leeds united 0-0 middlesbrough: purpleBack
Apparently, 20,424 people went to Elland Road to see this game.
I was there, and I would say that number has been arrived at thanks to some generous accounting, perhaps including Scandinavian fans who bought tickets but couldn’t attend, first because of Sky’s inconsiderate request to move the game to a Monday, second because of Leeds United’s pigheaded refusal to compromise and play it on Saturday lunchtime.
It’s a shame that the attendance was so low, anyway, because it meant fewer people saw the brilliant things that were happening, at last, on the side of the East Stand, and the good things that were happening, for once, on the pitch.
There were grins outside the ground, and winks, and people on their mobile phones: ‘Above the shop’ … ’17 reasons’ … ‘it says Time To Go Massimo’ … ‘Bates is on it, GFH’; laughing, sharing the news that Leeds United supporters were beaming their views onto the (rental) home of Leeds United itself, news that was shared nationally, internationally, reaching around the world.
One guy, in his sixties I guess, must have seen me taking a photo and spotted a smile on my face. “Bloody brilliant,” he said to me as he passed. “Isn’t it? And about time.”
Approximately 230 fans did this, which is a small fraction of even a sub-20,000 crowd. But only around 65 fans paid for the advert that went up last week, got international media attention, then was taken down when Cellino’s lawyers — well, Leeds United’s lawyers, which may be an important point when it comes to billing — put more legal pressure on the local company that owns the hoarding than they could be reasonably expected to bear.
That’s an increase of 330% supporters in a matter of days, which is what’s called momentum; and which, set against a backdrop of chronic apathy that has caused attendances to dwindle, is a significant achievement. Several managers — more frequently in recent months — have attempted to turn around the Leeds United oil tanker on the pitch, and failed; choose a metaphor for the Leeds United support, be it Oil Tanker, Sleeping Giant, Sleeping Beauty, or Big Dumb Tired Uninterested Rock, and it’s incredible to see it being prodded into life again, first by a few, then by a few more, then a few more.
It’s also beautifully Leeds, because it involved fans standing together in the dark. Not just on Monday night, to admire the projection; but over the weekend, when Leeds supporters contributed £4,000 — for a £2,600 target — with no idea what they were contributing to. Several naysayers on social media gleefully pointed out that those of us who paid in — I stuck £20 in — could all have wasted our money on the dampest of sponges, or even that all our money could be stolen and that we would deserve it because we were mugs, being mugged.
Well, maybe. But stealing from other Leeds United fans isn’t a trait I associate with any Leeds United fans I know, and as such, I felt confident giving £20 to some trusty Leeds United fans to do something good with. Other Leeds United fans’ experience of Leeds United fans they know may vary, but if so, I’d suggest they ought to review the company they keep.
And let’s face it, I wasn’t wrong. My money was not — surprise surprise — stolen. And what bang did I get for my buck? Well, for twenty quid, an opinion I share and an aim I believe would be for the betterment of Leeds United was broadcast on a grander scale than I could ever have managed with twenty quid on my own; a scale that is too grand to be ignored; and a scale that is only possible with popular support.
Cellino has lawyers, he has power, he has the fervent fealty of a section of Leeds United’s support, but crucially he doesn’t have the collective power of people who would trust each other with twenty quid of their own money. And if the numbers of people willing to put their hands in their pockets to broadcast opinions against his ownership — and that of GFH and formerly of Ken Bates, who were also mentioned — continue to increase at 300% per protest, that collective power will become overwhelming.
Twenty quid a throw is cheaper than the football, at least, but the other shame of the small attendance was that this match was actually worth the Category A pricing; in a way that, I suggest, the forthcoming game against Bolton will not be. At the rate Category A matches have been coming since, let’s see, since the home game against Blackburn, it may prove more cost effective in the long term to put money into projectors and protests and have Cellino replaced by an owner who actually cares about the fans, and doesn’t only claim to.
Do I feel as confident putting my money into a club owned by Massimo Cellino, as I do handing it to another Leeds United fan? Silly question. Perhaps one day putting my money into the club and into the hands of a Leeds fan won’t feel like completely opposite things, which is a lot of what the protest was about.
It would have been a shame to miss the effort on the pitch on Monday night, though. Effort is the right word for what Leeds United’s players showed against Middlesbrough, most of them anyway; although effort has to be the limit, because as ever they were short on quality.
A new, narrower lineup — dare I say it, almost a diamond — gave the midfield more urgency going forward and more strength to protect the defence, but also had Steve Evans berating Scott Wootton for not overlapping and taking players on down the right wing. Wootton’s answer in the first half was to draw an imaginary circle around his face, point out that he’s Scott bleeding Wootton, and sulk; second half, on the far wing, he did what he did against Nottingham Forest, and stopped every attack that came near him in its tracks, and gave the ball to Bellusci, who gave it to Silvestri.
That, and the continued lack of adventure of Mirco Antenucci, drew the ire of the easily frustrated few who turned up/were in the right country to turn up; most of the time, though, there were bouquets. Leeds United started stronger than Middlesbrough, they started faster, they looked hungrier, and Middlesbrough — top of the league, a new £9m striker in the side, entitled to be cocky — looked taken aback. They may have wondered if the Leeds players would be affected by Leeds supporters making their views on Cellino known; if the Leeds players were affected, it was a pretty good effect.
Leeds finished stronger too, and but for a creaky, tired spell in the middle of the second half, could reasonably claim to have been the better team. Chances were hard to come by, but there more of them than were managed against, say, Bristol City, and Leeds were a Jordan Rhodes away from scoring at least one of them. Middlesbrough had David Nugent on the bench anyway; it’s not really fair of them to have both, so I’m sure something could be arranged.
In a team performance that was all about endeavour, Toumani Diagouraga and Liam Bridcutt bossed midfield, and Lewis Cook showed some pleasant recklessness with the ball; Giuseppe Bellusci, conversely, has become conservative, except when he’s clattering through the back of an opposition striker. A strong defensive performance from Bellusci still included more back passes than the East Stand cared for, and Bellusci made clear with a gesture to the East Stand that he didn’t much care for what they thought, which I raise as a kind of parallel to the team as a whole.
We’ve had bits of games as good as this during this season, particularly against Derby, but the fragility Bellusci shows about such mild criticism speaks of the fragility that you fear will prevent Leeds from carrying this performance through to Watford. Play as well as this, and Leeds United’s players will have a chance in the Cup; give in too easily to baser instincts, and we won’t just be knocked out, we’ll be chased out of the competition.
But put the effort in, and that’ll be enough. The effort was there against Middlesbrough, and the support was there; support for the players’ efforts was as strong as support for the fans’ projections, proving that it is possible both to want Leeds United to be a better club, and to want the team to win. Although, when you read that back, it feels absurd that anyone should try to claim that those aren’t exactly the same thing.
It’d be worth £20 again to drive that point home again, and again, and again, until it’s made.