In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe reflects on the late equaliser against Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday.
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.
In 1971 Bob Marley wrote the opening line of his song ‘Trenchtown Rock’, it read: “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. It perfectly captures how music has the power to get you, when you get ‘it’, but only in a wholesome way which enriches the soul. The same can’t be said for football. When it hits you, you feel the pain, or in the interests of balance, occasionally the elation. At the end of a game there is very little in between that leaves you conflicted or confused, or not knowing how you feel. Particularly, you might think, when that game ended with a stoppage time equaliser in the midst of a relegation battle.
Pascal Struijk’s injury time header last Sunday against Brighton was rightly met with an instant outpouring of joy, followed by relief and then a hollow realisation, and as we clapped the players off and made our way out of, and away from the stadium the mood turned to uncertainty and mental turmoil. Pretty soon we didn’t know what to think. Was it enough? We needed more, so probably not… But it ‘could’ be? And suddenly we were stuck in transit, in an ever-shifting position where we might have just witnessed the single moment which saved our skins, our status and the entire ambition and business model of our football club, and yet we hadn’t celebrated it enough.
There’s no going back, and if by the end of next Sunday Struijk’s goal has proved to be the difference, circumstances may have robbed Leeds fans of yet another physical moment to treasure from a modern history that is not exactly over-burdened with them.
We are reading and hearing a lot about the ‘metaverse’ at the moment, where 3D virtual worlds are being created online for people to play games, socialise and be entertained in. Virtual reality headsets are all you need to be immersed in life in a different dimension. The possibilities with the metaverse are almost endless, and I wonder if at some point we’ll be able to see critical moments of our lives being recreated, and be able to share them with digital versions of ourselves and our friends and family. I wonder if by 2030 an extension to VAR will be to enable fans to pop on a VR headset in the stands and celebrate a goal as it should have been celebrated, within seconds of the bods at Stockley Park giving us the all-clear; undiluted joy without the nagging doubt, the delay, the uncertainty, the fear of injustice. You could call it VRVAR perhaps?
Alas, it won’t come soon enough to give Pascal Struijk his moment, if indeed it comes to that, and to allow us to celebrate his goal without the rigid trepidation that it might not be enough. Essentially, Struijk’s goal will either be quickly filed as a futile and meaningless statistic in our rollercoaster 103-year history, or it could be the golden ticket to an extended Premier League existence and trigger the next stage of transformational change at our football club.
All that is known is that Struijk’s goal ensured that Leeds United will travel down to Brentford on Sunday still in with a chance of survival. Or at least what is left of Leeds United, after a season ravaged by injury and latterly by suspension. Even in the act of scoring that late, late equaliser, Struijk was shaking off the effects of a nasty clash of heads moments earlier. Within seconds of coming on as substitute, Struijk was lying face down and prostrate on the turf after a typically gung-ho attempt to win possession against a Brighton defender. It didn’t look good and Struijk’s day appeared to be done. That he stood up and recovered like Lazarus to head in the equaliser seconds later, neatly summarises Leeds United’s entire season. We needed bodies and we just about threw enough together to summon ‘something’.
Sam Greenwood also offered a brief, late cameo from an unlikely source, and Robin Koch was another example of someone being thrown into an unfamiliar position and making a pretty decent fist of it. Desperate times and all that... Leeds United’s season can be summed up for me by the scene in the film ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ where the character called ‘Dog’ barks at his hapless colleagues “can everyone stop getting shot?” In fairness, there is probably a scene from every film genre going that neatly characterises the haunted anxiety of this campaign, but this one succinctly captures the absurdity of trying to bring order to chaos when you have absolutely no control over it.
Can everyone stop getting injured? Can everyone stop getting sent off? After the Chelsea game, a season that has been peppered by misfortune and upheaval from the first whistle, had now careered into Leeds United seemingly being hell-bent on self-destruction. And with a squad hugely depleted going into the final two games, the equation was quite simple, and I’m not even talking about what points we needed to avoid the drop. I’m talking about the bodies we needed on the pitch to enable us to even think about getting the points we needed to avoid the drop.
Finally, Leeds were able to keep 11 men on the pitch versus Brighton, and the fundamental benefits that numerical parity subsequently affords you in a game of football were clearly evident. Having navigated huge chunks of the season without Patrick Bamford, Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips, the Barclays Gods have now robbed us of Adam Forshaw, Stuart Dallas, Tyler Roberts and Crysencio Summerville, while both Luke Ayling and Dan James are suspended for the rest of the season.
We need everyone and we need unlikely saviours, and we need those absent members of the fabled ‘leadership council’ to still have an influence. This is a generational squad, even if, like in 1991/92, it includes players at differing stages of their career and hence won’t be together for long, or long enough. Soon enough that squad was broken up and so too will this one. Whatever happens on Sunday, and whatever our fate is, this squad will want to be remembered properly; wholesomely and for enriching our souls, and they deserve to be.
So we need everyone and we need unlikely saviours. And we also need the fans who, despite witnessing only four league wins at home all season – the club’s worst ever return at Elland Road – created the most adoring, intoxicating and unrelenting atmosphere in years. Everyone has given everything, there will be nothing left, but at the moment we don’t know if that will be enough, and whether we will feel a dull bludgeon of pain or a heady shower of elation. What we know for certain is that, at the end of it all, and by 6pm on Sunday, there will be nothing in between.