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wigan athletic 1-14 leeds united: oh the humanity

wigan athletic 1-14 leeds united: oh the humanity

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Leeds United’s players trooped in dutifully for the half-time team talk, and Garry Monk hesitated outside the door of the away dressing room.

He looked around him in the tunnel. There was no sign of Andrea Radrizzani; no sign of Massimo Cellino. He wasn’t sure which he would have liked to see least in that moment. Terry George. That was who he would have liked to see least.

Near him instead were his faithful staff. James Beattie wore the resolute expression Monk had seen in his face in the video of Beattie rescuing children from a sinking yacht. Pep Clotet was attempting something nearly as grim, but he was so perennially cuddly that he only resembled a pissed-off teddy bear. As always, the sight of Pep lifted Garry’s heart, but it didn’t restore the pre-match party atmosphere. What could?

“I thought, today of all days, this wouldn’t happen,” said Monk to his two assistants. “This group have nothing to lose, so why are we losing? Is it…” He stopped himself before speaking his secret fear aloud, that the deficit was due to the all-yellow away kit.

“Too many through balls,” said Clotet. “We will tell them to tackle sooner in midfield, the back four to watch runners more closely.”

“Nothing to lose means nothing to win,” said Beattie. “They need an aim. Pride is vague. Give them something concrete.”

“Woody’s goal,” said Monk. “The group should at least leave with that.”

“Or Tano’s,” smiled Clotet.

“Why shouldn’t we leave here with more?” said Beattie. “We know the players have nothing to lose. But we three have more at stake.”

Monk thought for a moment. His mind churned through previous promotions at Swansea, the play-off victories, feeling the trophies in his hand, seeing the curtains of his fringe passing before his eyes. He’d inspired this group in countless half-times already this season. Now he would do it again.

The first half had started brightly but faded into listlessness after Wigan Athletic scored, when Ryan Tunnicliffe went around Rob Green and slid a shot over the line. Similar lethargy had descended at Burton Albion, and worst of all against Norwich City. But at least against Norwich it had lifted. They’d come close, that day, to glory. Drawing that match meant that now defeat for Fulham and a fifteen goal difference swing was the only way Leeds United could qualify for the play-offs, an all but mathematical impossibility.

As the second half began, the players lifted again. They had listened intently to what Monk, Clotet and Beattie had to say at half-time, then taken an early position on the pitch, showing Wigan they were ready. Gaetano Berardi and Lewie Coyle were the full-backs — making of his future a hostage of his past, Charlie Taylor had refused to play — and now they attacked more, with eager support from the middle where Eunan O’Kane was bursting through. After five minutes a run from wide took him into the penalty area where he was brought down: a penalty.

It was a chance for Chris Wood, at least. On another night, long ago, Wood had confidently prepared to take a penalty, and sent the ball flying. He’d taken a lot of penalties since then, and scored a lot of goals since then, and this time he sent it low and firm and into the goal. Thirty! So few had scored thirty in a season for Leeds; so few scored thirty in a season anywhere. He ran to collect the ball, as if he might want it for a souvenir. Stuart Dallas ran to congratulate him. “Thirty, Woody!” he laughed, but Wood wasn’t laughing. “Thirty, mate?” he said. “Make it forty.”

“Forty?” asked Stuart.

“I want forty, and you guys chip in,” said Wood. “The play-offs, mate. The play-offs.”

From the kick-off Leeds United attacked again, and soon Kemar Roofe hit the bar. Wood applauded encouragement, but inside he was thinking, as he had since the early weeks of the season, “It’s down to me to sort this. Maybe forty won’t be enough.”

Something in his expression put fear into the hearts of Wigan’s central defenders, and something in his movement put lead into their boots. As Dallas, Roofe and Pablo Hernandez worked the ball behind him, they looked for repeats of O’Kane’s run, and with the full-backs coming forward, Wigan’s players were spinning.

It’s not normally the metronome that thrills, but the melody that overwhelms it. But the clockwork regularity with which Chris Wood started putting the ball in the Wigan net was so thrilling you could barely remember the build up. All you knew was that Wood was scoring, scoring, scoring, scoring, five, six, seven, eight. On Sky Sports News, they cut away from the studio cameras, and just kept the news rolling from Wigan; radio stations switched their commentaries.

The scoring was relentless, but as Wood grew stronger, his teammates struggled to keep supplying him. What had been planned as valedictory appearances from Alfonso Pedraza and Hadi Sacko became vital refreshers, and they slotted in seamlessly next to Roofe as Dallas and Hernandez bowed out. Still the team played to Chris Wood’s beat, and he continued to shrug off the increasing number of players Wigan used to try to mark him. Alex Bruce came on, but neither he nor the other nine players hanging off Wood like desperate Lilliputians could stop his goals from beating the back of the net as steady as a drum.

Nine, ten, eleven, twelve. Wood had forty and then he had more. Television viewers prodded at their remote controls as Homes Under The Hammer, Natural World and Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium were abruptly yanked from view, urgent calls between competing broadcasters agreeing that, for the nation’s greater good, screens across the country should carry coverage of what was happening in Wigan. ‘What’s happening in Wigan?’ asked the viewers. ‘We can’t explain what’s happening in Wigan,’ said the commentators. ‘But you have to watch this.’

But would it make any difference? Chris Wood could go on scoring all day, but Leeds United needed outside intervention. Thirteen, and then a goal-flash on the screens; Sheffield Wednesday had scored, and now led Fulham 2-1. Wood’s thirteen second-half goals were already the single most incredible individual performance in the history of football. Now, with only a few minutes remaining, one more goal would mean it all counted for more than the record books. Leeds United would have the chance to return to the Premier League, propelled there by a new legend.

