In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks ahead to Sunday's Premier League fixture with Aston Villa.
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.
Tell all your friends; it’s coming home, football at Elland Road again. Strangled cries, cavernous gloom and major eruptions in Beeston once more. It’s been too long, and it’s been unexpected. An abrupt halt to our rituals, our pastime and our lifeblood. After 29 days of discomfort and disdain, Leeds United are back in our lives.
The dormant beast of an Elland Road matchday raises itself, blinks in the low, Autumnal morning light and lumbers slowly into action. Gates are unlocked with a metallic jolt, bars are stocked, catering trollies broadcast a din as they rattle and roll round the back of the Kop. The crowds start to gather, orange-coated stewards proliferate the landscape from afar, seasoned programme sellers stack tightly-packed boxes and cheerily greet their regulars, while youthful fanzine sellers set-up their wares and optimistically blow warm air into their frozen hands as they wait for fans to emerge from the dimness of the Lowfields tunnel. The sizzle of burgers on hotplates offers a strange sense of comfort you didn’t know you needed, while the stench of watery onions and over-cooked chips soaked in oil reminds you why you ate before you left home.
But Elland Road looks resplendent in all its lived-in, weathered and unpretentious glory. The player banners regally adorn the back of the East Stand and display an air of majesty over the crowds below like Roman Emperors. The diamond floodlights trigger romantic mis-rememberings of heroes past and the shuffling queues and the click of the rotating turnstiles transport you back to the innocence and misadventure of your youth, every time. We walk through the gate and suddenly our status is switched from an everyday person with everyday concerns into an entrant in this wild and crazy devotion we call football. Now you are a participant in whatever happens today, and it could be the best day of your life.
Once inside we by-pass the austere concrete coldness, and race to greet the lush green and the sweeping banks of blue seats which never fail to arrest you. The low hum of a thousand conversations hangs heavy. Some fans look like they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, some fans have seen it all, some have seen too much and yet some are wide-eyed, innocent and visibly giddy. You feel energised and expectant; aware that anything could happen today. This is Leeds United in 2022/23 and a month-long break has left us in varying states of limbo.
And arriving at Elland Road on Sunday are Aston Villa; not a big enemy but an old adversary, and today, anybody will do. We can’t wait to see the team news and pour over the options from the bench, we can’t wait for the players to enter the arena and for our lives to be put on hold for ninety minutes.
We are in limbo because we still don’t quite know what to expect from Leeds United. Villa arrive at a timely juncture for Jesse Marsch; a shot at redemption and a chance to avenge a miserable evening back in March, when his first home game in charge of Leeds United brought an avalanche of problems. We arrived at that game not knowing whether to feel hope, optimism or desperation. We left it feeling as hollow, fearful and alone as at any point in our adult lives.
Villa needed to be no more than competent that night, while Leeds were having to battle their own demons before they could even start to battle the opposition. But we have come a long way since then. Following that comprehensive 3-0 defeat of Leeds last season, Villa won only two of their last 11 games – against Norwich and Burnley – and have won only twice so far this season. So the chasm doesn’t appear to be as wide as it was on that night, when the world was crashing around Leeds United’s ears like an over-balanced Jenga tower.
Today we have fresh minds, fresh legs and invigorated hearts. Gone are the mental chains of good times gone wrong. We have a squad that has pressed reset, stocked up on courage and discovered new heroes. No one is embittered by the past, and the intoxicating, infectious confidence of youth chimes like a million early morning birdsongs.
Tyler Adams, Brenden Aaronson and Luis Sinisterra have already delivered on their promise, and we can see there is so much more to come, while the international break has whet the appetite for the likes of Sonny Perkins and Darko Gyabi in a future that is perhaps not as distant as we thought. Meanwhile, we have feasted on ‘Academy Dreams’ and can’t wait to see more of Joffy, Sam Greenwood, Crysencio Summerville and Mateo Joseph.
Even if a record of played six, won two, drawn two and lost two is the absolute measure of unpredictability, and while we might still be undecided about how good this team really is, it can’t be argued that the array of talent currently at the club is as strong as it has ever been, and the flush of potential radiates like the sun. And seeing things behind the scenes like we have in the Amazon Prime documentary offers you the assurance that such talent is in the right hands and with the right structure and pathways behind it.
All they and we need is games, and lots of them. The rush of eight fixtures before the World Cup will be instant and dazzling, and a breathless antidote to the aching tedium of the last four weeks. And throw in the Under-21s fixtures, which these days garner almost as much interest as the first team games given the tingles of anticipation they provide, and the next few weeks leading up to the World Cup will pass as fast as a Willy Gnonto bleep test.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and let’s just be thankful that this weekend Premier League football finally returns to Elland Road. Let’s greet a smiling Steven Gerrard as he walks down the touchline to his dugout, knowingly beating off the barbs from the West Stand with a wink and a grin that says he has heard it all before. Let’s also greet John McGinn and let him know that not only do we have long memories, we can remember pre-season games too. Most of all, however, let’s greet Leeds United.
Greet the rarefied Yorkshire air and load it with noise and confusion, infiltrate this patch of LS11 once again and bring the mighty commotion. Ceaseless clatter and endless racket will bring us our reward, and it all starts with the parade, the line-up, the goosebumps and the expectancy. This is what we came for, this is what we live for. The referee’s whistle pierces the air, it breaks the monotony once and for all, but never our devotion. It all starts afresh, assume your position, Leeds United are home again.