leeds united 2-1 hull city: upsidesBack
Preparation for this game included anger at the imposition of pies upon disinterested customers, reports that Massimo Cellino had been interfering in tactics during half-time at Loftus Road, and news that Sam Byram had rejected an improved contract offer. It also included three awful performances: two defeats to Rotherham and QPR, and one from Chris Wood on Soccer AM’s You Know The Drill segment.
Take all that and then put the Leeds United squad side by side with Hull City’s, and it was hard to see anything other than a continuation of the dismay of recent weeks.
Instead, Leeds United won. Of course they did. And as I watched on the TV in the North-East Upper bar, Chris Wood finished a brilliant move made by Cook and Dallas with a touch of supreme deftness that he’d shown no trace of either in front of the Soccer AM cameras at Thorp Arch, or in his Leeds United career so far. And although a lot of people did make their feelings about the pie tax known by leaving their seats on seventeen minutes, there weren’t enough of us to dent this new practice of adding surcharges to match tickets at random. And Sam Byram, the rebel, the wantaway, the money-grabber, was cheered on to the pitch.
None of it was quite the way it should be, and yet Leeds United ended the day three points richer, which counts for a lot. But it isn’t everything.
The relative failure of the protests catalysed by the pie tax counts for something, too. It was always going to be a tall order to get people to leave their view of the pitch in significant enough numbers to have a visible result; and on Saturday, the order was too tall.
One of the beautiful things about football support is the glue-like bond that holds fans to the players on the grass, and how difficult that bond is to break; many people simply wouldn’t hear of turning their back on the team during the game, even for seventeen minutes. That bond is believed in with such passion that there were even scuffles as people made their way to the concourses to display their displeasure. As an aside, while several hundred fans were on the receiving end of sarcastic chants and worse for leaving their seats on a point of principle, the thousands who left five minutes before the end to get to their cars more quickly were just regarded as an example of soccer normality. But that’s an aside.
What’s more to the point is that the decision to break the bond between fan and pitch is not always ours to make. The pie tax protests might not have been enough to dislodge thousands of fans from the stands for seventeen minutes, but the pie tax that people were protesting about just might. Nothing will rob the players of the support of the fans faster than charging fans between £37-£42 for a ticket in one of the traditionally cheaper ends of the ground five days before Christmas, because the fans simply won’t be able to afford to get in the ground to support them in the first place.
That’s why the issue of new, unadvertised surcharges is an important one, and why it’s a shame it hasn’t been more strongly resisted. The club, like every club, published its ticket prices at the start of the season; now they’ve found a way to vary them at will, with only a murmur of protest from the fans who will have to pay those variable prices to watch their team.
Or not. Watching Leeds United on a TV screen yards away from the match itself was a glimpse into what might be the future for us, and is the present for a lot of Premier League teams, where ticket prices are so high that priced out fans gather in pubs as near to the stadium as they can, to watch the match on a satellite stream.
There’s a lot to be said for it. It’s cheaper; imagine having all the money you’d pay for your ticket to spend on beer. It’s warmer. You get lots of replays and close-ups; so that when you see Lewis Cook’s galloping through ball hit Stuart Dallas with a jolt that awakens Hull’s dozing fullback and releases Dallas for a perfect cross to Wood, who lifts it over the keeper and into the net with instinctive, hot style, you can watch it three times again straight away without delay. Plus, nobody tries to force a pie on you. It’s football, 2015/16; we have the technology to combine watching football with beer and warmth.
But it’s technology we’d resist, because when Chris Wood scores a goal like that and runs to the fans in the South Stand, we’re the ones who are so desperate to be there to cheer him that we’ll pay any price and suffer any indignity. When Sam Byram comes on the pitch, the muffled sound of our gloved applause means more in the stands where it accumulates and can be heard, than enthusiastic clapping in front of a TV somewhere.
That Byram was cheered for his substitute appearance, hours after it was announced that he had refused a contract offer, was another unexpected moment on a topsy day. The Byram situation is like learning that one prisoner in the camp has a plan to escape, and while you’re jealous of him leaving and will miss him when he’s gone, you hope to goodness that his mission is successful.
I’d hope to even more goodness that Byram would stay, and I’ll quietly point here to Scott Wootton’s failure to stop the cross for Hull’s goal and ask a question about his form, as that’s the stick that has beaten Byram down into the the Development Squad in recent weeks; but that seems unlikely. The offer has been upgraded from ‘paycut’ to ‘year on the same terms’ — handsome terms, handed to him by GFH in a fit of fan-friendly largesse. He’s still not interested, but that doesn’t mean he’s greedy. You could offer Sam Byram a year’s extension at £100k a week at Elland Road and I doubt he’d take it, because it would still mean spending another year at Elland Road, and what good would that do him? Cellino might claim next year is year two of his plan for the Premier League, but he already claimed this was year two, and we’re no further forward than we were this time last time we were in year one.
In short: it’s very unlikely that Leeds United will challenge for promotion within the time limits of the contract we’re offering Sam Byram, so we’re essentially offering him another season of mid-table Championship mediocrity at best, when he could just go to the Premier League or very near to it now. He could also go to a club whose owner hasn’t publically announced that he hates him, too, which is a factor that shouldn’t be underrated.
That was largely what dictated Robert Snodgrass’s decision to leave. He gave the club, and Neil Warnock, a summer to convince him that the good thing they claimed was about to happen really was. They failed, so he left. It didn’t do Snoddy any harm, and when he came back on Saturday, he found us worse than when he left us, so it’s not like he made the wrong decision.
He might have been right in the long run, mind, but on Saturday he couldn’t do anything to prevent his current club losing to Leeds. Snoddy’s return to Elland Road, and his return from injury, were expected to be valedictory; instead he was fighting to try and salvage a point. Leeds stood firm.
Saturday was one of those games that reminds you that if you prod beneath the pies, and the ownership, and the contract bickering, there is still something resembling a football team underneath. This one was much improved by Steve Evans’ decision — we presume it was Steve Evans’ decision — to swap Adeyemi for Antenucci and win the battle in midfield.
That was counter to received wisdom. Antenucci is our top scorer; Adeyemi has been an uncertain recruit. But starting Wood with Antenucci doesn’t seem to bring the best out of either player, while Liam Bridcutt seems to be just what Adeyemi needed alongside him in midfield. There’s more to picking a team than choosing eleven in-form players; you need a combination and a style that will bring out the best the squad can do.
And you need to do it more than occasionally. Among many things on the list of things I don’t care for about Steve Evans is his fist-chucking celebrations to the force-fed hordes in the South Stand, partly because it makes the results more about him than I think they ought to be, and partly because it makes it more glaringly obvious when he can’t do it because we’ve lost. He has no equivalent gesture when we’ve embarrassed ourselves against Rotherham or QPR, and his tenure so far is much too Leedsish to be helpful; it’s been all about false dawns.
False dawns in the middle of the night, too. It’s a bizarre feeling to think that, longer term, we might pay for the way we beat Hull City with something more than the three points are ultimately worth. Winning each match is important. But so is acknowledging that you can never win every game; that there are other criteria by which you must measure whether you’re winning.
No doubt we’ll have time to think about those measurements when on days when Chris Wood isn’t finishing like van Basten; we’ll have to, because reality. Football is all about escapism though, so this time around, we’ll take the unexpected dominant win and the three points and cheer so loudly the players can here our appreciation, no matter how far away we are.