In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe reflects on Leeds United securing Premier League survival.
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.
As you grow up you learn to mentally prepare yourself for situations. You learn to identify and expect what is coming, and being prepared for it just makes it easier to deal with. It’s a pretty simple concept but something unique to every individual, and something you might keep to yourself. Last Thursday night I was well advanced into the five stages of grief; I had passed through denial, anger, bargaining and depression and was firmly entrenched in acceptance. Everton were safe, Burnley were effectively ahead of us on goal difference and if you were still stuck in denial at that stage then here’s a lecture from Howard Wilkinson on preparing to fail…
It’s easy to say that we should just ‘believe’, and it’s even easier to say that now. But if there is any body of people in the world who don’t need telling to believe it is Leeds United fans. It is literally our job to believe, it is our reason for existing as fans, and if it was as simple as just believing then we’d win every game and every league title at a canter. But then I get why ‘believe’ is the word people use when it’s do or die, when there’s only one chance left, when you’re stuck in the last garrison. Because it’s the root sentiment you can get the most from.
This conflicting mental state is probably where the vast majority of us were on Sunday morning. We believed we could do it, but had also accepted the likelihood of our fate in order to make the crushing inevitability just that little bit easier to handle. It’s human nature to protect ourselves and prepare for incoming pain, even if we don’t portray that to anyone else.
Another thing you yearn for more as you grow up, is some sort of Zen existence; a pursuit of a non-material, calm and peaceful state where you don’t have to control anything through conscious effort, it just happens, and it happens the way you want it to. As a Leeds United fan, this is perhaps the most absurd lifestyle status you could possibly crave.
Ordinarily, a football fan only finds calm and tranquillity in the summer; when the games are over, when your fate is known and when you can be at peace with where you are. Increasingly, I am learning to enjoy the summers and the close season more and more, because I need the break from it all in order to mentally recharge and be able to come back again for a repeat. And unfortunately, I was looking forward to this summer from roughly the end of September onwards. It just felt like that was how it was going to be, and it was.
But somehow, Leeds United’s survival with the amazing 2-1 win over Brentford, coupled with Burnley losing by the same scoreline at home to Newcastle, has created a different kind of Zen existence. I’m not just enjoying the calm of no more games and the end of the relentless anxiety, and I’m not just enjoying being at peace with retaining our Premier League status, I’m feeling a Zen calmness because everything turned out exactly how we wanted it to be, and in the most wholesome way.
When I’m firmly embedded in a certain mind-set, it’s hard to wrestle myself out of it, and even in the hours after the final whistle on Sunday and after I’d watched all the celebrations and all the re-runs on Twitter, I still had to remind myself that, no, we weren’t going to be playing in the Championship, as I’d focussed my mind to accept, we were still very much in the top-tier.
I also cast my mind back to the previous Sunday, and Pascal Struijk’s injury-time equaliser versus Brighton. As it happens, mathematically that goal didn’t matter, but psychologically it was huge. It reawakened a conviction that was rapidly crumbling to dust, it restored some faith and it gave us some crucial momentum into the final days. I wrote last week how I felt guilty that I hadn’t celebrated that goal enough at the time, because I didn’t know what it meant. I like to think Pascal could savour his moment more this weekend than last, and that we showered the team with more love at Brentford because of what we couldn’t do before.
And perhaps this is why the Zen existence I am experiencing now feels stronger and more intuitive. It feels like the Brentford victory, in front of the hordes of elated Leeds fans, was completing a circle, or putting the final piece in the jigsaw. This was our Swansea, our Derby away, our Charlton at home. This was the connection that had been missing. This was the occasion the players and the fans had been robbed of when we got promoted.
It’s hard to describe the connection between fans and players, and how it felt to ‘celebrate’ something without having that connection. Brentford was our realisation. It made everything complete and everything whole. It was a redemption of sorts; paying us back for something we had lost. It wasn’t perfect – because a lot of mistakes and misjudgements have come along the way to leave us in that situation at Brentford – but it made everything right and it gave us that moment in full.
One of the earliest stages of grief is denial, and while we no longer have to blindly disown the prospect of Leeds United heading back to the Championship, I’d quite like to reject the idea that this season ever happened. I’d quite like to start again in August, be honest and accept our failings and errors and learn from them, wipe the slate clean and pretend the last 12 months were just a fabricated soap opera plot twist we have woken up from in a cold sweat.
I’d quite like the idea that the 15 minutes between Brentford equalising and Jack Harrison scoring the injury-time winner - during which one further goal for Brentford or Burnley could have brought the guillotine down with an appalling finality, and in which it felt like we were clinging onto a cliff edge with our fingertips and the ghost of Michel Kitabdjian was tickling our armpits with a feather – never happened and that the macabre jeopardy of that situation wasn’t real and that the potential for my life prospects never got that bleak. I’d quite like that idea.
It did happen of course, and we lived through it, and in a morose and deeply uncomfortable way, I guess we enjoyed it. And perhaps if we are to truly learn from this season then we have to study what happened and accept that it happened in the process.
And given all that anxiety, all that stress, all those evenings spent checking rivals’ scores on your phone, all that conjecture, all that denial, all that anger, all that bargaining, all that depression and all that acceptance, is that all forgotten and forgiven by the completion and fulfilment that the win at Brentford gave us? Of course it is. And will we come back for more in August and instantly shatter that Zen existence into a million tiny pieces? Of course we will.