In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks at how the month of May is set to be different to usual.
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.
I’ve been able to make some socialising plans for May and it’s come as a very welcome change. Not because of the gradual lifting of COVID restrictions, but because there has been absolutely no chance whatsoever that Leeds United will end up in the Play-Offs. We’ve all been there, skilfully throwing a deaf ear as the family attempted to pencil in nights and afternoons out, whilst potential Play-Off dates were at the mercy of the TV schedulers and essentially obliterated the entire month with scattergun effectiveness. And that’s whether Leeds ended up qualifying for the Play-Offs or not, and whether you wanted them to or not.
Last Saturday, I was reminded of this period of the season whilst simultaneously watching Leeds comprehensively outplay Tottenham at Elland Road and following all the various goings-on in the Football League. It bore all the distressing hallmarks of several consecutive years where the period leading up to and including May was spent with a stomach like a washing machine, not just because Leeds United’s season was about to blow up in a puff of smoke, but also because I couldn’t commit to the faintest arrangement on a Friday night, a Saturday lunch time, a Sunday tea time, or any evening mid-week, and patience and sympathy from our family’s social events committee was hanging by a thread.
And then when Leeds United’s fate was eventually settled, and May’s social calendar suddenly opened up as a feet-first descent into hedonism, I wore a face like an ironing board for weeks and probably provided about as much company as one too. I’m sure I’m not alone in hastily cancelling rooms at the Premier Inn Wembley in mid-May and often much earlier; bookings which were made with giddy and misguided optimism nine months earlier, and which both I and the Premier Inn knew full well I wouldn’t be fulfilling. I don’t miss that interminable peril that dragged on for weeks and months one little bit, and facing the weary derision of loved ones through no fault of my own.
That’s the kind of jeopardy that comes with life outside the Premier League, and thankfully this season, Leeds United have even avoided any vague flirtation with danger at the bottom of this table too. It has been a season where, for once, we have been extremely satisfied with nothing remotely being at stake, with knowing our status for next season many months in advance and hell, even with a zero goal difference. Watching the action play out between Derby and Sheffield Wednesday as they drew pistols at dawn at the bottom of the Championship, certainly made you feel very cosy in the warm bosom of Leeds United’s competency and expertise. And it’s a long time since we could confidently say that.
Because we have certainly been there. We have stared down the barrel and flapped around forlornly against the vortex sucking us further and further down into the abyss. This season has seen a number of sky-kissing highs following Leeds United, but Saturday’s 3-1 win over Tottenham was perhaps the most satisfying. Yes it was a comprehensive win, yes it was at home where we struggled a bit at first, yes it was a resounding response to the drab Brighton defeat, yes it was against a ‘Big Six’ club and yes it was an all-round 90 minute performance. But the most obvious source of comfort, fulfilment and gratification came from knowing that, at the same time as beating Tottenham, we were nowhere near a situation where uncontrollable forces could send us into a pit of despair and near-certain financial Armageddon at any moment.
It certainly makes you more appreciative of where we currently are, and whilst the scars from the journey we have been on are still fresh, it is hard to extend much sympathy towards clubs facing such a perilous plight. We wouldn’t expect any coming our way, and we certainly didn’t receive any during 16 years spent licking our wounds, but it makes you shudder to think of the pain these clubs are now experiencing.
For this reason alone we should look at what Marcelo Bielsa has done and do our best to enjoy every single second of it. We know what trying to reach too far can result in, and maybe we should check our expectations and settle for next season being exactly the same as this one, perhaps without conceding six at Old Trafford and four to Crystal Palace and the most unremarkable Arsenal team in my lifetime. It is over 20 years since Leeds United finished a season in such a healthy position in terms of looking forward to the next one, but when you look at how we have suffered in the interim period since then, it puts Bielsa’s guidance and vision, the players’ effort and consistency and the club’s structure and progression into acute perspective.
We have never had it so good, but it has never been so important that we continue to progress. As Leeds fans we might look at clubs like Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham – perennial top flight clubs never in danger of going down – and we struggle to understand their fans’ complaints, which have always seemed petty, delusional and disproportionate compared to ours. But our aim is to be one of those clubs, and if and when we face a season where it looks like we aren’t progressing, I hope we can find a sense of perspective, both about where we have come from and where other clubs currently are. What we are striving for is a different kind of tension, one where falling short doesn’t necessarily mean falling into oblivion.
In his post-match press conference after the Tottenham win, Marcelo Bielsa was glowing. The pride he and the Leeds United fanbase felt radiated across West Yorkshire and beyond. When positivity is off the scale like it is at the moment, you really have to soak it in, wallow in it and value it, because football can change very quickly.
I’m not suggesting for one moment we might be scrapping at the foot of the Championship any day soon, or god forbid worrying about Play-Off dates again, but right now we are a club in ascent, with goodwill in the bank and a couple of years to cement our position without worrying about fanciful predictions. Okay, maybe we could remember that cup ties are available for BOTH sides to win, but personally, my primary aim is to avoid experiencing the sickness and nausea of relegation scraps and promotion failure for a long, long time.
Football doesn’t afford you the luxury of such guarantees unfortunately. But we do know that it works in cycles and that every dog has its day. Today it is our day and we should savour these moments because they are precious and we have waited so long for them. We can finally make plans we can control, and which don’t place our sanity and our flimsy existence in the fickle hands of fate. We can make plans to keep Leeds United glowing, plans that have some certainty and continuity and plans to make ‘our day’ last as long as possible.