the square ball week: so seriousBack
‘The match was frankly awful,’ reads the Leeds United match report I have in front of me. ‘It was our worst performance of the season … like decrepit donkeys pacing up and down Blackpool beach.
‘The sands of time seem to be running out for [our striker], and most of all for the fans whose patience is not being rewarded. The big man wasted the few chances he had and in the box the ball seemed superglued to his chin.’
I won’t out the writer here, but you’ll find that match report in The Square Ball: Marching on Together Since 1989 book (available here, everybody). ‘Our striker’ is Lee Chapman, for whom time was running out, scored twenty goals in the season in question. Not only that, but Leeds United won the game in question. The fans, whose patience was not being rewarded, could look at the league table after this game against Oldham in October 1991 and see Leeds United’s name at the top of the First Division.
‘Like decrepit donkeys on Blackpool beach’, wasteful Chapman and his teammates — like Gary McAllister, ‘Who actually ran a couple of times’ — had just won the Second Division, finished fourth in the First, and were on their way to winning the Football League Championship. Gordon Strachan was just months from lifting the Championship trophy; ‘His contribution to the resurgence of Leeds United is legendary,’ read TSB, ‘But so was Billy Bremner in the 1960s and he’s not still in the side.’ To be fair, though, that was a different game, a few months later, in March 1992. We drew.
Leeds United fans have always had a cynical streak. In the wake of the curious incident of Chris Wood’s ear (in the night time) this week, I saw one fan suggest that even Revie’s team would get pelters if they played at Elland Road these days. Aye, they probably would. Same as they did in the sixties and seventies if they weren’t playing well. Terry Yorath? You wouldn’t have had to wait long in the Peacock in 1975 to hear how he wasn’t fit to wear the shirt.
Or Chapman or McAllister or Strachan, in 1992. A cartoon from TSB around that time showed a guide to Gordon Strachan’s corner kick signals; a variety of arm signals, and written under each one, ‘Short soft centre to near post that finds first defender’s head.’ I mean, alongside Howard Wilkinson, the man transformed Leeds United Football Club from an antiquated relic wheezing its last at the bottom of Division Two, to a modern, title-winning club, playing in Europe. And here we were, so-called fans, making fun of his corners.
Or hounding him, as it would probably be called now. That might be the crucial difference between then and now. Certainly, the corners haven’t changed. Pablo Hernandez went full Gordon with his set-pieces against Fulham, until he finally drifted a good ball out of the first defender’s heading range; and the Leeds crowd cheered as if he’d scored.
To be fair to Hernandez, after his next corner, he didn’t run to the stands with his hand to his ear; then again, his next corner was struck straight to the first man again. But that sarcastic cheering of his one successful corner, cited alongside the jeering of Chris Wood as an example of Elland Road ‘abuse’, was probably as bad as any of the ‘abuse’ that went Wood’s way that night; and a lot less than Strachan or Chapman put up with, back when they were winning two titles and a Charity Shield.
Or, for more a recent example, Sir William of Paynter. I used Wild Bill as an example in my report on the Fulham game, when I was still in a post-match seethe about Wood’s ear-fondling display, and noticed in subsequent comment the claim that ‘Wood has had far worse from the Leeds fans than Billy Paynter ever got.’ That is absolute rubbish. I remember once, when Paynter came on as a sub for Leeds, the sarcastic cries of ‘Come On Billy’ being so loud that I couldn’t join in; I was dying, inside, for the love of him. Because nobody really wanted to hurt his feelings; nobody really wanted to hurl abuse. So the fans settled for making his lack of goals, and by extension him, a laughing stock. ‘If Billy Scores, We’re On The Pitch’; well, it’s encouragement, of a sort.
And it really was, in its way, if Billy chose to take it that way. Elland Road standing to sing, at your every move, about your inability to score a goal, could crush you; or you could accept that, in the absence of your goals, the fans are having to make their own fun, and this is their way. Billy chose that route, and a result, crap as he was for Leeds, it’s only the most churlish of fans who don’t remember him fondly.
Cheering Hernandez’s successful corners fall into this category, too. It’s not that it’s only been four games and it’s too soon to be cynical; those four games have fallen like identical leaves from the tree of our dour recent seasons, and watching Leeds United in 2016 simply isn’t fun yet. Dark humour is at least humour of a kind. It sure beats crying.
Which still feels like it would be the easier option at times. I’m actually feeling pretty good about the season so far; about everything bar the actual football. Marcus Antonsson and Pablo Hernandez — once he gets back to being a no.10, as at Fleetwood — look great. Sacko and Roofe are promising. Bartley and Ayling have caused no major complaints. I’m going to gloss over Green and Grimes. Bridcutt has had our tongues out for so long I’m even willing to overlook that I was never actually that impressed last season. Pontius Jansson, newly signed, has a highlights clip that makes him look like John Stones but better. Even Chris Wood scored a bloody overhead kick.
Somehow, so far, all those elements have resulted in nothing more than opening day embarrassment, a scraped qualification on penalties past lower league opposition, two disappointing home performances and a point. Somehow, though, I’m still looking forward to the next few games, even if the only entertainment I get is to sarcastically cheer some wrong-headed mundanity from a player in a white/blue/yellow shirt.
But then you get the reports, from a journalist close to Massimo Cellino, at the Daily Mirror, that ‘Garry Monk is fighting for his life at Leeds after just four games in charge, with Massimo Cellino considering axeing him’; ‘Cellino was ready to sack Monk before Antonsson’s late goal against Fleetwood saved them and is losing confidence in the ex-Swans boss’; and from elsewhere, that Cellino wants to add someone to Monk’s backroom staff.
Your lip starts to wobble; you don’t want to cry, so you bite down and it hurts, and you cry anyway. You need a sense of humour to follow Leeds United, and you need familiarity with the harsh, unfair, cynical and sarcastic aspects of football, and football supporting.
And football playing, if that’s what your business is. I mean, ask Lee Chapman, or Gary McAllister, or Gordon Strachan, or Billy Paynter, and they’ll tell you: we loved them here. Maybe one day Chris Wood will look back, and he’ll say the same thing too.