leeds united 1-4 huddersfield town: new normalBack
When half-time was called at Elland Road, the situation was as close to normal as it’s likely to get these days.
Outside the ground, the Time To Go, Massimo protests took the car park as their stage, this time for a drive-in movie on a big mobile screen, that broadcast some of the highlights from Massimo Cellino’s public appearances since buying Leeds United.
Like the previous protests against Cellino, it was paid for using lots of small donations from several hundred Leeds fans; and like the previous protests, it sparked social media outrage about who is being spoken for when a big screen, or a billboard in midweek, says it’s time for Massimo to go, when there is another viewpoint among the Leeds support. That view, perhaps emboldened by the three wins of last week, was also represented before the game: two blokes held up a sheet, first outside The Peacock and then next to Billy Bremner’s statue, with ‘In Massimo We Trust’ printed on it.
They held it up for about half an hour, and The Square Ball’s sellers in the area were able to describe the scene; how they grimly held to the sheet, not engaging with anybody, nobody engaging with them, apart from one person who tried to pull it down. Certainly nobody threw paint over their banner to obscure their message; the two fellas were allowed to declare that they trust a convicted fraudster to all who cared to look at them. Interestingly, though, nobody who looked at them went to join them; when I went by, most people were ignoring them, or taking photos of the Time To Go movement’s movie.
Such scenes might be considered normal at other clubs, or at Leeds United at other times, but that’s what I mean: this was as close to normal as Leeds United is likely to get these days. At least by having both views represented outside the ground we could achieve some sort of zennish balance, even if the support for one view visibly outweighed the other.
Inside the ground, there was another semblance of normality: a crowd of 29,311 to watch Leeds United play football, like what Leeds United should get. The recent wins over Bolton, Cardiff and Blackburn will have been a factor; people will come to watch a winning team. But pricing will have paid its part too; this match was Category B, the first match not to have been priced at top whack this year, and when comparing pricing to opponents, many fans will have decided to skip expensive trips to watch Leeds play bottom of the league sides in the bitter cold, and wait for spring, reasonable prices and local opponents.
Lots of little details come back when there’s a bigger crowd, to remind you of what going to a Leeds game can be like: for one thing, it’s really annoying, as there are suddenly queues for the buses and people sitting in your seat and wanting to argue about it. But that sort of curmudgeous thinking is what the barren joylessness of Elland Road this season has imposed on us; going to a Leeds game has become a lethargic appearance, where you can roll onto an empty bus at 2.40pm and, be in the ground, stretching your legs into the empty seats in front of yours by 3pm, ready for a couple of hours of boredom. There’s a short story by Saki called The Unrest-Cure, in which a prankster arranges a fake massacre to jolt a bored village vicar out of his mundanity, and the extra ten or fifteen thousand pranksters who arrived at Elland Road on Saturday demonstrated just how dispirited those of us who have been there every week have become.
In place of a massacre, they brought a football match with them; half of one, anyway. In the first forty-five minutes we saw Marco Silvestri, along with Antenucci the main man of our recent trio of wins, save a penalty from Nakhi Wells; that was exciting. Then Leeds United scored a goal. That was exciting too. Souleymane Doukara ran with the ball from the halfway line in a sort of aimless way towards the Huddersfield goal, like a milkfloat with a brick on the accelerator, until he was tackled and fell over; Liam Bridcutt, sharp all day, was zippily collected the ball and lofted a dangerous cross to the Town back post. Despite playing all season for Leeds United Stuart Dallas, charging in from the left wing, could just about remember what a cross was, and what to do, and he planted a header into the goal. The lead! And what fun.
Although Huddersfield equalised before half-time, Leeds defending dismally from a corner, at that stage it only contributed to the general normality. Town didn’t much deserve to be level, and in the first half looked terrible; they aim to pass the ball carefully out from the back, but they’re really bad at it, so Leeds were winning lots of possession in midfield simply by waiting for a misplaced pass to roll towards them. After taking the lead United has a strong, confident spell in which they looked like a good team, but they weren’t incisive, so 1-1 felt about right at half-time, the way a hanging a necklace of daisies upon the nape of a loved one on a warm spring day feels about right. It might have been nicer if United had been winning, but at least we were watching a football match at Elland Road, like normal.
Normal. About that word again. Because I have to keep stressing that half-time was as close to normal as is likely at Leeds, and that we’re talking about an expected-normal, not an accepted-normal. Expected-normal, at Leeds United, involves big crowds, decent football, and volatile support. We got close to that by half-time on Saturday, as close as we could in the circumstances: 29,000 rather than 39,000, 1-1 v Huddersfield rather than 1-2 v Liverpool; volatility aimed at the owner rather than the opposition. But it was better than it has been when it comes to returning Elland Road to normality.
