Jon Howe: Good things from bad things

Weekly column.


In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe reflects on our return to action, against Aston Villa last weekend.

Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.

Yes, we wanted football back, but not like this. After 29 days of clock-watching the anticipation for Leeds United returning to our lives last Sunday versus Aston Villa was hotter than Sonny Perkins’ shooting boots. And yet what we experienced was like when Hermes send a notification about your parcel arriving today, but they subsequently deliver the wrong parcel and then the driver disappears into the night and you scour their website to discover there’s no traceable complaints procedure. Yes, that. You feel bereft, helpless and alone. That’s pretty much how I felt last Sunday evening when I got home, and after all the build-up and excitement I actually wanted to pack football up into a shoebox and hide it in the loft. But tellingly, I wasn’t quite ready to take it to the tip.

Football has an inherent ability to let you down, and god knows we should be aware of that by now. It tends to bite with added malice when you naively build something up to be potentially the best day ever, and one of my first thoughts as I walked home after Sunday’s wretched 0-0 draw was if a youngster was attending their first ever game and had felt all their hope, excitement and expectation slowly drain out of them over 90 painful minutes. At full-time they met their parent’s uncomfortable gaze and said nothing, but their lip trembled and their eyes said “that was not what you promised me”.

It is not as if a Leeds United game has never let us down before; some people will have experienced nothing but abject misery for the best part of two decades if they only picked their games sparingly, and were haunted by misfortune. There are many reasons why football games turn out to be really bad. Sometimes Leeds are rubbish and there’s no fun in being soundly beaten. Sometimes we make mistakes and you quickly forget the good things about a performance and get ground down by the bad. Sometimes the biblical weather or the state of the pitch makes a mockery of any futile attempts at adroit performance. And sometimes the opposition’s tactics extinguish any joy from proceedings, and then the officials and a single, ill-advised act intervenes.

Like Jesse Marsch, I’m not going to comment on the referee from Sunday, suffice to say that it was largely his inconsistency that rankled, and created a prickly contest from the off. The players didn’t help, in all honesty. The media have been desperate to promote this as a grudge match ever since the infamous ‘ghost’ goal in 2019, and while Leeds have quite a few protagonists remaining from that day whom they fielded on Sunday – Ayling, Cooper, Klich, Harrison and Bamford – Villa have only Tyrone Mings and John McGinn, though the presence of each of them certainly stirs something incendiary within the Elland Road crowd.

In truth, the games between Leeds and Villa since 2019 have failed to light the blue touch paper, but the pre-season friendly in Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium somehow reignited a litany of feuds, to the extent that the referee had a tough task in retaining control of the game on Sunday. It felt like a free-kick was coming every thirty seconds, and there was niggle, spikiness and contempt in almost every challenge. The problem came when some misdemeanours were let go but then the next one was clamped down upon. Ideally, the referee has to choose his approach and stick to it, but then we get either something that resembles a Wild West bar room brawl with a bit of football thrown in, or the match abandoned because there’s no one left on the pitch. Anything in between is pretty much the cheerless gruel we were served up on Sunday; a match that never really started and should have been put to sleep for humanitarian reasons after about five minutes.

You couldn’t really say Sunday’s game was a nasty or dirty one, more that it was attritional and a tough watch, particularly in the circumstances. The Premier League would no doubt describe it as a “competitive contest between two closely-matched sides”, but where we wanted paracetamol for the soul, we were delivered a form of Chinese water torture, or something resembling a complex tooth extraction.

What we can’t really argue about is the dismissal of Luis Sinisterra, as if to compound the misery and rid the game of any prospect of grace, skill and trickery. It didn’t help the likelihood of the game finding any rhythm and the crowd remained, if not completely bored, certainly as disengaged as they have been for any post-lockdown fixture at Elland Road. The sending-off effectively killed any chances of Leeds winning it, and I’m sure most of us expected a defeat to be incoming. In that sense, while it felt we learnt very little from Sunday and from our extended break since the Brentford defeat, at least we discovered a resilient streak and a not unsubstantial backbone.

Memories of our miraculous victory at the Etihad Stadium with ten men in April 2021 have been superseded by ritual collapses versus Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea last season when the red card curse struck. It felt we were a long way from the heroics of December 1997, when Leeds embraced the spirit of Billy Bremner in the club’s first game since his untimely passing. With both Alfie Haaland and Gary Kelly dismissed before half-time, Leeds dug-in and hung on for a valiant goalless draw at Stamford Bridge in a feisty contest which only a mother could love.

Villa was another performance in that vein, perhaps without the same disparity in personnel, trench mentality and the emotional extremes. But like then, it put down a marker and maybe tells the rest of the division that Leeds United are no pushover, even if there was an undercurrent of frustration from what looked like a winnable game before kick-off and definitely was at half-time.

Nevertheless, if we are looking for signs of improvement, then you only have to look at last March’s 3-0 defeat to Villa in this same fixture and the clear evidence that the shape, commitment and spirit of the side is on another level. And if we can improve on that result in just a few months, then why can’t we look to do the same with the 0-0 draw we also encountered against Crystal Palace at the back end of last season? That was a similarly unlovable affair, and also made for a tetchy contest between the same two teams in Australia back in July.

Bad tempers, short fuses and irritation abounded at Elland Road last Sunday, but a precious point was earned to temper that with at least a light dusting of achievement. Upon Sinisterra’s sending-off it felt like a game Leeds were certain to lose, that we didn’t should be taken as creating a platform of sorts.

From such a platform we should be looking up and be primed for attack, starting at Selhurst Park. And if we can bottle up that angst and frustration for seven days and unleash it in South London, maybe good things can come from bad things, and maybe we can get that box back down from the loft?

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