leeds united 1-0 sheffield wednesday: everything foreverBack
This game had everything you could possibly want from a game of football, and lots of it in the 54th minute.
That was when Souleymane Doukara was penalised for pulling Sam Hutchinson as they both ran away from the goal at a corner, and Jordan Rhodes placed the ball for a penalty, and missed it.
Actually Robert Green saved it, so let’s phrase this positively: Jordan Rhodes placed the ball for a penalty, and Robert Green saved it. He saved it brilliantly; it wasn’t the brilliantest penalty by Rhodes, who isn’t very good at them, but it needed Green to be down quickly and at full stretch to his left to tip it onto his post: no tip would have equalled a goal, tip = no goal.
And it didn’t strictly need Pontus Jansson and Gaetano Berardi to synchronise their dives to block Ross Wallace on the rebound, but the game was so much the better for it. They flew between Wallace and the goal line, side by side, so if his shot beat one it wouldn’t beat the other; it didn’t beat one, it hit Berardi, and as Jansson hit the floor and stayed down, roaring his celebration at the crowd, Berardi sprang to his feet, roaring his celebration at the crowd.
After the game those two risked a seismic event and embraced in the middle of the pitch, before Jansson set off on a second lap of the stadium; the sidelines were lined with fans who had streamed down from the stands to applaud their heroes, and the whole thing looked like a lap of honour at a last home game; it would have been decent, if it was. Such milking might have felt too creamy in other circumstances, risking jokes about a gold star above the club crest for beating Wednesday, but this time it felt right, and with those two players as the catalyst for the feeling, for feeling anything at all, it felt like we could justifiably chuck bricks at anyone said this win was over-celebrated.
It didn’t feel like it would happen anyway; the last ten minutes were spent in an agony of preparing for agony — after the penalty miss, sorry, save, the equaliser was only going to hurt even more. Remember playing Wigan back near the start of the season? That, only worse; only better, as the Saturday lunchtime rather than Tuesday evening kick off did leave us the option of drinking ourselves into oblivion.
But the equaliser never came, and Chris Wood’s goal stood as the winner; a tap in he didn’t look like he could believe, and that he had to work very hard for. Doukara received the ball on the left, and as he did against Aston Villa at the start of December, slowed the game almost fatally down. That time he swung a ball into the box for Kemar Roofe; this time, as Wood and Berardi foxtrotted on and offside, trying to work out when he would play the ball, Doukara gave it to Berardi, who cut back on his right foot and swung a cross that couldn’t dropped any closer to Wood’s right foot if Hernandez had played it. Wood killed the ball with a touch, then brought it back to life with another. 1-0.
2-0 would have been good, if a penalty had been given for Hutchinson’s tackle on Eunan O’Kane; it should have been, as O’Kane crumpled and Hutchinson didn’t get the ball, and Wood would have definitely scored the penalty. Lots of things would have been good. It would have been good if Hadi Sacko had used the ball better; but then, on the big chance through the middle that had Wood and Hernandez flinging curses at him, Wood should have given the ball right to Hernandez in the first place. It would have been good if Liam Bridcutt hadn’t repeated his performance against Cardiff City, playing like an unnecessary third centre-back and encouraging Leeds to faff dangerously around with the ball inside their own last third; but at least he had O’Kane with him, who didn’t follow him as faithfully as Ronaldo Vieira had in that game, and left us some cover in midfield. And it would have been good if the referee hadn’t been such a pedantic dunce, giving out lectures for nothing and yellow cards for less, while miscalling the big calls: our non-penalty, their penalty. Although I have to admit Doukara was a bit thick, getting lulled into a tug of shirts with his back to his own goal, when there was no danger.
And it would have been good to win 6-1, as we did in 1992, although then again, it was kind of good that we didn’t; and it was good that, with all the minor complaints and foibles above, we won 1-0 anyway, fighting for it and earning it, and bookending the match with songs; I can’t remember the last time there was such loud singing at Elland Road before kick-off, and I can’t remember the last time there were such scenes afterwards that actually meant something. Not much, but they meant something; this wasn’t a hollow lap of shame for finishing 15th again, this was a hailing of conquerors who have spent the season winning conquests we didn’t even know we’d be contesting.
And it wasn’t a proper lap of honour, anyway. Most players did what they usually do: applaud the fans in all four stands, shake hands with everybody, go down the tunnel. Except Pontus, twice around the pitch, trading fist-bumps with the crowds for wins that mean something to the fans, rather than saluting the draws that only ever meant something to Steve Evans. And except Berardi, who celebrates the way he plays: as if he never wants to stop doing it. I loved it when the final whistle blew, as it meant the imminent pain from an imaginary equaliser couldn’t hurt me anymore; Berardi seemed to hate it when the whistle blew, because he couldn’t keep hurting people by stopping them from scoring intended equalisers anymore.
Even the tension was something, and this game was everything you could want from a football match, and everything Gaetano Berardi could want from a football match, and when you’ve got everything, you just want it to go on forever. Maybe it will.