leeds united 1-0 cardiff city: optimism okBack
A week is a long time in football, or politics, or religion, or whatever.
Leeds United didn’t even have that. One of the things that slipped by Sky’s marketing team when they start shoving Championship games to Thursday nights is that there’s no agreed moniker for the period of time from any given Thursday to Tuesday. It’s not a week and it’s certainly not a fortnight. You can’t say ‘five days’ because it recalls the working week and doesn’t account for the weekend.
So thanks to Sky there’s no handy way to refer to everything that has happened to Leeds United since Blackburn Rovers opened the scoring after seventeen seconds of our game last Thursday night. It feels like a lifetime ago.
Surely nobody in the stadium that night thought that chanting ‘Massimo, time to go’ would actually work? It took years of calling Ken Bates every name under the sun to get him to even consider selling up, but within twenty-hours of the first serious chants against him at Elland Road Massimo was telling the papers his balls had shrunk and telling Leeds Fans Utd they can have the club if they really want it.
That announcement was a mood-changer, and a potential game-changer, although the two changes weren’t exactly aligned. My mind went back to the footage of fans on the Elland Road pitch after Leeds beat Leicester in 1990, celebrating promotion; along with John Helm’s legendary commentary on Gordon Strachan’s goal — “Have you ever seen a better goal? And have you ever seen one better timed?” — the game is remembered for his urgent cry to his producers as fans chaired David Batty off the pitch: “Is that confirmed? Is that confirmed?”
Leeds still had to go to Bournemouth and win; and Leeds Fans Utd still have to get Massimo Cellino to turn a promise into a deed; and that’s only one obstacle of many they’ll need to hurdle to make fan ownership of Leeds United reality. It’s not the first obstacle, though, and that’s important; Leeds Fans Utd is a movement with momentum, with cash — not £30m cash, not yet, but cash all the same — and nous. And a mission that would change the game, and not only at Elland Road.
It needs changing at Elland Road, though, and the improved mood without Cellino glooming our party out in the kitchen will only change that: the mood. Removing Massimo to fret over the commentary coming from Terry’s kitchen radio (“What is this, this ‘geeeeet innnn’?”) won’t miraculously cure the problems on the pitch that were so painfully present not even a week ago.
What will miraculously cure them, apparently, is a bit of effort and a worldie goal from Alex Mowatt. Oh, and a priest, just in case we’d forgotten to say ‘Thanks, Massimo.’ Thanks Massimo. I thought you were staying away?
You’d think, after last season, teams would have cottoned on to what can happen when Mowatt has the ball thirty yards out; perhaps they’re so bemused when he starts on the left wing they forget that he can do what he did to David Marshall: hammer the ball into the inside of his side netting before he can even move. To cap it all, when Marshall saw where the ball had gone, he sank to his knees than collapsed on the ground. Alex Mowatt, David; he’s been off it this season, but he’s still got it.
From where I was watching, that was all Leeds United had got, but it was enough. We needed to win a match, and up stepped a matchwinner, to settle what otherwise seemed to me like a pretty tawdry match. The first thirty-five minutes were as dire as the second-half from Thursday, only Cardiff didn’t have the 2–0 swagger that Blackburn brought to that half.
In fact, Cardiff were terrible, but Leeds United didn’t seem to notice until ten minutes before half-time. Then United managed a spell of pressure, a flurry of chances, as if the message had spread among them: come on guys, this lot are even worse than us!
Cardiff began the second half resolute, but Leeds didn’t completely forget the edge they’d discovered. But nor did they completely forget how to get things wrong. Chris Wood still prefers letting the central defender win a header and chasing the knock down, like Rod Wallace trapped in Lee Chapman’s body; for crosses, he still stands three inches ahead of where the ball is going to come, so that he can never meet a header full on and send it goalwards. We could talk about how he charged down the full back, stole the ball, and then took it round the goalkeeper to set Cardiff panicking; but we would have to talk about how he missed an open goal and shot into the near side netting, so it’s probably best not mentioned.
Liam Cooper’s favourite pass is still to Silvestri, and Silvestri’s favourite pass is still to his friends in the front rows of the West and East Stands; or just straight to a Cardiff player, if it’s easier. The final ball is too often not just ill-thought, but irresponsible, sailing off the pitch. Giuseppe Bellusci, patrolling the right side of the pitch with Scott Wootton, had a better game than that sequence of words deserves, but also ran twenty yards to the East Stand touchline to launch himself needlessly through a Cardiff winger and straight into a needless yellow card. For all the talk of an Italian clique within the squad, too, I think Mirco Antenucci might actually hate him; he can’t enjoy it when Giuseppe’s eyebrows telegraph that he won’t kick the ball until Mirco starts running, and then when Mirco starts running Giuseppe lofts the ball way past him for a goal kick.
And yet I have to phrase all this stuff carefully, because when I left Elland Road and heard and read the reaction on radio and on Twitter, it seemed I’d been watching Leeds United in ultimate valiance mode; “the perfect team performance,” said Noel Whelan, who also reckoned that if Wood had managed to put the ball in an empty net, it would have capped “the complete striker’s performance.” Steve Evans described how he had shown the team a motivational video of a disabled child before the game, and how he was welling up with tears once the victory was won. Bellusci and Antenucci, both no doubt still eyeballing each other over those chips down the channels, apparently both had their best games for the club, while Luke Murphy was the midfield maestro, even if he couldn’t hit the eighteen yard box with a corner.
In the interests of full disclosure I’ll add that I attended this game with a heavy cold, and watched it through eyelashes crusted with snot and Day Nurse and allsorts. So perhaps I really was watching a different game. But as I listened to Steve Evans droning on about Steve Evans lying sleeplessly in his hotel room every night knowing Steve Evans has the support of Mrs Steve Evans and little Stephen and Stephanie Evans, I had what might be a cold-remedy induced flashback to a match at the beginnings of the Neil Warnock era.
The opponents were Southampton, and to hear people talk, you’d think we’d hammered them. Fight, passion, spirit; relentless pressure on their penalty area. Southampton didn’t know what was happening half the time. This was a Neil Warnock performance from a Neil Warnock team, and a true measure of what we could expect with Neil Warnock at the helm.
And we’d lost, 1–0; and what that Neil Warnock performance had consisted of was endless high balls hoofed into an overloaded penalty area for Luciano Becchio to head down. It didn’t work, and I reckon if that game was still being played now we still wouldn’t have scored. Because it was a crap idea badly executed, it just looked exciting because it caused a bit of chaos.
Steve Evans has the advantage over Neil Warnock that he won this match, but I can’t join in the explosion of post-match optimism just because Alex Mowatt took doing an Alex Mowatt thing to its maximum level, and the rest of the team raised their games to solid 6/10s all round. Or maybe because my head is full of unwelcome mucus and my entire face is bloodshot, one or the other.
Optimism is a good thing, though; I’m not so cynical as all that. Leeds United winning football matches is what we go to Elland Road to see, and it’s a welcome change. Is it a permanent change? I’m not convinced. Is it the only change we need? No. The change we do need will need to be a lot more robust than this. And it’s progress on that front that will truly make me feel optimistic.