Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1
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the square ball week: no pablo, no pontus, no point

the square ball week: no pablo, no pontus, no point

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A thought I had after Leeds United lost to Newcastle last weekend was that Leeds would be a fantastic club to follow right now if only the team didn’t have to play any others.

Newcastle United have a much better team than Leeds United, which is fine; bully for them. It wasn’t much fun watching Leeds United trying to play them at football, though, or trying to come up with ways to feel positive after the game was lost. (There were plenty of reasons, they just weren’t much fun to think about.) An occasion that had promised so much didn’t deliver much more than deflation.

Going into the trip to Rotherham, and then to Liverpool, Leeds United don’t have anything to fear; but they won’t have Pontus Jansson in Rotherham, or Pablo Hernandez anywhere for a while. As symbols of the way Leeds United have got better this season Pontus and Pablo have few rivals — they’re the first new signings in a long time to have had songs sung for them for more than one or two games, here and there, and that’s before you get onto everything else about Pontus Jansson — magic hats, haircuts, t-shirts in the club shop, posters in The Square Ball (still on sale here, by the way).

I even had a visit this week from a Swedish journalist, Erik Niva of Sportbladet, who wanted to talk to me about Pontus Jansson and the culture and heritage of Leeds United, before he headed off to talk to Pontus about the same stuff; it’s a sign of Jansson’s impact in Leeds that people are travelling from Sweden to find out what the hell is going on. “We hear quite often that a Swedish player is popular at his club overseas,” Erik told me, “But normally if we go there we find out that, actually, it’s nothing special. What, then, is Jansson’s status in the city of Leeds, do you think?”

“He’s basically a god,” I said.

As the conversation progressed, we discussed what it is about Pontus and Leeds that makes them such a perfect fit; what are the core values of Leeds United, going back to the Revie era, and how does Jansson fit into the club’s perception of itself; stuff like that.

As you can imagine, I bored Erik with my answers for more than an hour, thinking about it all too much and drawing parallels between Pontus telling an interviewer that, when Derby scored past Leeds the other week, “I was on the way up into the stands to mess with any of the Derby fans”, and Billy Bremner’s famous assertion that “Every time Leeds concede a goal I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the heart”; talking about Leeds’ historical status as anarchic anti-establishment rebels, this unglamorous club from a self-possessed northern working class city that thought it could be the English Real Madrid and was, or would have been, had the FA, the Football League and UEFA allowed it; examining the eternal catch-22 of demanding the right respect for our club’s achievements in the game — there will never be a bad time for a posthumous knighthood for Don Revie, but also never a good time, because it’s been too late for too long — and not giving a fuck what anyone else thinks anyway.

That sort of stuff, and the death of god. Because, as Erik pointed out, Pontus Jansson has only been at Leeds United for 100 days. He’s played in twelve games, and if his loan deal is understood correctly, he can play eight more before United have to sign him permanently. What happens if, asked Erik, after such a short but intense loan spell, Pontus Jansson doesn’t stay?

“We should burn the ground down,” I said.

Perhaps they are only flavours of the month, but the flavour of Leeds United this month right now is the flavour of Pontus and Pablo, and the thought of Leeds United without them is tasteless. We’ll be without them at Rotherham, and should still win the game; that’s not the issue. But whose name will we sing? Which players will we cheer?

Well, given that we still sing the names of Jermaine Beckford, Dominic Matteo, Lucas Radebe and Billy Bremner, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t sing about Pontus Jansson and Pablo Hernandez at Rotherham anyway. Supporting a football club, after all, goes much deeper than supporting the eleven players on the pitch; down to history lessons, a shared culture, a representation of community; and an attachment, probably too far into adulthood, to the aspects of the club that mean most to you, whether that’s manifest as a smiley badge tattoo or feeling like you’re Bobby Davison when you’re tucking into a Sunday roast.

And we have all that stuff in our memory banks, whatever happens now. Competitive league and cup football is an expression of civic pride, in one sense; our city has a better team than yours. But it’s also a recruitment campaign for an intensive history course without end that is stronger than any school’s (sorry, teach). How many young kids, seeing Chris Wood in the white shirt for the first time last Sunday, heard their dad saying, “But of course, Lee Chapman…”; or their big sister piping up, “If you’d seen Luciano Becchio…”

We often look at our present day players as the inheritors of our club’s history, expecting them to take on the values of the past and play like facsimiles of Bremner and Charlton. That’s an unreasonable demand. Instead, they often feel like stand-ins, actors in a performance of Leeds United that has none of the original cast, but holds the promise that an individual or the ensemble might start hitting the same historic notes we heard on the recording of the show’s first run, firing our best memories of the best.

Which is absurd, especially when they lose to Newcastle. After all, I have the VHS tape of Leeds United’s 1989/90 promotion season at home. Why do I keep buying season tickets year after year, going to Elland Road and hoping I’ll see a defender as good as Chris Fairclough, a midfielder as good as Gordon Strachan? Why hope for victory against Liverpool on Tuesday and progress in the League Cup, when Terry Cooper’s goal against Arsenal that made the League Cup Leeds’ first major trophy is right there on YouTube any time I want it? We’ve won the cup once, so why the fervour for an inferior repeat of history by an inadequate cast?

There’s a Leedsness to a lot of this, but then this is about Leeds United. It might be different at other clubs that don’t have such a track record of glory; I suppose Newcastle United fans yearn for a league title to cherish in the television age. But when you’ve been there, and done it, and got the culture embedded to prove it, what good is carrying on, when it can add nothing worthwhile to the stock of memories?

What’s good, though, is when a Pontus Jansson does appear among us, a Pablo Hernandez; when the team isn’t just shadows of the past anymore, but bodily, really, present. It’s not fair to call Leeds United a two-player team; it’s too much to say no Pontus, no Pablo, no point. But without them on the pitch on Saturday Leeds United loses a little of its present day fascination. Football always has its history, but without Pontus and Pablo, it won’t be writing anything new in the history books this weekend.

Three points it is, then, from a ninety minute interruption to the reverie of loving Leeds United, during which they’ll risk spoiling everything by playing a game of football. That’s enough, as long as you don’t think about it too much.

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