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the square ball week: not a care in the cup

the square ball week: not a care in the cup

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Not going to the League Cup match against Blackburn Rovers this midweek left me queasy and dissatisfied, gazing bleakly into the future.

Not going to the football is a slippery slope. In one sense it commands respect. I know a number of people, stronger willed than me, who have given up attending Elland Road at various times in protest against Ken Bates or Massimo Cellino. I always thought they were right to do it, but I still went to the games anyway. Football is the refuge of the hypocrite.

In another sense it can be something that happens to you, rather than an active choice. That seems like a strange loss of free will, and about something strangely trivial; I mean, I could have gone to watch Leeds play Blackburn if I wanted.

And I did want to. Given a choice of things I could be doing, if watching a Leeds United game is included, that’s very likely to be the thing I’ll choose to do. That’s the theory, at least, and it’s a compelling one; as football fans, we’re constantly compelled to involve ourself with our favourite teams at every level, with watching them play at the ground the level we all understand.

That march of fans down Beggar’s Hill towards the Lowfields can look like a parade of lemmings, acting upon a biological impulse, an impulse that, for all bar 8,488 souls, was defeated on Tuesday.

Would lower ticket prices have compelled more people to go? I’m not sure. But they certainly would have compelled different people to go, which would have been valuable. The families making a first trip, or the fairweathers wondering if Elland Road is worth a visit again to see Garry Monk’s team, or curious students arriving for fresher’s week looking for a new team to follow, or anyone; low prices and special deals could have got a crowd of softcore fans into the stands, where it would have been up to the team on the pitch to convert them into hardcore followers. Or at least to get them back for a league match.

For some people, though, no price would have been low enough for this game; and some of those people were the hardcore, who would pay almost any price to watch Leeds United play football. It wasn’t about cost; it was about value.

It didn’t help that Leeds played Blackburn the week before, even if we did beat them (and Cardiff afterwards). That only further pushed this game into a lower class, because we all knew that neither side would be arsed fielding their first teams twice against each other within the week. And if watching Leeds United reserves would still mean, at least, watching eleven near-enough gods in the flesh, what would be in it for anybody, watching Blackburn Rovers’ reserves, when their first team last week was so terrible?

It was, all round, an unfortunate draw, with the only benefit that it gave Leeds relatively easy passage to the next round, a slightly less unfortunate tie with Norwich City. And it took us disturbingly, but not excitingly, close to Wembley. The Twin Towers — sorry, the big eff-off arch. Silverware. Europe. Leeds United in the Europa League? Imagine the glamour of those Thursday nights, against Gent or Genk (or both).

Something about that, right now, is not as enticing as it once was. The League Cup was always second best, compared to the FA Cup, but at least it had a sponsor; and what a weird thing, when you’re building (as you’ve probably noticed I am) an argument against modern football, to be yearning for a sponsor. Milk, Littlewoods, Rumbelows, Coca-Cola, Worthington; even Coors and Capital One. But now there’s nothing, not a sign of prestige and authenticity, as the PR might claim, but a sign of disinterest.

Disinterest that has gone on too long, to which everybody is now wise. The League Cup is not a B team tournament, but there they are anyway: the B teams. Should Leeds even reach the final, or even win the bloody thing, knocking out Championship and Premier League teams along the way, there’s every chance of doing it without facing a first choice first eleven from any of them. And what price the League Cup, then? Even in the early rounds, we’d always know, Luton and Blackburn were seen off without Robert Green to be seen. Perhaps Marco Silvestri would keep the gloves all the way to the final; a trophy won with our number two at number one.

The League Cup meant everything to Leeds United in 1968, when it was the first major silverware the club won. Terry Cooper’s goal was worth the world. In 1990/91, Lee Chapman played against Manchester United with a smashed up face, torn up by the running track at White Hart Lane the weekend before, because Leeds were desperate to win the two-legged semi-final and get to Wembley. In 1996, on that dreadful day out against Aston Villa, the day felt more dreadful knowing that these were the two club’s best teams, and our best team had Mark Ford in it.

It’s hard to imagine caring that much if Leeds United ran out at Wembley this — when are they even playing it, February? — against Aston Villa, if Matt Grimes and Kalvin Phillips will be coming off the bench to play. And that’s how you truly know that something in football isn’t working as it should be: when you can’t imagine caring.

Obviously, you will care. It’s Leeds United, playing a game of football. The outcome matters, and defeat hurts; lose, and you care. But normally you can picture that pain, or the inverse elation, in advance. When, as you walk down Beggar’s Hill, you feel your insides descending to your stomach pits, you know you’re going to watch Leeds United play. When you don’t feel anything, but Leeds United are playing, then you know that something’s wrong.

Well at least it’s not you. It’s them. But not going to the football is a slippery slope. It may be a rich game now, but it can’t afford to let its fans feel like they don’t care. First there was the League Cup and before so very long, a second string are robbing the FA Cup of its glamour, and reasons to go to Elland Road become fewer, and reasons not to care about that increase.

It’s the last thing I want, because I bloody love football. But it was a pretty easy week, this week, acting as if nothing happened, and feeling like I didn’t care.

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