In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks at the role played by Stuart Dallas.
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 was American writer and philosopher Benjamin Franklin who apparently first coined the phrase “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and Stuart Dallas”, or something like that. He said this in 1789, and it feels like that long since the Cookstown Cafu last missed a game. But nothing in football promises permanency and a typically blood and thunder challenge against Manchester City last Saturday, found Dallas caught in the act of trying to steal in and start a counter attack to get Leeds back in the game. For once his vim and vigour was ill-advised, or at least a fraction of a second ill-timed. And for Leeds United, a big influence and a lucky charm, was gone.
Dallas has played in 121 of the last 122 Leeds United fixtures, and every one of the 72 the club have played back in the Premier League. In an era of rotation, flexible squads and pragmatically managing a group of players through the varying rigours of a long, hard season at an elite level, Dallas was the only common denominator; a constant, an automatic choice, even if the position he would actually play wasn’t, and indeed it has been known to change three times in a single game.
On Tuesday Dallas posted a photo on social media, putting on a brave face from his post-op hospital bed despite both his legs appearing to be in some form of protective brace. A fanbase released a heavy sigh in unison. Having just had surgery on his fractured femur, Dallas was anxious to send a positive message, and, it’s worth noting, he didn’t ‘specifically’ rule himself out of Arsenal away on Sunday…
In reality, Leeds fans are steeling themselves for a period of the season which will provide the sternest of tests. They were already, but it somehow felt inevitable that the injury curse that has plagued Leeds all season would deal another hand of cards, and it wouldn’t be a good one. Having suffered every routine injury ever experienced across the entire spectrum of world football, Leeds United are now practically inventing new ones. Apparently Danny Higginbotham is the only other player known to have suffered a fractured femur, while an apprentice at Manchester United in 1997. Only Leeds United. Only now.
Perhaps it was with this knowledge that the collective will in the final 15 minutes of the 4-0 defeat to Manchester City at Elland Road, and for several minutes afterwards, was to stand resolutely defiant and proud. Leeds fans chanted incessantly, and to neutral observers, almost absurdly, while the game faded, hopes trickled down the drain and goals rolled in. But this was normal to us, and also a hugely important statement.
The relentless and unyielding mantra of “we all love Leeds” bounced around the four corners of Elland Road, as if the fans were laying down a spell; a hex on the opposition that were both upcoming on the fixture list and also in a tussle with us at the foot of the table. Leeds United weren’t giving up and misfortune only makes us stronger, more belligerent and more bloody-minded.
It was a vital message at a vital time. And Leeds fans know about timing. The final rights of a 4-0 defeat are often hollow and dispiriting; the ground empties, a cheerless, discontented murmur penetrates your soul, people are lost in deep thought and the match continues as a ghoulish sideshow that people have to turn away from. And yet, on Saturday nobody was leaving and the mood was peculiarly and inexplicably uplifting. This game was gone, but the next one wasn’t.
With a week to stew on things and tie emotions up in knots before the Arsenal game, the players could potentially have been left haunted and demoralised by the fans’ reaction to a 4-0 defeat, but knowing we can’t support them during the long, soul-searching days at Thorp Arch, all we could do was send them off into the void between matches at least with a skip in their step and the knowledge that a strong and potent force was still right behind them.
It’s at times like this that Leeds fans are at their best. Gallows humour has long been part of our armoury; facing up to the futility of our plight with the blackest of comedy. But finding light in the dark, and strength against the mightiest of odds has often been a trait to make others marvel. And while this illogical resilience is unrelenting for any Leeds United side, we do recognise when a particular side needs it and deserves it more than ever, and this is one of those times. I’m not sure the side Dennis Wise took down to League One would have faced the same ovation at the end of a 4-0 home defeat.
And so Leeds have four games left and Jesse Marsch has a decimated leadership council, with only Kalvin Phillips, Luke Ayling and Rodrigo left, after Liam Cooper was withdrawn from the proceedings in the warm-up. But one thing Marsch has been aware of and very careful to keep nurturing, ever since he joined the club, is the obvious bond and spirit within the squad. The injured Adam Forshaw has travelled to games because his personality and presence is important. Before him, the injured Phillips, Cooper and Patrick Bamford have done likewise. When he physically can, I’m sure Stuart Dallas will be in the thick of the dressing room too, and looking into the whites of the eyes of his teammates, and a visible component of the ‘team’ supporting Leeds United from the sidelines.
Stuart Dallas is always there, just like Leeds fans are always there, even when they’re not. Their reaction on Saturday night saw to that. The exceptional Ken Burns documentary series on Muhammad Ali, which was recently aired on BBC2, ended with a poem read by Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka. Now of course I’m not suggesting Stuart Dallas has had a global influence on sporting, political, social and spiritual history quite like Ali did, but bear with me, because everything is relative, and within the inner circle of Leeds United’s dressing room, no one is more universally accepted, loved and appreciated quite like Stuart Dallas, and no one is more inspiring and influential.
Soyinka wrote his poem in 1985 about Ali’s retirement, and while lamenting his loss to sport, and with his illness, his retreat from the public eye too, it recognised that Ali’s greatness - his gift, his spirit, his influence, his charm, his spell - was still everywhere. Stuart Dallas is the heart and soul of this Leeds United team, and even when he isn’t there, he’s still there. Such is the influence of Stuart Dallas that his standards will still be imprinted on the 11 players Jesse Marsch selects on Sunday and beyond, and his stimulus and his guidance can still help us. “The sorcerer is gone” Soyinka wrote “…the enchantment is gone, but the spell remains.”