In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks at the pre-season trip to Australia, whilst discussing the upcoming season.
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.
There were lots of unanswered questions on everyone’s lips as an expectant crowd returned to Elland Road for the friendly versus Cagliari last Sunday. Would the new signings fit into Jesse Marsch’s system okay? Would Patrick Bamford finally appear to be on the way back to full fitness? And would the classic ‘little dancing men’ still be illuminating the scoreboard every time we bagged a goal? Well… Two out of three isn’t bad. But perhaps most importantly, Elland Road was a happy place again.
All four new signings who played against the Italian Serie B side shone in their own way, Bamford bagged a brace and played the full ninety minutes, but alas the little dancing men appear to have retreated back to the retirement home for rudimentary 1980s scoreboard graphics. As triumphant comebacks go, their presence was a charming retro nod to a much-cherished era, and one of the few enjoyable aspects of last season. But if we’re talking about comebacks, we saw a welcome return of smiles, goals and free-flowing football at Elland Road on Sunday, and the energising murmur of upbeat chatter as we all disappeared under the Lowfields underpass on the way home, rather than the world-weary trudge and mournful reflection which sound-tracked much of the last 12 months.
It was nice to be reminded that Elland Road could be a place where good things happen, and the absence of a global pandemic sometimes allows us to actually witness them; check the terms and conditions of being a Leeds fan, it is in the small print somewhere. It isn’t all nail-biting anguish and the desperate air of a dream being flushed down the toilet.
Only 78 days had passed since we were last at Elland Road for the Brighton game at the end of last season, and very little had changed except everyone had aged significantly after the draining events of the Premier League’s conclusion. And remembering also that we weren’t even able to celebrate Pascal Struijk’s late equaliser properly that day, because we didn’t know if it meant anything or not, it did feel like an age since our precious home had reverberated to the stimulating hum of positivity.
Of course the heavy and lingering atmosphere of imminent doom was also given a significant nudge into oblivion by the performance of the Lionesses last Sunday, even if the start of the Cagliari game was unusually chaotic as the women’s Euros Final went into extra-time and thousands of Leeds fans were uniquely conflicted. If Leeds United’s hierarchy were hoping for an uplifting Elland Road occasion to herald the new season, they couldn’t have wished for a more unlikely source of concurrent assistance than an England team winning a first major trophy in 56 years.
Certainly this was a day few of the 29,046 present will forget, if only for the fact that we were all so heavily invested in two football matches simultaneously, and thankfully for once, neither had any consequence on the other. England’s 2-1 victory over Germany at Wembley was as pure and joyous as football gets; an occasion undiluted by any bitterness and cynicism, even if we all smiled inwardly while lip-reading Jill Scott’s reaction to a German defender.
Many football fans have loosely followed the exploits of the England women’s teams over the last few years as increased media coverage has matched their relative success on the international stage. So we knew names like Lucy Bronze and Millie Bright before the Euros started in July, but the amazing achievements in reaching the final and winning the tournament have made the likes of Rachel Daly, Leah Williamson, Beth Mead and Alessia Russo household names and instantly recognisable.
This tournament has provided a window into why we retain an innocent love of football, almost like we’ve only just discovered the game; this was football before money, tribalism and the threat of relegation sucked any pleasure from it. In that sense, the Lionesses’ victory was the perfect accompaniment to a new era at Leeds United, it helped wipe the slate clean and afterwards, today’s Leeds United were able to put on a sparkling attacking performance which had the crowd up and down out of their seats in excitement and appreciation, rather than slumped in them comatose because they knew what was coming.
A hat-trick for Rodrigo, two goals for Patrick Bamford and a late header from Robin Koch wrapped up a 6-2 victory. Okay, the two breakaway goals conceded within two minutes were a cause for concern and stopped us from positively drooling on the way home – and reigning in expectations at this stage is probably no bad thing - but three assists from Brenden Aaronson and the control and composure of Tyler Adams and Marc Roca in midfield were enough to help draw a line under the past and bring smiles and laughter back to faces. And just like with the adventures of Sarina Wiegman’s team, now we will have new heroes to emerge as household names and become instantly recognisable, at least in the homes of Leeds fans.
While Cagliari were not exactly stellar opposition as the last pre-season fixture before the real action kicks-off against Wolves on Saturday, Leeds have encountered some tough Premier League opponents in recent weeks and perhaps lining-up against the Italians was a shrewd move because we were at least able to practice, more or less on our own terms, what our shape and movement ‘should’ be like. We knew we wouldn’t be forced out of shape and could at least attack and control the game as we would in an idealistic situation, in a real match scenario but as the ideal training exercise. It was hard to do that in Australia, on rutted Aussie Rules pitches where none of the games flowed, and on the lush Elland Road turf we got a much better idea how Jesse Marsch wants his team to play.
It augured well for the new season and we approach the acid test of Wolves at home with optimism and energy. We arrived with questions and we went home with answers. There’s plenty more to sort out in terms of squad depth and how all the new signings are going to adapt, but fundamentally there was entertainment, stimulation and enthusiasm at Elland Road last weekend, and that will still be there when we filter back in on Saturday.
We won’t be able to rely on the Lionesses to boost the energy levels against Wolves, but time and time again the Elland Road crowd has proved it doesn’t need a helping hand when it really matters. If the outlook at Leeds United has changed for the better over the summer, then some things haven’t changed, and never will. Elland Road awaits, and will definitely play its part; it just wants to release the right kind of energy, and it just wants to be a happy place again.