Jon Howe: More than words
In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe reflects on the scenes following last Sunday's winner against Norwich City.
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.
If anyone expected Leeds United to quietly roll over and die, they were in for a disappointment. Although, let’s face it, we were beginning to have grave doubts ourselves. But Leeds United’s historic ability to slide seamlessly between the sublime and the ridiculous should not be a surprise to anybody and hence, there was always a chance that, between Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, they would transform from dogs of despair into doves of beauty. Such is life and so it has always been.
The doubts come when you witness the manner of the defeats, and the body language and you see a hollow distance in the eyes, where there used to be sparkle and a bewitching electrical charge. The turnaround between the Aston Villa and Norwich City games seemed like an impossibly short interlude in which to enact the impossible job. But maybe the stark immediacy of the issue wrestled some defeated minds from a damaging ennui? And maybe Norwich were the perfect opponents at the perfect time?
Nobody will forget the sight of 19-year-old Joe Gelhardt expertly cushioning in the injury-time winner with the casual aplomb of a middle-aged dad finishing off a Sunday dinner, but then the reaction was wonderfully raw and juvenile. If Joffy had been wearing his school coat as he raced off in celebration, he would have unzipped it, grabbed the two ends and wrapped it over his head like a cape to pretend he had wings. All his mates would have done the same. It was a scene of liberating playground glee; cathartically unfettered by the burden of life. And redemption for those brave souls who stuck with it.
We know all this because, even if you weren’t there, you have watched it on an endless loop ever since. Such moments will never grow old. And my family are fortunate that on the absolute minimum of occasions this week I have been distracted from watching dugout cam videos to go about my daily routine. And before we go any further, if you haven’t seen it, stop reading this article, log into LUTV and come back when you’ve watched it at least 20 times consecutively.
When I last looked on Wednesday morning, the club’s video of the bench anticipating and then celebrating Joffy’s winner had reached 5.6 million views on social media. It feels like at least half of those are mine. But then there is a generic fascination in the wild elation of the moment which transcends football rivalries, and appeals to anyone who has had the vaguest sniff of a similar journey into a state where you have no control over your body or your mind. The dugout cam video is oddly just as intoxicating as the video of the goal itself. There is so much going on in it and like a Renaissance painting, the more you look at it the more you uncover; every view an attempt to find something else that helps you bring that life-defining, hair trigger moment back to life to re-live again. If only we could.
In itself the dugout cam video helps to answer a few questions; how engaged is Jesse Marsch in the Leeds United ‘project’? Are periphery figures like Charlie Cresswell and Crysencio Summerville still buying-in to this? How together are the Leeds United squad despite all their recent travails? All these questions are emphatically answered in an unplanned, unstructured and instinctive visual feast.
But it also poses new questions; how ‘injured’ was Rodrigo given he could sprint like that down the other end of the pitch without a warm-up? And how on earth could Patrick Bamford run that fast in flip-flops? And so far. I’ve seen Brits abroad struggle to navigate the journey from sunbed to all-inclusive bar without desperately curling their toes around a miscreant slider, and stumbling clumsily around the pool’s edge as they unsuccessfully attempt to regain some dignity. Bamford, with his effortless grace and nonchalant sophistication, was out of the dugout and in a Kop end pile-on before you could say “two-for-one cocktails until 10pm”.
The spontaneous jump out of the dugout when Raphinha works his way in on goal and the crowd shouts “go on” in unison, the agonising wait when we all thought the chance had gone, and then the explosion of joy when Joffy finds the back of the net. None of the subbed players looked at each other and thought “shall we run on the pitch?”, “I will if you will”, “go on then”. There was no deliberation, just an involuntarily detonation and a uniform desire to make a deranged sprint to the Kop end like a frenzied Aldi trolley dash. Elsewhere, Raphinha and Luke Ayling had their own quiet moment of reflection, while Illan Meslier strode up the field like an advancing Velociraptor, and back at the bench, Stuart Dallas thudded the ground in some kind of primal Cookstown wellness ritual.
I’m perhaps labouring this point, but unapologetically so, because the various goal videos demonstrate so much. The squad and staff unity is most definitely still there and the desire to right a lot of wrongs is still there. And this was all magnified by the sense that Leeds had appeared to have missed their chance, and in truth I was still bubbling with inner rage that they had done so while Joffy rose majestically to head-on Meslier’s long clearance.
We had to win on Sunday, simply had to. Whatever happens next would have been largely irrelevant, because without the three points against Norwich there would have been little point to it; spirits would not have been lifted, the trajectory would still have been downwards, and the words everyone had spoken would have meant nothing. And the words had to mean something.
Frequently I feel sorry for the players having to face the cameras post-match when they plainly don’t want to. But they accept their duty. The fans need to see it and the club needs to put out a message. But words can often wear thin, and sooner or later the fans need to hear something they believe in, and something delivered with conviction and meaning. The words have to be translated into performances and they have to reflect a reality, or what is the point in all this?
Of course the win on Sunday was important for many reasons. It was important for our immediate position in the league table, it was important for the players to give them a huge psychological boost for the rest of the season, and it was important for fans who are still hurting. They needed to see that magical, crazy and incomprehensible things can still happen post-Bielsa. It felt like such devotion was leading some to question if even a win of any sorts was still possible. Well it was, and it was just as mad as before.
It changes our mind-set from being blindly hopeful to having something to buy into. That had to happen quickly. Nobody is under any illusions that this is ‘job done’ and that Leeds United are not still in the thick of the fight, but on Sunday we showed that the message is far more than just words, and we showed something that maybe a few other teams haven’t got. This Leeds United team have been on a hell of a ride together, and whatever happens next, we are not ready to get off it. That’s not something we just speak about, it’s something we’ve lived.