordan Rhodes was having no trouble at all escaping Bellusci and Bamba and wandering freely.
Exit Austin, however, for the crime of upsetting a sensitive linesman even while nobody else seemed to be affected, and exit Leeds’ chances of winning the game. The collapse when it came brought down heavier masonry than it ought, however. Bellusci tackled air and Blackburn were in down the Leeds left; more Leeds defenders flew around the penalty area like startled pigeons but none could do anything to stop Blackburn scoring.
The substitutions that followed were necessary if Leeds were to win the game, but didn’t actually do anything to increase our chances. The full backs departed and Leeds switched to 3–4–2, but with Morison again beyond lousy upfront Antenucci received no help towards earning his contract extension. I don’t know who would actually be vindicated if he fails to reach the rumoured twelve goal target; I suspect we’d all be losers in different ways.
At the other end more space was exactly what Blackburn’s forwards wanted. Darting between Bamba, Bellusci and Cooper, and for the second goal pretty much fed by Cooper in the first place, they had room and freedom to threaten and Rovers looked like running away five or six-nil. That the score stayed down to three wasn’t much to do with Leeds’ defending, Bellusci again taking the blame for the third.
I sometimes think it’s a cop-out for clubs to be able to give attendance figures based on numbers of tickets sold. They should be forced to admit how many people actually stayed in the ground until the very end of a game; a high number for a resounding win, and a low, low number for a defeat like this. It wasn’t only the performance that drove the fans out early, but the mood, and the weight of the complications from off the pitch that are damaging attempts at success on it.
Whatever the truth of the past week away from the grass at Elland Road, and whoever might be right and whoever might be wrong, the end result is always going to be this: a 3–0 home defeat to Blackburn Rovers. For as long as we bring our own complexities to the game, through owners and personalities and watermelons and mavericks, the odds will always be against us even in these run-of-the-mill-town fixtures.
That’s what makes so many fans leaving the ground or switching off their radios after this game look at this morning’s reports of takeover interest from Red Bull and think, you know what, that sounds alright. Red Bull are a global corporation, and they have approached the football clubs they currently own like a global corporation, and in theory their global, corporate distance should be like a cleansing white light when compared to the personality-driven chaos that has brought Leeds United too many weeks this one. If you’re talking about controlling complexity, the people behind a company that made billions selling a single brand of standard formula energy drink should be experts, and as such Leeds United, when owned by Red Bull should win all the time. That’s the allure.
But that’s also the danger. Because, as I said at the start, take away those complicating factors and football loses what makes it worth loving. Opting for Red Bull simplicity would trade away a large part of the club’s identity not only in terms of the team name or the kit colour or the stadium name, but in terms of the struggle that makes us, us. Giving away the club’s identity would be giving away what makes the club what it is: and what the club is is a battle to assert an identity, to say, Leeds United is the best. The identity is the battle and, even when we lose, the battle is the club.
We all want a way out of what Leeds United has become, but we won’t get out of it by selling our way out, to Red Bull or to anybody else. We can only get out of this if we keep fighting. We have to fight our way out; or fight, or buy, our way in. “Football’s not straightforward.” And, the day that it is, it’s over.