the square ball week: wembley suitsBack
Football is a sport that generates many beautiful, surreal spectacles, spectacles that occur through a combination of nature and science.
A player’s natural strength and agility is honed by sports scientific techniques and applied, through physics, upon a ball; also sometimes a dog runs on the pitch. The effect on the viewer is mesmerising and hard to explain.
Elland Road on Monday night was the venue for a surreal experience of a singular kind; fans stood awestruck, their phones held above their heads to capture, not a Marco Silvestri clearance as it curved towards Lowfields Road, but the East Stand’s corrugated fascia lit up like a drive-in movie. The cold winter air crackled with the cinema-quality light; you definitely wanted popcorn.
This was fan protest on an unprecedented scale, certainly at Leeds United, a club unrivalled for under its breath mutters. It gave Elland Road an eerie quality that was amplified by how empty it was inside; it was like a drive-in movie at a deserted, haunted screen.
It was a high-stakes, stressful kind of surreal, a leap of faith by and for a lot of people. It was a protest that had to count if the message behind was to be taken seriously. There has been a lot of discussion since about whether the protest represented the majority, or the minority, but that’s irrelevant; you aren’t right just because there are more of you. What the protest had to do was hip more people to its core message than we were on board before, which it did. If it had said something that everybody disagreed with, it wouldn’t have had the traction that it had; but it took its message to more people and more people said, yes.
The FA Cup match this weekend is an opportunity for a calmer, more old-fashioned kind of surreal: a dream. And we haven’t had one of those for a while. Leeds has been beset by nightmares for what seems like the longest night; perhaps we’ll wake up from this long slumber wondrously refreshed, or perhaps our waking sight will still be burned by the glowing gargoyle head of Ken Bates, also projected onto the side of the East Stand on Monday.
But the FA Cup is a dream, it always has been, and if that’s mainly a selling point nowadays, it remains one of the few parts of football worth buying. Because, you know, we could win. Not just against Watford; we could win against Watford. But we could win the FA Cup. It’s an extravagant cup, but that’s what I mean. Our next league fixture after Watford is on Tuesday night at home to Fulham; we’re 16th, they’re 19th, we’ve scored twelve goals at home, they’ve won three games away. Winning the FA Cup is a much more appealing prospect.
It’s also not impossible. For the first time in a long time this week, I watched the video tape of a Leeds United game I’d already attended, for pleasure. This was the other surreal aspect of Monday night: United played well. It came straight from kick-off, Antenucci shattering any concerns that the players would be affected by the disaffection beamed onto the stand, hunting down the ball even as the stadium echoed to chants of ‘Massimo, time to go,’ playing it to Doukara, who laid it off to Cook who laid it off to Dallas, whose shot didn’t get very far but was, at least, a first shot; in the first fifteen seconds, instead of the last fifteen minutes.
The next ten minutes were all Leeds. Around the eight minute mark Sky flashed up a stat that showed 92% of the game had been played in Leeds’ attacking two-thirds; bewildering stuff.
It fizzled out, of course. United don’t have much up front, and while had the first shot at goal, Middlesbrough had the first two big opportunities to score, the first of several. Leeds’ performance held up, though; fatigue looked like it might get them in the second half, but they were close to a winner at the end. This side has been booed off for half-time nil-nils recently. It was heartily applauded for this nil-nil at full-time.
If that momentum can be taken to Watford and deployed, Leeds will move from dreaming distance to within believing distance of Wembley; first for the semi-finals, then for a chance to get suited up at Flannels for the final itself. After that, who knows? Leeds United, FA Cup winners, in Europe?
It would be surreal. For it to truly work for me, though, I would have to watch it all with my eyes closed. Take the football club as it stands and give it an FA Cup win, and I don’t know what it would be. This is partly an example of the poor state of affairs of football in general, but also an example of the frustration I feel about my own football club.
An FA Cup win isn’t a game-changer like promotion to the Premier League would be; even European football is not a club-changing target. Wigan Athletic played in the Europa League while in the Championship, and before long were in League One. The FA Cup’s pure glory, and in that sense it’s closer to the Johnstones Paint Trophy than we might like to admit; a trophy I desperately wanted Leeds to win in the season we were promoted from League One, so we could say we won it and never have to defend it. It’s all about beating the other teams to a big silver jug, with none of the hype or hyper-inflation of a play-off final or a last-day promotion decider.
Without that promise of a better future, we would have to take that silver jug win with the club we have, and when we talk about surreal, I can think of few more clock-meltingly weird prospects than this Leeds United winning the FA Cup.
There’s Steve Evans, thrashing up and down the touchline, in whatever Flannels have found to dress him in. There’s Darko Milanic, technically still an employee, suavely winking from the stands and checking his contract for cup bonuses due while on gardening leave.
There’s the players; the touching sight of Lewis Cook, Charlie Taylor and Alex Mowatt holding the cup aloft; the regret that Sam Byram won’t be there with them. Mirco Antenucci, who wouldn’t go to Charlton and who wanted to go back to Italy in January, will no doubt score the winner, and drive away in a Ferrari before the lap of honour. There’ll be the big cheer when Captain Sol Bamba puts the jug lid on his head and grins as widely as the stadium arch; the regret that he watched the game from the bench, the tension as Steve Evans’ president shoots daggers at him from the Royal Box.
The Royal Box; Massimo Cellino. There. And Edoardo. And Terry George. Verne Troyer? Perhaps not. But Terry George, Tezza, ol’ Tel, bagging a telfie with the Queen. You’d like to think the cup would spend the night on the bedside table in Liam Cooper and Luke Murphy’s hotel room, or somewhere like that; you find yourself dreading the Monday morning headlines: ‘FA Cup ‘Beyond Repair’ After Eleonora Cellino Nightclub Stunt Goes Wrong’.
It’s a cloud, and it’s a cloud in my dreams. My dreams! Perhaps I should just ignore it all and enjoy the football, and our impending FA Cup win, but I can’t even dream about football without these clouds, and I resent it.
The protests on Monday were a purple exercise in getting apathetic Leeds United supporters woke, by a section of the support who ideally would love to sleep. The complicated business of forcing people to face, in images tens of metres high, the problems emanating from the top of the East Stand to the foundations of the football club, was carried out by people yearning for simplicity.
Yearning for simplicity, aching for glory, dreaming of winning the FA Cup; some cloudless, simple, dreamy day in May. Maybe this May. Football match, Saturday.