In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe talks about the prospect of fans returning to Elland Road in the future.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, 2015 hit ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
The art of celebrating is capturing the moment. Spontaneous joy can never be contrived or manipulated or repeated, and everything that comes afterwards is ceremony, and remembering and saluting that moment. But sometimes the primal rapture of ‘that’ instant remains, and isn’t lost. That is why we were able to celebrate the moment Leeds United got promoted last July, and why we should still be able to ‘celebrate’ it when fans are finally allowed to return to Elland Road, even if that is over twelve months on from the event.
I’m fairly certain that partners, family members, employers and beer aisle attendees throughout the land would throw you an incredulous look of astonishment at the merest suggestion that you were robbed of the opportunity to celebrate Leeds United’s promotion. My wife wore a similarly weary look on a daily basis as I emerged dishevelled and weak every morning from Saturday July 18th to Thursday July 23rd. But then ask any Leeds United fan if they still feel unfulfilled by the climax of last season, and of course they do.
So it was with some intrigue and an involuntary raised eyebrow that news emerged this week of elite sport letting fans back in to events from May 17th 2021, but only at 25% capacity. Like me, I’m sure most Leeds fans had written off this season in terms of being able to scratch that 16-year-old itch of attending a Premier League game at Elland Road, and the May 23rd fixture versus West Brom sits now as a temptation that somehow still feels untouchable. What is worse? Not being selected as one of the few fans who can attend the game, or not having that opportunity at all but knowing you will definitely be there in August?
As I write, the Premier League are yet to decide whether they will admit a restricted number of fans to games from May 17th, but even if they do, is a final fixture of the season before less than 10,000 fans the right way to salute Leeds United’s Champions?
Those tickets will be snapped up of course, and everyone is desperate to get back inside football grounds and to slip comfortably back into timeworn routines like a pair of old slippers, in any circumstances. The club promised that at some stage a promotion and trophy-winning celebration would take place. But the spectacle and parade of a full Elland Road is what everyone yearns for, and the ceremony and heft of the old dear heaving at maximum capacity is what these players and this manager deserve. So far, there is an indication that this could maybe happen for the start of next season.
And let’s not forget that, as fans, this is not just about us. Everyone deserves their moment, to crown those who navigated the ‘impossible’ transition from mid-table mediocrity to carefree spirits and rightful champions. And of course to hail the manager who made it all possible, however much he might try to deflect ownership of that label.
The partnership of club and fans should currently be more united than ever. The many images of Liam Cooper lifting the Championship Trophy after the Charlton game last July are apt and seismic moments in time, but there is an aching, unimaginable and unmistakable absence. There is poignancy and starkness in the dark, empty stands that cower behind the gleeful smiles and ecstatic yelps. And those champagne corks echoed and rebounded violently against the silence. They are images that will last forever, but as much for documenting a desperate and absurd period of time as for a celebration you could say was ‘appropriate’.
Together, the players, the management, the club and the fans made a decent fist of it, but the celebrations lacked the vital element of community that this entire period of success has been built on. In the elongated COVID separation that has existed since, bonds have been further cemented, with players making numerous unsolicited gestures of warmth and generosity and expecting nothing in return. I can’t remember a time when a group of Leeds United players have been so likeable, so honest and so genuine. And yet so tragically disconnected.
A moment at the end of the 3-0 win over Southampton summed this period up, as the players lined-up to salute the late Grandmother of Kalvin Phillips; a public show of support for their grieving teammate, but also recognising her popularity amongst a Leeds United fanbase who saw so much of their own families in her. During an unprecedented time where we have been forced to close ranks, the solidarity within Leeds United’s bubble has never been stronger. You can see what it has produced on the field, and neutral observers should justifiably shudder at what it is capable of from here.
Marcelo Bielsa knows that too. He doesn’t crave adulation but he needs to feel acceptance and to experience the impact he has made on people and a city. That’s why he chose Leeds United – even if he feels Leeds United chose him – because there are few other clubs who had underachieved for so long, who could offer such potential in a ‘project’, who could provide such a wild swing in status and such a dramatic upwards trajectory. Bielsa needs to see the whites of the eyes of those whose lives he has so vividly changed. That’s why he is so widely expected to sign on for another season at Leeds United, otherwise it is experiencing all the stress and the graft of the job, without the reward.
So perhaps we will need to wait until August for the celebration we all crave; to heap exaltation on this team and allow them to finally feel the tender sincerity of our ardour for what they have achieved. There is so much warmth left to give, and so much desire, still, to see the glint of silver paraded before our eyes.
We won’t be ‘Champions’ anymore when it happens, but maybe the EFL could be persuaded to allow us a moment and loan us the trophy back for the day? And after all, we’ve been Champions of Europe for 46 years, so a small concession to convention won’t bother any of us…..
If we can’t rightly celebrate an achievement like this, even a year after the event, then what are we in this for? This won’t feel like a stage-managed event, it won’t be like turning up a day late for a fancy dress party in a Superman costume. This is the momentum of natural emotions, this is deliverance, and redemption, and the end of a long, long journey it still feels like we are on. We need to say goodbye to the past before we can truly move forward to the future.
And as well as the team, and Bielsa, there are others we still need to salute. So for Norman, Trevor and Jack, and Granny Val, and to hail the loyalty, toil and indefinable magic of Pablo Hernandez and Gaetano Berardi – whatever happens to their Leeds careers from here - there are still so many final chapters yet to be written. So yes, we are still feeling unfulfilled and don’t let anyone tell you that sunny, August day and that overspill of cheers and laughter and community and love, will not feel like ‘being in the moment’.