In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe reflects on the win against Watford.
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.
We walked away from Elland Road after the 1-0 defeat of Watford with a sense of overwhelming relief. We were delighted, of course, with a first three-point haul of the season; the anxiety was gone, the mental chains were wrestled to the ground and discarded and Leeds United were finally off and running, even if the season was now to be rudely interrupted by another international break. But there was also a lot of frustration.
The most prominent point being discussed as a thousand post-match conversations converged in the suffocating din of the M621 underpass, was one of irritation that Leeds had ultimately made heavy weather of a seemingly routine victory, and that’s mainly due to one thing; Leeds fans are greedy, and I’m one of the most insatiable of all.
Don’t get me wrong, the Saturday evening was extremely pleasant. I was able to look at the league table and watch Match of the Day for the first time this season, I was able to apply generous helpings of schadenfreude to the plight of others who were, at last, doing much worse than we were, and I was generally able to relax without the inescapable anguish of ‘what might have been’. That said, ‘what might have been’ was still nagging at me, and I couldn’t escape a tinge of disappointment which kept returning. The consensus on social media backed this up, as did the snippets of post-mortem I’d earlier overheard as the crowds dispersed under the slate grey skies of West Yorkshire’s brooding Autumnal darkness.
Essentially, Leeds had won, but it wasn’t the ‘perfect’ win we all wanted, and which Leeds had deserved on the day. And perversely, that wasn’t good enough. I like to think Marcelo Bielsa was similarly vexed by the lack of a clinical finish to much of Leeds’s play against Watford, and in that sense, I don’t apologise for being demanding of our players. There are very few ways in which I, or any other Leeds fan, would be able to legitimately compare our character or expertise with Marcelo Bielsa’s, but perhaps one is that we have very high demands. I wouldn’t expect Jamie Shackleton to take much notice of me barking at him from the stands, even if he could hear me, but my general insistence on the players giving ‘more’ and scoring ‘more’ is pretty consistent with Bielsa’s.
And this all comes down to pre-match predictions and how fans view an upcoming game. We all spend the week building the perfect scenario of how the weekend’s game should go, if all things were equal. And if the game was played on paper. Given the uncertain start to the season Leeds had encountered, a win of any sort versus Watford was imperative, but secretly we all felt it should have been a comfortable one. After all, Leeds had shown enough in the previous six games to suggest a win wasn’t far away and newly-promoted Watford at Elland Road represented the most accommodating fixture we had yet to face.
The 1-0 win that resulted thanks to Diego Llorente’s 18th-minute goal was great, and sufficient, and all that really mattered. But the scoreline, and the nature of a fairly scrappy goal from a corner, felt like short change from a 90-minute display which was expansive, intensive and unrelenting. And that doesn’t mean this kind of win wouldn’t be ‘perfect’ in another scenario. A dogged 1-0 win via a centre half scooping in a loose ball in the six yard box would be great if it was against a top-six side, or against West Ham the previous week, for example; a game we perhaps didn’t expect to win beforehand, but on the day deserved something from. But pre-match and post-match against Watford, most fans would have wanted a three or four-nil scoreline, because it was what Leeds deserved.
In that Elysian vision that we form during the working week, we might even apply some goalscorers. And versus Watford I wanted Rodrigo to get a first goal of the season, because it might set him off on a great scoring run. I wanted Daniel James to score because it would be a small return for two stonewall penalties he’d been denied recently and would be his first for the club.
When none of these things happen, as fans we can take a totally unreasonable umbrage that our dream scenario hasn’t been played out before our eyes. I admit this is stroppy, irrational and completely disproportionate, but versus Watford this was a feeling I couldn’t shift, even outside the heat of the moment. Which was strange, because it’s not as if Leeds fans are new to this phenomenon that football isn’t fair and it doesn’t always present you with exactly what you want, gift-wrapped in bespoke, shiny ‘Kalvin Phillips’ paper.
Against Watford I also wanted Raphinha to score, because when he does, it is usually a work of art. And maybe that gets to the crux of this strange obsession. We have expectations because we have seen perfection before, albeit not as often as we might think. Maybe only a handful of times have our ‘perfect’ predictions actually been played out - albeit in the O’Leary era it seemed like our favourite players scored most weeks and we dispatched teams like we knew we should - but when they are, we only want more. And this heaps an unwarranted expectation on every game, because you just never know when it might happen again.
I guess this feeds the ‘fear of missing out’. Tony Yeboah’s goal versus Liverpool in 1995 was a wonderful thing, but that was a big game where you expected big things to happen anyway. Who predicted Rod Wallace’s amazing solo goal versus mid-table Tottenham in 1994? Or Brian Deane’s four goals in a 6-1 rout of QPR in 2004? And who predicted the crazy 4-3s versus Hull City and Derby County in 1990 and 1997 respectively? These were routine, humdrum fixtures which promised little but delivered in bucketloads. Anyone who witnessed Paul Rachubka’s first-half meltdown in the 5-0 defeat to Blackpool in 2011, or the mind-bending distress of the 6-4 defeat to Preston in 2010, would be right in suggesting this can work both ways of course. Moments that become legendary can, in theory, happen at any time. Our natural instinct therefore, is to expect them to, and more often than not, in our favour.
So I hope Marcelo is proud of my high standards, and can sympathise with why I was not entirely satisfied by our 1-0 win over Watford, even if my faint discontent comes from unrealistic personal fantasies, rather than the forensic technical detail he and his staff pore over all week in preparation for a game. In that sense, Leeds fans are idealists and watching us win is how we find fulfilment away from our everyday lives, and even if that makes us eternal dreamers, we are still the most important people in football, so I don’t think Marcelo would deny us that right.