What started as a pre-match display running the length of Elland Road’s East Stand — ‘Yorkshire’ spelt out in big letters — ended as screwed-up balls of paper piled by the side of the pitch. The devil makes work for even slightly idle thumbs and those balls became missiles, many of them aimed at Jack Grealish whenever he strayed too close to the sidelines.
Grealish laughed his way through the intermittent stationery showers and the Football Association could do worse than treat any complaints about it all with a little humour too, but there is little that Leeds United’s crowd have not been willing to throw this season: paper, bottles, a kitchen sink full of moral support. There is nothing more to squeeze from the stands and nothing more the club can ask of the thousands who fill them.
Elland Road, as Marcelo Bielsa liked to say, is as close as a football club gets to finding unconditional love.
That was true at Leeds in the best moments of the past four years but every bit as true in the worst of them and never more apparent than it has been this season, a season which might easily have drained all reserves of tolerance.
It got close to the edge of mutiny against Aston Villa in March when everything — Bielsa’s sacking 10 days earlier, the state of the squad, resentment towards the club’s board and the unknown quantity that was new head coach Jesse Marsch — spilt over in an inevitable loss of patience, but here in Leeds they seem to appreciate what fighting among themselves will do. The consequences of that are so obvious that on Saturday evening, a raucous ovation was the squad’s reward for a 4-0 home loss to Manchester City.
There was, at the root of chanting that shrugged its shoulder at the scoreline and resolutely ignored City’s final goal in stoppage time, some acceptance of the fact that 90 minutes in the bearpit with Pep Guardiola’s hounds could have been worse but more than anything there was defiance in circumstances which could tempt a stadium to throw in the towel.
“On the scoresheet, it’s a loss, but in many ways, it feels like a win,” Marsch said, and while it is inadvisable to spin a heavy defeat in that way, there was something slightly tangible in his comment. The bouncing atmosphere was for the benefit of anyone looking in, two fingers up at the armchair rubberneckers who tuned in hoping to see white-on-white dissent.
Leeds were leaning on their crowd before Marsch arrived and they are leaning on it still, the one facet of the club which has functioned as intended this season while so much else went awry.
There are no points for noise, no prizes for aesthetics, no barriers against relegation beyond what former Leeds star Gordon Strachan once called the big green rectangle but Leeds would be sunk, or thereabouts, in the face of a more flaky support.
Their team have regressed and become a very fragile Premier League side, but there is clarity on the terraces which allows people to see the bigger picture: the unforgivable waste that would be three brilliant years up in smoke and the fact that the era just gone was supposed to open the door to a bright future, rather than giving Leeds a short-lived glimpse of the light. The point of that era was that it broke the club out of the cycle of knowing their place.
19 – Leeds have conceded 19 Premier League goals to the two Manchester clubs this season (10 v Man City, nine v Man Utd), the most one side has ever conceded to the pair in a single top-flight campaign, overtaking Southampton’s 18 last season. Roses. pic.twitter.com/AgTDiISSFW
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 30, 2022
City were 2-0 up, courtesy of two set-pieces goals, when Gabriel Jesus stroked in their third goal with 12 minutes to go.
The Brazilian’s slick strike, at the end of Phil Foden’s measured pass, had the strange effect of whipping up Elland Road, with ferocious chants that persisted right through to the final whistle and barely dipped when Fernandinho completed the scoring. It would, as they say, have confused aliens landing on Earth for the first time and trying to work football out.
“I know people thought I was being facetious when I said that this game was the best team in the world against the best club in the world, but I meant that,” Marsch said. “I’ve never seen a place like this. It’s a very unique relationship this club has with its fanbase and its city.”
Marsch punched the air as he and his players went around the pitch at full-time, mouthing “You are going to keep us up” towards the stands.
There was a spectacular juxtaposition between the scoreline and the reaction to it, almost a certain level of relish, but Leeds have no way of avoiding the fact they owe their support.
Appreciation in football is never entirely unbreakable, and the club can expect precious little forgiveness in any respect if the investment of the crowd leads to nothing in return. Burnley are on the move in a big way after three wins in a row. Everton are five points back with two games in hand. This might be the last time Elland Road can afford grand gestures in defeat.
Four games are all that is left of a season that will not make anyone of a Leeds persuasion love it now. Their team have become harder to love too but they are like a car which has served its driver well for long enough to win their affection.
There is a story behind this squad, a connection which is still intact, and it was that which caused so much concern on Saturday when Stuart Dallas was stretched from the pitch with his right leg in a brace, clearly injured and in horrible pain. Dallas did not deserve that and nobody would wish it on him.
In the same way that Elland Road never turned on Bielsa, it cannot pretend that these players mean nothing to them either.
There will be ample time for reflection soon but until then, Leeds are side by side or they are done. And everyone knows it.
(Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)