Unfortunately Leeds United’s players then took it upon themselves to show the biggest crowd of the season the accepted-normal that the club has sunk to in the last two years.
“When I joined the job was to keep Leeds in the Championship and that gets forgotten,” Steve Evans said after the game. “We have become a mid-table side”; and what he means is that anybody who pays their hard-earned money to come and watch Leeds United and expects to see two halves like the first is under a delusion that Leeds United is even close to being the football club it should be.
Also part of expected-normal is not losing 1-4 to Huddersfield Town. Under Massimo Cellino and Steve Evans, accepted-normal is being grateful that it wasn’t 1-7.
It easily could have been. By full-time, Silvestri’s penalty save was no longer an interesting diversion in an exciting match, but a vital contribution to keeping the score down. Silvestri made at least one more quality save in the closing stages, and Town missed at least one more good opportunity, and while they might not have deserved to be level at the half, a final score of seven wouldn’t have flattered Huddersfield.
Huddersfield’s second was the only goal that could be described as resulting from a fair sporting chance, if you only look back as far as the taking of the corner; Leeds failed to clear the ball, and Bunn volleyed smartly into the corner of the net from the edge of the box. Wind the mind back a bit further, though, to Alex Mowatt’s poorly weighted backpass to Silvestri, and Silvestri’s characteristic failure as it somehow shanked his kick out for a corner, and then bring to mind every time you’ve rolled your eyes as another pass trundles to the worst kicking keeper in the division, and you’ll see the way-markers on the route from expected to accepted-normal.
That it took eight more minutes to get from 1-2 to 1-4 oughtn’t to be normal, but the Brighton game — 1-0 to 3-0 in ten — was not long ago.
Town’s third was thunderingly bad. Silvestri kicked the ball long upfield; it was headed back towards Bellusci. Bellusci, as if to sum up his entire contribution in one move, trapped the ball skilfully on his chest and then, without looking upfield, swung a leg and hoofed it thoughtlessly up the pitch. It landed at the feet of a Huddersfield player who, with one deft touch, fired it into the path of Wells, who Bellusci had abandoned when his brain switched off mid-hoof. Bellusci couldn’t catch Wells or block his pass across the six yard box to Matmour, and it was 1-3.
United truly peaked for Town’s fourth. Chris Wood, on as a sub, was beaten to Lewis Cook’s pass by an alert Hudderfield defender, and Bridcutt couldn’t win his tackle as Town broke through the centre circle. Bridcutt got to his feet and turned away from the action to berate Cook, Mowatt, Doukara, Antenucci, Wood; all the players ahead of the ball who had stood and watched as Bridcutt tried to stop the attack on his own.
What he saw when he turned around won’t have cheered him. Town strolled unchallenged towards the Leeds goal, and moved generally eastward, where it was two v two in the left back position, but one of the two was Bellusci, meaning that behind him it was two v one in the penalty area, where Bamba couldn’t decide between Matmour and Wells. None of this might have mattered had any Leeds player looked like attempting a tackle at any time, but Town quite rightly realised the Leeds defence was an irrelevance and scored easily.
It was a fiasco, but it didn’t remind me of Brighton, but of Bolton, who also scored at Elland Road by passing the ball around the stumped Leeds players. But we won that game, so nobody minded much. We didn’t win against Huddersfield, so we should mind about that, but therein lies the problem: do we? Steve Evans seems to think we shouldn’t: he’s saved us from relegation, so we should be grateful that he’s steered us to mid-table mediocrity; and, apparently, we should ignore it when we play like sub-League One amateurs.
“It is easy to talk and harder to deliver, but I have a track record that I deliver,” said Evans, who seems to think his work at Leeds is done for the season, that he can dust off his sombrero for the rest of the season because it ain’t getting any better, or worse, than this.
That’s not acceptable, and this performance should not be accepted as normal, but what is normal for Leeds United these days? What is our level? We won three games in a row and the sun came out. But immediately before and after were 4-0 and 1-4 defeats, and two pitiful attempts at playing football. We’ve longed for stability, and Steve Evans is now our longest serving head coach since Brian McDermott, but in all his time here he hasn’t brought the football team to a point where it can guarantee not to stand idly by while another team scores three or four in no time at all, and he hasn’t brought expectations to a point where people are surprised when it happens.
I wonder if the extra ten thousand who decided to give Leeds United another go on Saturday felt much surprise, as they melted away to their cars and buses around half past four. Perhaps they’d thought three wins in a row meant Leeds United were back to normal? Aye, well. Normal isn’t what it used to be at Elland Road.