leeds united 2-1 bolton wanderers: grimBack
A funeral isn’t good for anybody’s morale. Nobody, on their way into Elland Road to watch Leeds United play Bolton at football, will have been cheered up by the sight of a coffin outside the club shop.
We’re not supposed to acknowledge death, even though it, like birth, is one of a few things we all have in common. Like breastfeeding, death is a fact of the human condition, but people shiver at public reminders of our most natural states, and usher them out of view where they won’t cause any offence.
The coffin, painted in Leeds United colours and strewn with white roses, was carried to Billy Bremner’s statue by fans protesting that Massimo Cellino’s ownership is causing the slow death of Leeds United Football Club; they’d also arranged for advertising boards to be driven around the city centre and the football ground, and for a plane to carry a banner through the pre-match sky. It was a multiple-whammy that made Lowfields Road before the game an almost bewildering sensorial experience, rather than the usual desolate wasteland of stray chips and soggy fanzine sellers.
It was the white wood box that caught most attention. Football is escapism, where we go to avoid reminders of our own mundanity, morality and mortality. So such a vivid reminder of the inevitability of death was not likely to go down well with everybody. But those who objected to a coffin outside Elland Road had more in common with the people who brought it there than they might realise. They’re right: football is the one place where death should not intrude, because football clubs don’t die. Which is the point the protestors were making: Massimo Cellino is bringing death to Elland Road, a place where it has no business.
Amid all the angst, Leeds United won the football game on the pitch, which might have made the prematch eulogy read outside the ground seem premature. Well, so it was: Leeds United is obviously not dead yet. But there was nothing about Saturday that suggested that, if Leeds United is carried on as it has been, the eulogy won’t be needed soon.
The attendance was announced generously at 21,070, a count that included every season ticket holder whether they attended or not (and several were definitely in The Peacock rather than in the ground), the away supporters, and several hundred schoolkids on cheap ‘grassroots’ tickets who paraded around the pitch at halftime. The official figure took this season’s average home attendance to 22,529; 1,600 down from last season’s average of 24,276, 2,500 down from 2013/14.
And what did the crowd see on Saturday that might tempt them back for more between now and the end of the season? A reaction to the Brighton performance, said Steve Evans, with a sigh of relief so great it redirected a weather system; but as reactions go, this was some way from nuclear.
United did just enough to beat the worst team in the division, but that should not be mistaken for being anywhere near good enough. After being bossed around by one of the Championship’s stronger midfields on Monday, Leeds still struggled to get to grips with Zach Clough and Jay Spearing, with Liam Bridcutt — one of the trio Evans’ claims, without whom, we would be in relegation trouble — displaying again his remarkable trick of committing himself to strong, all-in tackles, that end with him lying on the floor without the ball. Saviour number two, Toumani Diagouraga, follows up with a foul. Lewis Cook remembers he must call Sam later and see how he’s doing. It’s not great stuff.
Even with Mirco Antenucci’s cleverly taken goal, flicking in a knockdown after Leeds penned Bolton in by winning three corners, Bolton should have led at half-time, and it would have been fair: a strong save from Feeney by Marco Silvestri, and a scrambled goal-line clearance by Liam Cooper after some Rachubkaesque goalkeeping kept Wanderers out.
The second half didn’t feature much improvement, and in fact Antenucci’s winning goal was a fine example of the utter brokenness of Leeds United’s attack. As strike partners, Antenucci and Doukara play as if they’re in divorce court, glaring at each other across the pitch while the other, browbeaten by lawyers, struggles bitterly to score a point. ‘He always leaves the toilet seat up!’ complained Doukara, ‘That nanny he hired was a hussy!’, as he was reduced again and again to running in a straight line with the ball into a crowd of defenders, because nobody — not Antenucci, not Carayol — would give him an angle of help.
Antenucci was having pretty much the same experience over on his wing — neither of our central strikers could be tempted into the middle. On the one occasion when he did get some space, on a Diagouraga-inspired breakaway, he showed absurd generosity by trying to find Doukara at the back post. Obviously his pass, slow and flat across a line of three defenders, only reached a Bolton player, but the Bolton player nudged the ball into space for Mirco to do what he should have done in the first place: shoot. It was a sweet finish, curved first time around the outstretched arms of Rachubka, a goal worthy of endless replays in highlights of the season compilations — as long as you edit it to begin after the sheer sadness of his attempted assist for Doukara.
Paul Rachubka offered a couple of moments of entertainment; juggling a cross in the first half, deflecting a tame Carayol shot off his chest and into the path of the shadow of every Blackpool player that torments him nightly, as soon as he closes his eyes to attempt the sleep that still eludes him.
Predictably enough, though, the nerves were all United’s, as we let Bolton in with a chance of their fifth away draw of the season (for the record, they haven’t won any). With the game technically in a state of comfort, Leeds began to channel the spirit of Brighton, gifting Bolton the ball and gifting them a goal as they sliced through our team from halfway line to six yard line in five passes, where Woolery had plenty of time to settle himself to score past Silvestri.
The goal was Brighton level easy, against a team that look like they’ll struggle in League One next season, and while United made it through the goalmouth scrambles and Wandering pressure of the final fifteen minutes without giving the game away, at Cardiff on Tuesday night — beaten only once at home, where they’ve scored 27 goals, a better record than Middlesbrough — the game may indeed be up.
There won’t be coffins at the Cardiff City Stadium, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be protest. Several who were at Brighton have changed their plans, and won’t be wasting money or time off work travelling again on Tuesday. That’s why the funeral protesters have it right. They’re often told they don’t represent the majority at Elland Road, but compared to empty blue seats, fans are themselves in the minority at Leeds United games.
At football clubs, when fans die — as they all will, eventually — the club resists mortality by filling their seat. Football fans regenerate like so many Doctor Whos, which is why it’s such an attractive proposition for sponsors and advertisers — an audience that will never die. The young fans there on Saturday on their grassroots tickets are, technically, the generation that mean it doesn’t matter what happens to you or me, but I wonder how many ten year olds in that crowd left Elland Road looking eagerly forward to the day they can move to the South Stand and pay £37 to watch Leeds United struggle to beat a League One team in waiting.
Without them, though, or the fans who, for months and years, have melted away from their seats, how is a football club that is losing over £1million a month, and is being run as if it wants to lose much more, going to even outlive us all now living?
They say that, whatever your age, a funeral is a wise investment. Perhaps someone out there, with a business plan and money to invest, saw the funeral at Elland Road on Saturday, and got the message.