In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe reflects on last minute winners, memories from the past and resilience of Leeds United over the years.
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.
It is to be hoped that the Dan James goal that finally killed off Burnley on a gargantuan Sunday at Elland Road will be a metaphor for Leeds United’s season. In a campaign that has been littered with hard luck stories – whether triggered by referees, VAR, injuries or wayward finishing – this felt like another one, like August to December in microcosm; another missed opportunity as James strained every sinew to execute a header, only for it to be swept away by the goalkeeper. The crowd sighed. Hope was extinguished. Then there was the anxiety as the ball looped up in the air, then hope again when it bounced down, then confusion, and then… Elation as it landed in the net.
Already this season has felt like a long one, similar, indeed, to the age it took for James’ acrobatics to extinguish Burnley’s dogged resistance. We went through every emotion in those few seconds alone, but it ended in relief and satisfaction, much as we hope this season will end now that we have emerged from the exit side of the wringer to see the ‘real’ Leeds United perform even when a scattering of its main protagonists are still absent.
There are goal celebrations and there are ‘great’ goal celebrations; ranging from the supercharged, manic energy release of an injury-time penalty to win the game, to an obliged applause when a penalty is a mere consolation in a 4-1 defeat. And if the Stuart Dallas goal to put us 2-1-up last Sunday triggered an instant disorder of limbs, the Dan James clincher was met with a more mid-paced, lolloping jamboree of happiness. It was that all-embracing communal contentment – a bit like dancing in a dishevelled circle when ‘Sweet Caroline’ comes on as the last song at a wedding - that comes from knowing the points were in the bag after a mammoth effort, and one in which it felt like the fans had also expanded more emotional energy than was good for them.
And of course, there are goals and there are ‘great’ goals. Leeds have scored better technical goals than Sunday’s third, even this season, but there was something aesthetic, theatrical and climactic about James’ header that will resonate for a long time. Apart from the significance of securing the win, there was also the Mateusz Klich shuffle and nutmeg to start it off, the arcing Joe Gelhardt cross and the bionic leap and header of the smallest man on the pitch. And then the “oh no he’s saved it… What the… Hang on… Is that going in? That’s going in! Is it? IT’S GONE IN!” moment in which time stood still and we all visibly aged.
With Leeds United starting out on the long road to net zero goal difference, that third goal was a small but necessary step, but most importantly it put an opponent to bed in a manner Leeds haven’t managed all season. And in that sense, yes you’ve guessed it, there are wins and there are ‘great’ wins.
I remember a New Year’s Day game from 2013 under Neil Warnock’s management, when Leeds beat Bolton Wanderers 1-0 with a 66th minute Luciano Becchio penalty. The three points did nothing to sugar-coat the grim reality that Leeds were a club going nowhere, and the standard of football was as fetid and artless as anything I’d ever seen. I walked away from Elland Road feeling helpless and depressed, indeed I’ve felt more positive after defeats in different circumstances.
The feeling after Sunday’s win – a mere nine years later - was very different. But even other wins this season haven’t quite got the blood racing in the same way. Watford was shrouded in a sense of frustration that it should have been much more comfortable, Norwich was a real struggle, Crystal Palace felt like a hard-fought goalless draw but of course had a dramatic ending, but the Burnley win ticked almost every box; like a coming-together of a collection of loose strands to create something warm and comforting. There was our recent form and the ridiculous predicament of our injuries, illnesses and suspensions, there was the nature of the performance and how Leeds snarled and battled and insisted on finally making their superiority count, and there was the opposition and the magnitude of gaining maximum points on a bottom three team.
All those things considered, this was easily the best occasion Elland Road has witnessed since the pre-COVID elation of dismantling a sorry Huddersfield Town in March 2020. That’s a period of famine no football fan should ever have to endure, and while the long wait for Premier League football and the harrowing journey Leeds fans have been on partly explains why Elland Road is so buoyant and unrelenting this season, that agonising period of extended absence for COVID still manages to deliver an extra dimension of hysteria and rapture, as if our precious obsession has to be enjoyed to the maximum in case it’s ever taken away again.
After such an important and agreeable win, what Leeds really need now is momentum. With players coming back to fitness, this is the perfect time to build on the Burnley result and performance and finally assemble some form. And with that in mind, the FA Cup third round comes along to pop the balloon like Mrs Brown’s Boys on the TV schedule after you’ve just watched The Office Christmas Special.
It’s a medically proven fact that the FA Cup is the reason why no Leeds fan has ever successfully navigated a Dry January, but nevertheless, although obviously we will go there to win, I guess Sunday’s West Ham fixture is something of a free hit and a chance to give precious minutes to players still finding fitness and form; like an Under-23s fixture with a bit more edge and a very decent crowd. In the circumstances I doubt Marcelo Bielsa is looking at it any differently to that, and how he can best use it to prepare for exactly the same fixture a week later, when, at the very least, Leeds can attempt to start the second half of the season much better than they did the first.
In the meantime, like Dan James’ header finding just enough impetus and direction to bounce into the empty net, Leeds fans can enjoy being on the right course for a couple of weeks, before the battle for Premier League points starts again. And if Elland Road’s energising qualities played some part in earning that ‘great’ win against Burnley, you can be confident there are plenty more such occasions to come. And yes, a win’s a win and we’ll take them any way they come, but a ‘great’ win like last Sunday reminds us what we have all missed, and how when Leeds United get it right, this club serves up occasions like no other.