The first fifty-three games were a dream, and you couldn’t have dreamed them any better. Like a dream, those fifty-three games had no introduction; like a dream, the impression they left was incomplete.
Sam Byram stood out in his first season in the Leeds United first team because he didn’t play like a right-back. The touchline wasn’t a barrier to what Byram could achieve with a football; he trod the wing as if there were another hundred yards of pitch to his right that the others couldn’t play in.
As the ball flew over his head — probably a misplaced pass from Pearce or Peltier — Byram would spin, send out a leg as straight as any ballerina’s, and trap it on its way into the West Stand’s front rows. Another touch would take the ball over Byram’s head again, controlled this time, and to his feet as he span and scanned the pitch ahead of him, like a quarterback, to pick a pass.
That was Byram’s essential quality in the dreary, lumpen team Neil Warnock built. With only a few yards of grass behind him at right-back, between him and the corner flag, Byram influenced the whole game like a midfield playmaker, touchline to touchline, goal line to goal line. Watching him, among the Varneys and Browns that Warnock relied on, was like watching a dream; a player so adept that he could transform a match from a deep, defensive position where creativity was supposed to be the last thing on his mind.
Forty-four league games, plus nine in the cup, but Sam Byram’s dream season, like so many dreams, ended before it concluded. An injury in the warm up before the final home game was the alarm call that woke us up to the damage done in that year of impossible nights.
His hip injury sounded mundane but it has been enough to restrict Byram’s progress as a footballer ever since, or so we’ve assumed. Something has been holding him back, anyway.
Byram would deal with a ball over his head now by nodding it into the stands; whether he’s trying to defend, or more likely these days, trying to attack. That free-wheeling feeling of his first few months, when the ball was his to play with as he wished, on a grander pitch than anyone around had access to, is gone.
When he plays, and the ball reaches him on the right-wing, Byram is quick to lay it off inside, like a bumper in a pinball machine; as if he’s terrified to have the ball at his feet for too long, frightened of what might happen if he attacks a defender one-on-one.
There are few things harder to watch in football than a squandered talent, and it brings out the worst in everybody. Sam Byram was supposed to be an England player by now; that he isn’t has become an occasion for anger and blame.
We take a peculiar attitude towards the success that was due Byram in the north. If you achieve it you’re too big for your boots, and your roots; if you don’t, it’s betrayal. If Byram had moved to Arsenal or Everton in his first season, he would never have been forgiven for leaving Leeds so soon. His regression from that point now looks almost suspicious, as if he’s doing it deliberately to spite us. Sam Byram was never this bad before, we think, so why is he so bad now? Did we do something wrong?
Leeds is a modern, twenty-first century city, but its football team is still trapped within the plots of 1960s kitchen sink dramas. Young Sam has been raised to have every opportunity at his feet, but the price of taking those opportunities is high; he would have to leave the hearth of the football family that raised him, and he knows that if he does, they will turn their backs on him. But for as long as he stays in the front room in front of the telly night after night, earning nothing for his talent or from his chances, he will be resented for not making more of what he’s been given.
In the sixties the subsequent seething was set around the kitchen sink and filmed with uncomfortable proximity; in 2015/16 the dramatic stage is Elland Road, which even the most fervent United fan must realise is not the setting for a dream life anymore. Being in LS11 on Saturday afternoon used to be many people’s entire reason to be, but that feeling erodes on the regular, whether it’s Thursday night football that keeps you away, or the force-purchase of pies on your behalf, or simply the pain of watching talented young footballers fail and knowing it’s happening, and knowing it will happen again.
While Sam Byram has the get-out of a dwindling contract to bring his situation to a crisis, the team’s other young talents — Mowatt, Cook, Taylor, Phillips — are still in the first or second acts of a script we’ve seen performed before. Their careers have each begun with the rousing intensity of a dream, but each beginning is a reminder that Elland Road is not a place where dreams come true.
Stay in Leeds and you’ll sleep dreamlessly forever. Leave and you can dream to a conclusion, but it won’t be the same dream. The sagas at Elland Road, and the dreams, are never ending. We wonder if we’ll ever wake up.
Artwork by Joe Gamble
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 31