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the square ball week: newness & old feeling

the square ball week: newness & old feeling


The dissatisfied clamour was growing. Wednesday threatened to be the perfect storm; a day and night that would doom this coming Saturday to relentless drizzle.

A few since last Sunday have pointed out that the anticipation and optimism among Leeds United fans going into the new season was groundless and irrational; right in the bullseye of classic football fan behaviour, then. There might not have been much basis for it, but that doesn’t mean the excitement — and the subsequent letdown — were any less real.

Or the kickback any less justified. Any football fans is entitled to enjoy the new season for more than four minutes before being plunged back into the despair they’d thought was behind them, in winter; Leeds did nothing worth sunlight in the remaining 86 minutes, except sink into a heavier defeat than any other Championship side managed on the opening weekend. Looking down the leagues only Oldham and Plymouth lost as bad as 3-0; Blackburn lost 4-1 at home to Norwich, but as they scored a goal, we can assume they at least had a shot.

Wednesday night was a chance to reset, but it wasn’t easy. During the day, United responded to the growing unease about absent season tickets, with days before the first home game becoming hours; there’d been a manufacturing problem, apparently, meaning printing and testing delays before new cards could be sent out. During the evening, the ones without a card on their doormat began to look like the lucky ones, while those with the magic plastic that will (assuming the manufacturing problems were solved) grant them access on Saturday felt a curse’s creep.

Step forward Marcus Antonsson, making his first goal memorable, in collaboration with the photographer that caught him just after the moment the ball was struck; the goalkeeper visible to the right of frame but as redundant as the three Fleetwood defenders to the left; Antonsson’s eyes narrowed, his body shape perfection, the rain and the sweat forming a halo around him.

It’s one goal, in one game, in one round of a bizarrely seeded Cup that, now without a sponsor, people are confusing for the old Johnstone’s Paint Trophy; it meant we got a draw. We only got a draw out of extra-time, too. But that meant we got penalties, and qualified for a game at Luton Town, although I’m hesitant to call this game Garry Monk’s first win. United will have to do it in ninety minutes for that to matter.

But I’m not hesitant to join in the collective sigh of relief and to sweep cares aside and welcome hope again before Saturday’s traipse to Elland Road. It’s a deeper sigh from knowing how close Leeds came to losing all hope at Fleetwood.

After two games? Sure. It’s football. We’re that fickle. And at Leeds we’re that impatient, not by nature, but by conditioning. There’s no doubt that had the game ended 1-0 to Fleetwood on Wednesday night then Garry Monk would have been the central actor in a harsh colosseum when he walked to the dugout on Saturday, where he would have to fold his hands and pray to everything he holds dear for a better home start than when his predecessor Steve Evans, relishing the atmosphere, took charge at Elland Road for the first time, against Blackburn.

That game against Blackburn still has a lot of relevance for how much leeway Leeds fans will allow Garry Monk. Sure, he’s a newcomer, but after such a rapid turnover of newcomers at Elland Road, if there’s one thing Leeds fans are tired of, it’s newcomers. Or perhaps not tired of; resigned to. Ach, if this guy doesn’t work out, so what? There’ll be another along soon anyway. And even if it does work out, there’ll be another along soon anyway. The difference sometimes only feels like the specification and degree of bullshit each newcomer will bring with him, and the precise velocity of the disappointment. Seventeen seconds of Evans against Blackburn; four minutes of Monk at QPR. It’s all part of the same thing.

But part of the same thing, too, is the willingness with which Leeds fans will forget all that and seize upon any glimmer. You can dismiss it as fickle if you want, disdain fans who are calling for the goalkeeper’s blood at half-time but cheering him to the rafters when he saves a tie-winning penalty at the end; but it actually takes a particular kind of fortitude for football fans – and especially browbeaten Leeds United fans — to be so ready to forgive. Had Fleetwood prevailed, Elland Road would have been ready for revolt on Saturday; United prevailed, and now we’re all looking forward to seeing Pablo Hernandez play and giving Garry Monk a big old cheer.

That’s valuable, and Monk would do well not to forget about it. He will be under a lot of pressure for as long as he is the Leeds boss, from the owner, from the media, from opponents, and from the club’s own fans. But he should remember that it’s the last of those, whose displeasure will often be the must immediate and most vocal, who will also give him the longest line of credit of anyone with an interest in Leeds United.

It’s an advantage that Massimo Cellino has seen and learned to use; he’s been able to get away with all sorts of mad shit, safe in the knowledge that a few wins, a few glossy signings and a few hot-dogs here and there will always bring a large proportion of the fanbase back to his side, no matter how they’re treated; how many defeats they have to endure, how much extra they have to pay for pies they don’t want, how many phone calls they have to make to get a season ticket they’ve paid handsomely for.

What Cellino has done to deserve that credit is beyond me, but it’s there. And it’s there for Garry Monk, too, who is so far much more deserving of it. It ought to be there for Charlie Taylor, but perhaps that’s a thought for another day.

But as we wend again to LS11 for something so stupid as the football, Monk — who said in his press conference on Thursday that, “I have been told the club have a habit of making it hard for themselves. We have to get out of that” — should understand that he will be sending a team out in front of a crowd that is excited and optimistic, full of anticipation; and full of dread, fear and weariness.

It’s a new season, sure, but in a very old year. Garry’s only just got here, but I’m sure he’ll soon feel at home, one way or another.


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