Jon Howe: Personality test
In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe reflects on the West Ham United game and the impact of departing midfielder Mateusz Klich.
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.
If you wanted a neat summary of Leeds United’s season so far, it all came in Wednesday night’s 2-2 draw with West Ham at Elland Road; every frustration, every fresh shoot of hope, every emotion. There were the periods where we looked like a decent team, the periods where we surrendered the initiative, the periods where we looked down and out, the periods where we showed some guts, the periods where we looked really vulnerable, the periods where we were wonderfully, chaotically swashbuckling, and the period where we could tell a hard luck story at the end. And of course there was emotion too, because there always is.
While the three games Leeds have played since the restart of the season have been wildly different in terms of narrative, they have each, in their own way, provided evidence of the courage and character within this Leeds United side. That trait can take you a long way. It can drag you off the floor when 3-0 down to the Premier League champions and offer a spirited fightback. It can keep you focused through an attritional 90 minutes at St. James’ Park, and it can wrestle you back from the brink when the game appears to be slipping away after conceding two quick-fire goals to West Ham.
We need to finally find some momentum. That’s where the game plan and consistency comes into it; having the system and the reliability to deliver when it matters will get us over the line, because we have already shown, and did again versus the Hammers, that we have the individual quality. With the shackles off, Leeds are a good team.I don’t know how much of that comes down to the individual nature of a player, rather than their technical ability, but courage, personality and character are perhaps more important at Leeds United than they are at some other clubs, and it’s hard to explain why that is to someone who doesn’t have Leeds United under their skin. How many times have we seen good players retreat into their shell under the looming burden of the Elland Road behemoth? And yet they thrive elsewhere. Clearly it takes a special kind of person to thrive at Leeds United.
We have seen plenty of players down the years who have ‘got’ Leeds United, and it stays with them, however good they were technically, and however many other clubs they have played for. Something about the character, attitude and personality of the club and its supporters, demands the same from the players that represent them. We do have these idiosyncrasies in the first team squad which represents us today, and it is also true that every successful Leeds United side has had them in spades too.
Naturally, there’s a balance to be maintained in this. In the 1980s we had teams absolutely brimming with character and personality, and players you could so easily relate to, but there wasn’t enough ability. Very soon Howard Wilkinson turned it all around, and built a dressing room in the 1989/90 promotion season which had so much personality that Leeds United’s world virtually bounced off its axis, and it is perhaps his most adept achievement that Wilkinson was able to manage all that and turn it into a relentless and ruthless machine.
The first thing any Leeds supporter asks of a player is that they are someone they can relate to, and therefore someone they can support. Simply putting on the white shirt should be enough, but I can think of a couple of instances where that right wasn’t earned simply by being selected to play. However, in most cases, the honest projection of energy, desire and attitude in the name of Leeds United is all that’s required to merit our patronage.
Some players are able to take this a step further, and this is where the personality of Leeds United – the rancorous, outcast and very contentedly singular nature of the club – grips them wholeheartedly and consumes them in their entirety. I often wonder if Leeds United have more ‘cult heroes’ than any other club, because of this. Not everyone understands Leeds United, and not everyone fits it. You don’t necessarily have to understand Leeds United to play brilliantly for them, and equally, you don’t have to play brilliantly for Leeds United to understand them. But when those two forces come harmoniously and symbiotically together, it is a wonderful, natural and defining thing. Almost a once-in-a-generation thing. And that happened with Mateusz Klich.
First and foremost, Klich was a brilliant player – dynamic, enduring, reliable, bold, composed, disciplined, but also capable of spectacular, off-the-cuff things – but it was his personality which truly endeared him to Leeds United fans.
Klich was genuine, a natural, nothing was performative or pretentious, this was him and he put it all out there; the Klich-housery, the unyielding, Duracell Bunny energy, the Derby away celebrations, the ‘Champions’ graffiti mural. This was ‘him’ showing us ‘his’ personality, not him doing regulation things he thought we would like. I mean, after all, Klich is an absolute one-off and which football supporter anywhere in the land would ‘expect’ to see a player breakdancing on a pitch post-match or injecting humour into a confrontation with social media trolls? Klich broke the mould of what we expect a modern, professional footballer to be like, he narrowed the cavernous gap between fan and supporter, he broadened the scope of relatability, and we absolutely loved him for it. And he was a brilliant player.
A little piece of me dies every time a big player leaves Leeds United, but the older I get the more I’m reassured that it will grow back when a new player comes along to replace them, and provide the character the team needs. We have that in this team with the likes of Tyler Adams, and the bravery and daring of Willy Gnonto, and other strong personalities will emerge now too. I’m not sure you could ever replace someone as distinctive and exceptional as Mateusz Klich, but trying too hard is where you fail, and these things have to happen organically.
Some comfort is afforded in the sense that great players and great characters have a life at Leeds United beyond simply playing for them. Mateusz Klich will be back at Elland Road. That’s as certain as the sun rising over the East Stand every morning. It could be a one-off visit, it could be a regular, casual thing or it could even be in a working capacity. But Leeds United never leaves you and it helplessly draws you back. And in the meantime we have a spray-painted mural lacquered to the brick-worked fabric of the stadium and a living statement of a fantastic achievement and a wonderful period in our lives as a unique legacy for a unique personality.
I’m sad that Mateusz Klich has left Leeds United, but perhaps he had to leave so someone could replace him? So that someone could pick up the gauntlet as ‘the’ player that fans could effortlessly relate to, and run with it. This team has character and personality, and plenty of ability besides. Now, more than ever, is the time to show it.