preston north end 1-1 leeds united: nada surfBack
Preston North End seem pretty happy with their first season back in the Championship after promotion from League One: a comfortable eleventh place finish, winning one more than they lost, that gives them a good platform for a play-off push next season.
They were once, of course, the original Invincibles. Between 1888 and 1893, Preston were either winners or runners-up of the First Division; they won the double unbeaten in the league and without a goal conceded in the FA Cup in 1888/89. In the all time table compiled by Statto.com, Preston are the fourth most successful club in English football history, behind Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, with 1,274 wins out of 4,822 games. (Leeds are 41st, on 1,029 wins from 3,756.)
With that history, you’d think eleventh in Division Two wouldn’t be good enough for Preston, but apparently it’s fine. And that’s what can happen. Your history becomes ancient; nobody alive can remember Preston’s double. Your traditions become less about continuation of a culture, more about repetition of a rite, a salute to a statue or a plaque. The expectations change, so that where success was expected quite naturally, now it feels natural to ask, when you’re mid-table in the second tier, what else anybody expected?
Leeds United have promised cashback if the team doesn’t make the Championship play-offs next season, but watching them draw with Preston in the season’s closing game, this sort of mid-table fare felt more like our future than a return to our own glories, of the late sixties/early seventies, of the early nineties, the Millennium. Some of the fans following Leeds United now weren’t born when Leeds were in the Champions League, and that’s how traditions erode. You can pass down the stories, but you can’t repair a generational break, and that’s the size of the gap between Leeds United and success these days.
Well, what else do we expect? I dunno. I expect something more; but something else absent from Elland Road is something Preston have: heroes. The problem there is that Preston have our heroes, Simon Grayson and Jermaine Beckford, who were among the highlights of this carefree trip to sunny Lancashire. Both responded as coolly as they could to the warm reception from the Leeds fans, maintaining the professionalism their current club requires of them, until they caved; a cheeky, downlow wave from Grayson, a subtle salute at the last moment after being substituted from Beckford. Beckford also delivered his usual tribute of not scoring, and each tiny acknowledgement of our secret, North End-excluding bond was greeted with delight by the Leeds end.
Not only are Grayson and Beckford Leeds heroes, they want to be Leeds heroes, and that’s important. Who, among the current players at Leeds United, has ever looked like they even want that status? Giuseppe Bellusci, sulkily tweeting his way through the week with a statistical spreadsheet after missing last week’s lap of mediocrity, was again nowhere to be seen. Mirco Antenucci, in his last game, argued with Chris Wood over being allowed to take Leeds’ penalty, then petulantly refused to join in the celebrations when Wood scored. Scott Wootton, after replacing Liam Cooper at half-time, did enough to suggest he might be the competent centre-back many have said, until a season-ending screwup that let Preston equalise and put Wootton’s hands, characteristically, to his head, in despair.
The only person who seemed to want to be a Leeds hero at Deepdale was the brave bodyboard-wielding Leeds fan, who surfed brilliantly slowly over the heads of the supporters from the bottom of the stand to the top, then to the bottom, then to the top, then to the bottom. Then the stewards nicked his board, but his mission had been accomplished: to be a successful distraction from poor mid-table football, and achieve hero status.
Antenucci will have been as jealous as he was of Wood’s penalty. He left some words of farewell on his Instagram account later, that perhaps summed up his time here. He said it was an honour and a privilege to play for Leeds, which I don’t doubt he truly feels; he said hearing his name sung at Elland Road, particularly by the younger fans, made him feel like a star. Which again I don’t doubt. “I always given 100% and I have never spared for this shirt,” he said, and again, I’ve no reason to think he doesn’t believe that’s true. The problem is, it isn’t true. In his final appearance he was his usual self, winning easy challenges, then ducking out of more difficult opportunities in the penalty area, then spitting his dummy out for reasons presumably to do with perceived self-heroism and his goalscoring bonus, all of which he describes as giving 100%. Antenucci’s problem has always been that what he thinks of as 100% effort has never been more than about 60% of what Leeds United Football Club demands of its heroes.
Then there’s Steve Evans. Evans has pleaded to be loved at Leeds, and in the end, he’s got his wish, to a point. His name was sung loudly by the fans at Preston, but it was sung second, and perhaps a little guiltily; after getting a wave from Simon Grayson, it only seemed polite to ask if our own coach wanted to wave to us too.
The line between genuine and manufactured warmth towards Evans is difficult to draw. No doubt he’s better thought of here than when he was fooling around in a sombrero as Rotherham boss, but it’s hard to judge whether the chants of ‘Sign him up!’ as he left the pitch at Deepdale were from sincere belief that he’s the right man to manage Leeds United, or because he deserves a better fate than what seem like inevitable weeks of limbo ahead while Cellino summons up the courage to ask somebody else to tell Evans to go.
Calls for Evans to stay are as much a call for dignity as anything else, centred upon one of the least dignified managers in football (charged not long ago, remember, with exposing himself to a female member of Bradford City’s staff). His tears at Deepdale were another wrenching moment; yes, it was sad to see, but it was also sad to see how Evans skulked around at the back of things while the players took the fans’ applause, so that he could approach the stand after they were all out of the way, and let himself and his tears take centre stage. Steve Evans made sure that the fans gave Steve Evans the farewell that Steve Evans was sure the fans wanted to give Steve Evans, and I’m sure it was a moment he’ll remember engineering for himself for the rest of his life.
Not quite all the players had left when Evans began to bawl. Down the front of the stand, stern and sincere, Lewis Cook was handing his shirt to a young fan, shaking firm hands with supporters. If there’s heroism to be found at this club it’s in the ability of players like Cook to win the division’s Young Player of the Year award while playing in a team that lost more games than it won, that conceded more goals than it scored; this didn’t feel like goodbye from Cook, but that’s probably because, unlike Evans, he didn’t let it. It will be a cruel irony should Cook leave this summer that his last moments as a Leeds player will have been during an ovation for Steve Evans.
Cellino’s attitude towards watermelons means Evans will be easy to replace, although not necessarily with anyone as effective. How, though, will we replace Lewis Cook? Ronaldo Viera, a youngster with heroism double barrelling through his identity, made a late debut as substitute, and offered enough as the fulcrum of one attacking move, the link between Murphy, Antenucci and Taylor, to give us hope of more to come from a youngster from Thorp Arch, yet again. But this is momentary giddiness distilled into hope, disguising itself yet again as a meaningful plan; which it is not.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess, probably including Cellino. There’s a financial commitment to a play-off challenge, that now needs to be backed with deeds, if the club aren’t to be paying out by Christmas. There’s also the spectre of Deepdale to taunt us. Leeds have never spent so long out of the top division as this, and our history is beginning to escape from us the way Preston’s escaped from them. I’m sure that Preston, when they last finished second in the First Division in 1958, thought they would be winning it again soon enough, because that’s what Preston would have expected. Not anymore, for them; how much longer, for us?
Although it’s always sad to see a football season end (what do we do now?) this is the second successive year when it’s come as a relief at Leeds. As Sol Bamba stated in his now annual end of the season harangue of the owner, the players don’t know when to come back for pre-season, which of them will be back, who the coach will be; “At the minute,” he said, “We are all over the place, but hopefully that can be fixed very quick.”
And that’s the best thing about the season being over. Will Evans stay? Will Bellusci, will Wootton, will Cook? For as long as there were games of football to play, we were never going to get answers. We still might not get answers, for several weeks, but the football is no longer an excuse.