In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe speaks about the upcoming Euro 2020, with a number of Leeds United players set to feature.
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.
When you’ve spent huge periods of your adult life approaching the summer months like a heaven-sent period of detox, it has actually been quite helpful that Leeds United have had little influence on the international scene. With several successive lower tier seasons petering out into nothing, finding the energy to take an interest in the latest major tournament to raise the nation’s fragile hopes felt like heaping fresh futility upon a steaming heap of already well-established futility. But in 2021 that has all changed.
Usually the close season comes as a blessed relief from your week-to-week agony, and the World Cup and Euros arrive like football’s equivalent of booking yourself into the Priory but sneaking a bottle of White Lightning in to make the morning stroll around the tranquil gardens more bearable. But in 2021 Leeds United steamrolled the division in the final weeks with a tidal wave of swashbuckling football and a heaped tablespoon of positive emotion, and we didn’t want the season to end. We were robbed of our football fix just as Leeds were reaching peak momentum, and just as fans could finally get in to see it. But never fear, because international football is here as an unlikely drip-feed for our Leeds United addictions, and we’ve never been more thankful.
As a kid, what footballers got up to in the close season was a source of mystery and intrigue. It’s like they disappeared from the public eye into an untraceable void and came back in August with different haircuts, new kits and a sun-tan. With social media we can now keep a close eye on what they get up to, for better or worse, and this year we can even watch them still playing football, at least in a handful of cases.
It would be a stretch to say Leeds fans were conflicted in their loyalties for Euro 2020, but we will have a stronger than normal interest in the fortunes of England, Scotland, Wales, Spain, Germany, Poland and North Macedonia. With COVID still having an influence on last-minute squad changes, Leeds could have as many as eight representatives in the finals at some stage.
We will even have a keen eye on who on earth France have in their assemblage of goalkeepers who could possibly keep Illan Meslier out of the squad. In fairness, France are the bookies favourites to lift the trophy and indeed many Leeds players are in the squads of nations with genuine claims on actually winning the thing. It’s all a far cry from 2006 when Rui Marques bore the weight of Angola’s World Cup dreams and Leeds fans unearthed a new level of pointlessness to their emotional attachments.
That year we also had Eddie Lewis playing for the USA, and it was a comedown in keeping with a summer that was breaching a crevasse of doom between a Play-Off Final defeat and an upcoming relegation season. Just four years previously we had seen eight players travel to the Far East for the 2002 World Cup, as Lucas Radebe, Gary Kelly, Ian Harte, Robbie Keane, Robbie Fowler, Rio Ferdinand, Danny Mills and Nigel Martyn flew the Leeds United flag in Japan and South Korea.
The first time I experienced the disorientating incongruousness of a Leeds player at an international tournament was in 1992 when David Batty lined up against Eric Cantona in a dull 0-0 draw between England and France in the Euros in Sweden. It’s common for fans and media alike to blacklist this period as the nadir of English football, and the sight of Graham Taylor playing Batty at right back in the last group game against Sweden – thus re-deploying the lynchpin in a recently-crowned title-winning midfield – whilst Tomas Brolin revealed himself as an almost-certain world star of the future… It was certainly my cue to write international football off as something that really wasn’t for me.
But of course four years later I was helplessly drawn back in like a lovesick puppy, and even our beloved and hastily spruced-up Elland Road was on the world stage during Euro 96, as we marvelled at the prospect of the watching millions locked in a deep discussion over why the Cheese Wedge had yellow seats and the rest of the ground had blue.
Like everyone else, I spent a roasting hot Saturday afternoon de-hydrating myself in a small, dark room with a few hundred other people as England took on Scotland at Wembley. And surely only Leeds fans felt the emotional turmoil of Gary Mac missing his second-half penalty and the ensuing breakaway resulting in Paul Gascoigne’s mesmeric moment of pure genius? It was like undergoing a complex tooth extraction; dread, followed by an agony you can’t quite describe, followed by elation.
But when Uri Geller claims credit for one of the most intoxicating moments for English football fans in the modern era, it certainly bulldozes the joy out of the occasion, and hence only England can rival Leeds United for bringing anti-climactic misery into our lives in the many barren years since.
For relegation, administration and Play-Off heartache, read penalty shoot-outs, “the wally in the brolly” and whatever that performance against Iceland can be described as. Marcelo Bielsa has enjoyed two relatively successful periods in international football management, and his influence has both reignited Leeds United’s fortunes, and by association, our interest in the game on an international basis.
There is now a huge amount of satisfaction in preparing to watch our players in a major tournament, and the overriding hope is that they remain injury-free and at least do themselves justice, and in Gjanni Alioski’s case, he does something bizarre that features in the end-of-tournament montage the BBC put out with a soundtrack to match the mood of England’s ultimate performance.
Whether that’s a mournful ballad or a euphoric dance track Kalvin Phillips might actually have an influence over. Leeds fans watching Kalvin around the England camp are beaming with pride, like watching your kids perform in what is otherwise a pretty sub-standard nativity play at school. And however much we dismiss the international game as inconsequential compared to Leeds United’s fortunes, deep down we somehow feel the highs more and the lows worse when a Leeds player is involved. We bristle more at the criticism and the lazy punditry and we feel ten feet tall when the nation is watching on and sharing the moment and the sense of belonging with us. Loaning Kalvin out so the rest of the country can enjoy his infectious presence too, is pretty big-hearted of us after all.
So the Euros are here to keep our levels topped-up until Leeds United return, and finally we can revel in our players benefitting from the experience of a lifetime and however that helps us next season and beyond. And for once we can interrupt our detox for a well-earned blowout and enjoy international football for what it is; a festival of elite sport, a summer diversion that is anything but futile and perhaps the ultimate recognition that Leeds United are back.