The sidelines were chaos; some Wigan substitutes were weeping. Beattie still wore an expression of dour professionalism, although as he watched every goal Wood scored, he saw in each its genesis on the training pitches at Thorp Arch, some aspect of technique they’d worked on together, and his spleen swelled. Clotet was ebullient, hugging the other staff and squad players in delight, clapping and singing along with the crowd as they chanted Wood’s name.

Amid the mayhem, Garry Monk stood quiet, concentrating on the game, his arms folded. Leeds fans had seem him stood like that so often throughout the season, staring sternly at the pitch, but not many had realised it was a form of self-defence. He couldn’t waver, but now he did waver, turning and looking up to the stands. Were they there? Were they aiming daggers at his back? People were running to-and-fro, reporters arriving urgently to beg their way into the press box and record history. Wigan’s directors were tearing out their hair. But the seats allocated to Leeds United were empty. No Radrizzani, no Cellino. No George.

Turning back to the game, Monk spotted a figure just behind the dugout, wearing a Leeds United hoodie but curiously detached from the others on the bench. Monk couldn’t place him at first, until the figure pushed his hood back far enough for him to see a sandy fringe, thick-set features. “I’m here gaffer,” said Charlie Taylor. “You’ve got one sub left. I can cross for Woody. You could say there was a mistake on the teamsheet, gaffer.”

Monk stared at his itinerant left-back. He wasn’t angry. But he had nothing to say. Taylor watched his gaffer turn back to the game, then walked away down the touchline, trying to find a better view.

The whole world was watching now. In France, voters were turning away from polling stations to find a television set. In Mar-a-Lago, President Trump was speeding away from the golf course in a buggy, as aides reminded him of the Rumbelows Cup draw he made in 1991. Aboard the International Space Station, astronauts were urgently recalibrating their position among the satellites, hoping to pick up a half-decent stream.

On the pitch, the ball was played yet again to Wood, who controlled it on his chest in the penalty area. As it bounced, he span, and smashed a shot at goal. Matt Gilks, Wigan’s keeper, was visibly exhausted, only able to put out a half-hearted hand towards the ball — but somehow it was enough. Seismologists watched the world’s reaction to the save send their monitoring equipment haywire; engineers in Pisa forgot the game, racing to their tower. The rest of the world remained transfixed. Gilks had parried the shot, and now the ball was bouncing free.

Alex Bruce swung a leg but it was absurd, he was nowhere near the ball, his timing askew. He toppled, and behind him was Gaetano Berardi. He’d been firing crosses at Chris Wood all second half, and Opta had long lost count of how many assists the full-back had. He’d crossed the ball for Wood to have this last chance, then watched it be denied. And as he’d done so, he’d seen a furtive figure on the touchline. It couldn’t be? Concentrate on the game.

Concentrate on the ball. Berardi, no goals in twelve years of professional football. Berardi, dropped by Sampdoria after helping them win promotion. Berardi, written off at Leeds after eccentric early red cards. Berardi, who had played his way back in ahead of local darling Sam Byram. Berardi, who had gone to play when others had not. Berardi, whose reward was to have his face smashed twice by Rotherham players. Berardi, who had seemed destined to lose this season to injury. Berardi, who had played his way back in ahead of local darling Charlie Taylor. Berardi, who had, again, gone to play when others had not. The ball was bouncing in front of Berardi.

“If he scores he’ll get sent off,” Luke Ayling and Kyle Bartley had agreed, months earlier. “He’ll be gone. There would be one player getting headbutted, no doubt about it. Corner flag would be out. Gone, mate.”

They’d said that about some hypothetical goal in some meaningless match. But what about the fourteenth goal in a destiny-defying second-half that had drawn the attention of the known universe to the final minutes of Leeds United’s final match?

Berardi concentrated on the ball. And then the ball was gone.

Gilks was unconscious. The net had evaporated. Fires were burning behind the goalmouth. The referee gave the goal; he hadn’t seen the ball once it left Berardi’s boot, couldn’t see it now, but there was no other explanation. As hail began to fall, television technicians tried to rewind the tape, to see what had happened in slow motion. There was nothing there: all the tapes were blank.

The world was in turmoil, with the DW Stadium at its centre, but all was silenced by a deafening roar from somewhere on the pitch. A TV director called to his control room for a replay, but all he heard were desperate pleas. They had nothing to show, stay live, stay live. He watched on the live feed as twelve cameras concentrated on the source of the roar. Berardi. He watched twelve angles of him screaming. Twelve angles of his flaming eyes searching the sides of the pitch. Twelve angles of impending total fucking hell.

“Stop the broadcast,” yelled the director.

“But this is the greatest moment in television history!” protested his assistant.

“Cut the transmission!” he demanded.

“But our awards, the viewing figures —“

“Damn the viewing figures!” cried the director. “Damn the awards! Man, have you no humanity?”

Twelve angles of Gaetano Berardi spotting Charlie Taylor on the sidelines. Twelve angles of him running towards a cowering wraith in a Kappa hoodie. There should have been twelve angles of the glory that was Leeds United’s, but no, man, there was no humanity.

The director’s tear-filled eyes reflected the bank of screens, twelve angles of transcendent, elemental brutality, transmitting to every home in every nation on earth. “Keep rolling,” he sobbed. “Stay live. Damn Taylor, damn it all, keep rolling.”

••

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