In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks at the impact of the opening day win against Wolverhampton Wanderers.
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 is a widely held observation that Elland Road is a brilliant place to play when you’re winning, but an awful one when times are much leaner. Such polarity has been the experience of heroes, anti-heroes, legends and misfits; all variously chewed up and spat out or lovingly embraced at one stage or another. It’s what makes Leeds United such an amazing club to play for when you’ve cracked it, but also what makes it such a hard nut to crack in the first place. Making it at Leeds United is as much a mental challenge as it is anything about your ability. And that’s why wins are so precious and why Leeds United beating Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-1 on Saturday was about much more than three points.
That said, the pressure release of winning our first Premier League opening day fixture in 20 years – a 3-0 win against the ‘original’ Manchester City under Terry Venables in 2002 – meant a mere three-point reward didn’t feel enough. In the aftermath of last season and our last-day escape from relegation, captain Liam Cooper spoke about a campaign that “never seemed to get going”. And we know exactly what he means, because we lived every miserable second of it. No enjoyment, no momentum, no positivity; nothing to hang on to at any point to say “yeah, I think this is going to work out fine”.
You won’t need me to remind you it took until October 2nd to achieve our first win last season; 1-0 at home to Watford in our seventh Premier League game. By that time ‘the fear’ was deeply embedded and we never truly shook it off. This is the stress of not winning and the stress of where that leaves you. It was visible to everyone that something wasn’t quite right, and while ever we couldn’t put our finger on what it was, that just added to the stress. And when playing under pressure, Elland Road isn’t really where you want to be – the nervous, uncomfortable murmur, the ‘quiet’ that seems to echo as much as the noise - even if the crowd were incredibly patient and understanding last season, given the extended COVID absence and the lack of reverence we’d been able to shower on Marcelo Bielsa and his players.
During the lean years outside the top-flight, the Leeds United shirt hung heavy on many, and many became the fallen. Playing for Leeds United was about whether you could cope with it. It wasn’t just about the ninety minutes it was about peeling away the layers of farce, irregularity and incompetence and seeing the faded outline of a once glorious club; hearing the echoes of heroic conquerors and feeling the presence of the ghost of champions past. It was a drain on many, many players who could only show their true ability elsewhere, when ‘Leeds United’ was just a distant and hollow footnote on their CV. When it was too late.
And this all adds to the many complexities involved in signing new players, particularly when you have to sign a lot of them. Jesse Marsch talked about the ‘stress’ of the last 12 games of the 2021/22 season and how the haunting spectre of relegation influenced every action and every thought process. In such circumstances it was never going to be pretty and it certainly wasn’t. And half the battle in welcoming new signings into the Leeds United environment this summer has been the ongoing exorcism of those demons, in that, while the pressure was lifted immediately when we saved our souls at Brentford, the existing squad still had to learn how to play without stress again.
I guess integrating six or seven new players who were blissfully spared of last season’s trauma will certainly help, but in finding some cohesion collectively, learning to play without stress was an important first step. And in the Cagliari friendly and the Wolves game on Saturday, there was a palpable sense of freedom, risk-taking and, dare I say it, enjoyment in how Leeds played; something that was so rarely seen last season. And while it is far too soon to draw solid conclusions on any of the summer signings, one thing we can definitely agree on already, is that they can cope with playing for Leeds United.
That psychological challenge was accomplished in coming back from 1-0 down in a cauldron atmosphere, high on expectation and triumphing with a 2-1 win, with all four debutants making a tangible contribution. Elland Road was buoyant and celebratory pre-kick-off, possibly because everyone had successfully negotiated the digital ticketing system, but there was an air of playful abandon which is Elland Road at its best and is perhaps never stronger than on the opening day of the season.
Alas, within six minutes that carefree spirit had been jettisoned into the sun. If you didn’t have a sinking feeling of “Oh God, not this again” when Illan Meslier unsuccessfully clawed at that awkward, bouncing finish to put Wolves 1-0 up, you’re either stupidly bold or a liar. But in truth, the Elland Road atmosphere never wavered and much of the credit for that must go to the players. Leeds dominated much of the next 39 minutes and had Wolves penned into their own half for long periods. And in emerging as 2-1 winners, Rasmus Kristensen recovered from a shaky start to put in a crucial and arguably ‘match-winning’ second-half challenge in his own box, Marc Roca passed and probed with an air of quality, Tyler Adams busied himself with a nuisance value that saw him everywhere on the pitch and Brenden Aaronson capped an influential debut with the winning goal. Yes, he did.
The performance was far from perfect and there is much that can be ironed out, but first and foremost we know that this team can cut it when the going gets tough, and when Premier League points are so hard to come by, there was no tougher place than being 1-0-down after six minutes in an Elland Road stadium so desperate to rid itself of the fear.
Of course, three points is only three points, but the weight that was lifted on the final whistle was considerable, and it already feels like the mental burdens are reduced and the stress of last season is a distant memory. 1-1 would probably have been a fair result, but the difference a win makes in so many ways, can barely be put into words.
Leeds have achieved nothing yet, and they need no better reminder of the anguish and torment of last season and the suffocating grip the Premier League can have on you, than a trip down to Southampton. This was an early nadir last October in a season of nadirs and, ironically, also came as the next match after our first win of the season. I doubt Jesse Marsch needs to stop his players getting carried away by one result, but that’s a sobering aide-memoire, should he need one.
As it stands though, Leeds can travel to the South Coast with a maximum points haul, which might not mean much after just one game but changes everybody’s outlook in a way that you felt was absolutely essential in moving on from the past. Unshackled and unburdened by the fear, seemingly at least, let’s see what Leeds United can do from here; stand aside, we’re coming through.