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the square ball week: the missing

the square ball week: the missing

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As ticket sales ticked up on Monday and more of Elland Road was opening for the game with Norwich City, I wondered what all these people were expecting.

I’d paid my ten pound to move my seat and buy a ticket, true, and been struck by the scarcity of space in the East Stand. It made perfect sense, though, and many of us had said it after the Blackburn match in the previous round: price an unattractive game attractively, and people will be attracted; but I hadn’t expected it to work so visibly.

Neither had Leeds United, by the looks of things; having created the demand with ten and fifteen pound tickets — with extra cheapness for kids — they’d done a typical Leeds thing of throttling the supply by not opening more of the ground. But with climbing sales came a sensible response: more space, more tickets, more sales.

In the end, more people went to see Leeds play Norwich in the maligned League Cup then went to see Leeds play Wigan in the all-important league. They had a much better time of it, too.

I didn’t make it. After paying ten pounds for my ticket, I waited patiently for it to arrive on my doormat, but on the morning of the match, it still hadn’t arrived. Then Tuesday became relentless so that I worked so late I couldn’t have made it home and back to Elland Road; and I couldn’t face queuing at the ticket office to sort out a replacement. It was only the League Cup, after all, and with eight changes to our side and who knows how many to Norwich’s, it was barely a first team fixture anyway.

I finished work, went for something to eat, and got home in time to find a stream and watch Lewie Coyle limping around the pitch. I didn’t regret that I wasn’t there, enduring a late midweek night in October, watching two reserve sides grinding 120 minutes out of a fixture that had seemed barely worth the ninety; especially not when Norwich took a 2-1 lead.

Then Leeds equalised, then the penalty shoot out happened, and the celebrations happened, and I regretted the day as bitterly as I’ve regretted anything in my damn fool life.

This was always the danger and I blame football, the sport, the concept, the entity, the business; this is what I said about the Blackburn League Cup game, that I also skipped, that it had none of the ingredients that would tempt any but the hardiest to Elland Road except for one crucial element: risk. There is always the risk, if you turn away from football for even a moment, that you’ll miss something defining. Think of Steve Evans relieving himself in the cramped dressing room toilets at Hillsborough while the course of the game was changed on the pitch outside; think of me, slumped on the sofa with a beer, gripped by events unfolding just down the road where I should have been. One can to get me through extra-time, one can to get me through the penalties, one can to sit and ponder what I’d done.

But football has been sleepwalking into this new becoming, as a commodity you might miss and then not feel yourself missing, for a while now. I didn’t regret missing the Blackburn game in the previous round because the game sounded miserable in atmosphere and play, and combinations of pricing and oversaturation have started doing that to even the most committed fans. There were op-eds this week about people who love football becoming bored by constantly watching football on the gogglebox, and how the game needs to stop taking it for granted that fans — consumers — will automatically fan and consume.

To their credit United’s pricing showed they’d learned from the Blackburn match and weren’t taking the Norwich fixture as granted but, during half-term, as an opportunity. That didn’t prevent football — the sport, the concept — using its stick as well as its carrot, though. Because actually it can take its fans for granted when it serves up nights like this, for as long as it serves them up occasionally enough to keep them within memory. It’s the threat the ends talks of boycotts as soon as they begin: ‘I’d definitely protest against the things I think are wrong at my football club, but what if it’s another game like the Norwich game, and I’m not there…’

Without being there it’s hard to know what to make of this match in particular. Souleymane Doukara had left the pitch before I tuned in, so his mythic beast level of performance was just that to me, a myth. It’s hard, especially given his penalty, to regard any Leeds United team with Matt Grimes in it as a legitimate first team; and even with his exquisite through ball for Chris Wood’s equaliser, to regard the players in Norwich’s side as anything other than shoddy reserves either. But then again, Leeds played Real Madrid and Lazio in the Champions League with Jacob Burns in midfield, so why should we take Grimes’ moment away?

Then there’s Marco Silvestri. Of all the signings made in Massimo Cellino and Dave Hockaday’s summer of madness, bar Berardi, Silvestri has remained the one with the most long term potential to make a name for himself — a good name, that is — at Leeds United. Last season, after his matchwinning performance at Cardiff, I wrote that with his age and his contract and his (albeit often wayward talent), Silvestri has the best chance of any goalkeeper we’ve had for years to become, “if not a Martyn-style legend, then at least a Mervyn Day-style stalwart.”

Since then we’ve signed Robert Green, but the advantage is still Silvestri’s. It looked at first as if Green’s arrival would mean Silvestri’s departure, and it did mean his departure from the pre-season trip to Ireland; but Green only signed for a year, and if Silvestri’s time out of the first team means time for him to hone and improve the talent we’ve seen in flashes, as well as allowing the toxic associations that still — rightly — linger from his first season in particularly — it could be Silvestri who signs a new contract next summer, not Green.

Silvestri probably won’t play against Burton Albion, though, and nor will Coyle or Doukara or Grimes, further shifting the Norwich game into cup unreality, and moving the focus back to league reality, a reality that somehow involves Burton Albion.

Unreality, though, is probably where the Norwich game belongs. An unreal night, with unreal teams, unreal events, and an unreal feeling; if you were there. A queasy feeling, if you were not, but then football is wonderfully inclusive. I might not have been inside the ground but then only around 20,000 of Leeds United’s hundreds of thousands of supporters were; it’s the global game precisely because of the way you can feel the impact of moments, like when Silvestri saved his third and Vieira scored, when mentally you and every other Leeds are fan are in the same place.

The League Cup final will take place at Wembley Stadium on 26th February 2017. The winners get the cup and entry to the Europa League. UEFA will post details of the date and venue of the final here when they’re decided. If we’re doing unreal, let’s do unreal.

And let’s hope the fact it’s Friday and my ticket for the Norwich game still hasn’t been delivered isn’t an omen from unkind reality.

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