leeds united 0-2 cardiff city: valentine’s deadBack
Neil Warnock is a pox on football, a pest, a blight; if he was a building, neighbours would campaign for his demolition, to stop people lighting fires on his derelict rubble-strewn floors and pets being injured climbing across the shattered glass of his broken windows.
As I left Elland Road a cold, wet, bitter wind blew down the Lowfields, and it felt like the icy spit-flecked breath of Warnock himself, blowing his hideous chill across the concrete dominated landscape, bring sickness to the few choking trees. The wind whipped through the tunnel, slapping against the grimy tiled walls with an unmistakable sound: Eh, realleh, heh heh heh, you gotta give the lads the credit realleh realleh realleh.
For years it was hard to ignore the theory that Ken Bates’ interest in owning Leeds United was motivated by the damage done to Stamford Bridge’s scoreboard in 1984, when he swore never to rest until United were thrown out of the Football League; “Their fans are the scum of the Earth,” he said, “absolute animals and a disgrace.” Now, it’s hard to resist the idea that Neil Warnock only continues to work in football so he continue to torment Leeds United, the club where he was, apparently, wronged, although nobody can work out how. He “loves the Championship,” he often says, but what he seems to love most is the opportunity to bring pain and despair upon the followers of Leeds United.
Back in February 2012, we thought Leeds United were just hiring a manager. What we actually got was a nemesis, and of all the nemeses we could have chosen, we got the one with all the self-regard and pompadour hair of a provincial greengrocer convinced he’s Donald Trump. Which is pretty much what Warnock, only for Trump you should read Clough, Shankly, Revie combined.
Here he was again, then, and it’s hard even in retrospect to quantify his impact. What, exactly, did Neil Warnock do? From a football point of view, from a tactical point of view, I have no idea. Remember the tactics board that got leaked while he was at Leeds? A big sheet of A1 paper with various instructions to Browneh and Tongeh and the words ‘RASH RASH RASH’ scrawled over a drawing of the penalty area. There wasn’t much of that. Instead Cardiff just watched, and waited, and let Leeds United play themselves out, and play themselves into a version of Neil Warnock’s Leeds United, as if the game was being played upon a footballing graveyard of Neil Warnock’s creation, and the kicking and rushing awoke tortured spirits who rose from beneath the ground to possess and ruin our team.
What has happened to Leeds United? Possession by Warnockian demons is one theory, as plausible as any other. The first conversations I had upon arriving at the stadium were to inform me that Pontus Jansson’s ‘illness’ was actually a ‘bust-up with Kyle Bartley’, the real reason he missed the game, another theory as plausible as ghosts. Whatever the truth of that, it was a pre-game foreboding that old times may yet again rise that afternoon, the sort of thing you’d hear back when Leeds were consistently rubbish, that doesn’t fit anybody’s understanding of today’s United’s Monkish asceticism.
If something terrible did or has happened to Leeds United, it took a while to become apparent against Cardiff, because in the early stages United looked neat. There wasn’t much incision and Alfonso Pedraza, making his debut, couldn’t get the ball, but there were occasions when Leeds one-touched through the Cardiff half with such ease that I made a mental note: we’re much better than them. We were flat, though, and although it was aggravating the pedantry of referee James Linighan at least livened things up a bit. He wasn’t interested in giving Leeds a penalty as Bartley was dragged to the floor by his face; but was happy to book Liam Bridcutt when he pointed out that, after giving a foul throw against Luke Ayling for taking a throw-in from the wrong place, he shouldn’t have let Cardiff take the throw-in from the wrong place too. On the whistle, there was a long debate on the pitch between Linighan and Bridcutt, which gave the crowd a good chance to vent and boo and forget the score was 0-0 and the game wasn’t very good.
The game stayed not good and Bridcutt stayed involved, or rather not involved enough. Of all the things happening on the pitch, Bridcutt’s consistent positioning between and sometimes even behind Bartley and Liam Cooper was one of the most bizarre, and the one that was allowing Cardiff to become exploitative; there’s nothing Warnock loves more than an obvious deficiency. Such a deep Bridcutt meant Ronaldo Vieira wasn’t so much partnered as stranded, and as Pablo Hernandez wandered here, there and everywhere in search of the perfect through ball, Leeds’ midfield evaporated. The wisps of smoke that remained seemed almost to have human forms, and human voices; “here Browneh!” “Yes Tongey!”
Much of United’s improvement this season has come through better ideas, offensively and defensively, from set-pieces, most visibly through Jansson’s freedom to attack and clear any ball into the box. Without him, that tactic was abandoned and so was man-marking as Cardiff took the lead; a free-kick from wide was swung across, and Luke Ayling, who began with his hands on Sean Morrison, seemed to be still waiting for Pontus to deal with the ball as Morrison headed it past Robert Green, who didn’t even move.
Cooper had headed an attacking corner narrowly over the bar for Leeds, but more representative was Chris Wood’s contact with a long throw from Gaetano Berardi; his flick-on couldn’t have been much better, sending the ball behind him to the penalty spot, but Wood wasn’t to know that there wasn’t a single Leeds player in the penalty area, so his efforts went to waste.
Cardiff looked much more clinical, and doubled their lead by simply taking the ball off Leeds in their own half. Ayling and Bartley were playing themselves into pressure in the right-back position, but they found an out ball — Liam Bridcutt, virtually on the Leeds United goal line. He ignored Wood’s pleas for a pass — Wood was in deep midfield at this point — and hoofed clear; the ball bounced between Wood and substitute Hadi Sacko, and Aron Gunnarsson took it, ran with it, kept it despite a half-hearted tackle from Vieira, and twisted past Bartley; in the box, he pulled the ball back to near the penalty spot and Kenneth Zohoré, who was unmarked because Bridcutt was who knows where by now and scored, shooting into a net Green had abandoned as he tried to deal with Gunnarsson.
Leeds made some attempts to get back into the game, Hernandez beating players and crossing at last, while Ayling and Sacko were reunited for overlaps. Bridcutt’s sending off, a second yellow for one of those mild fouls that stops a counter-attack, seemed to help for a while as it removed Cooper and Bartley’s temptation to play a ball backwards to him, and left them to deal with stray balls he’d been collecting from off their toes, but it only lasted so long. As time ticked away Warnock’s grip grew tighter, and any attempt to pass the ball to another player looked like it was being played through a noxious, disorienting fog, the stench of Warnock’s eau de victory.
Most of the 31,516 were outside long before full-time, where the cold sky was broken by the metal taunts of a Valentine’s fun fair behind the Kop. The neon of the rides was just a trap, glare to disguise the stark rust that warns: never love, do not love, do not attempt to love, do not even think about love, for as long as there is Neil Warnock in the world to give relationship advice whether you want it or not. “Ah tell yer what yer need to do, Sir Alex told me this one…” is all you’ll hear, as he disappears into the pathetic smog with everything your heart ever wanted to hold.
What has happened to Leeds United? Neil Warnock happened to Leeds United once, and that will never be long enough ago. As for the rest of it, perhaps we’ll find out against Bristol City.