Leeds United 1–0 West Bromwich Albion
It’s weird how everything dents your confidence. I wake on Tuesday, fairly fresh, ready for nighttime football; unafraid of Bilic and co. During the day my subconsciousness sows seeds of doubt; things begin to chip away. By the time Kiko Casilla is implicated in racist abuse I’m fit to pronounce the game dead and gone. Then I leave our tickets at home, necessitating a reprint and further collapse of self esteem.
These feelings are transitory. All feelings are. They’re real, though, and powerful, and have the potential to swing the pendulum back.
I am very, very nervous. The walk from town has none of its usual fizz; fans are scattered and silent. The Matthew Murray brownfield, reminder of Leeds’ ambition, looms menacingly: a development that’ll surely be quashed if the team continues its slump.
Even the chip-van lady hasn’t bothered to heat the vat.
Still, we hold out hope. Ken Bates craved a casino; well, here I am, ready to put the mortgage on black. Ready to flip the coin.
Dead-centre South Stand Upper, backs against the wall, we take our places and hope. No cacophonous moron here, no cynic to focus my ire; only nervousness, bellowing through fear. The mirrored glass of the South Stand boxes might contain a naysayer, but they are secluded, shoved away, impossible to see. Don’t even know if those space-age capsules are hireable these days, or just another Batesian folly left to gather dust.
The start is promising. It very often is. Leeds have a scurrying, swarming gait; it’s end-to-end stuff. Helder Costa is less divorced from the rest of the team; Jamie Shackleton interlinks with confidence and poise.
Then we score a lovely goal, Harrison’s schizo twinkle-toes finally paying dues, the ball slipped through to everyone’s favourite blond. Pft, who cares if Bartley turns it in; he was always Leeds. The bloke two seats along thumps me in the mouth. He’s very apologetic; I couldn’t care less. It’s good to feel something: here, we go, Leeds!
Bamford and Costa spurn chances just before the break, denied by two outstanding saves. A first half filled with promise, Leeds ready to turn the screw.
As the teams trot out for the second 45, Jamie Shackleton follows Liam Cooper into the knacker’s yard. His replacement., Tyler Roberts, barely touches the ball. No-one in white does. The stage is set for a second half of uninterrupted fear: West Brom’s Matheus Pereira is a buzzing menace, all feather-soft touches and combinations. Ajayi and Bartley impose themselves, repeatedly fouling Bamford.
This is a different reaction: not the swing from good to bad, but a mirror image of Leeds’ usual setup. As if we stepped through the glass, reversed our steps and plunged, not into middle-tier office-space, but into an inversion. They attack and we defend. They control possession, we drop deep. They are Us and We are Them.
Step forward Elland Road. Just as Leeds are beaten back — wounded and rattled, frantic — the brute defiance of WACCOE resonates between North and South, Cheese Wedge, East and West. We howl our paean to fantasy, a world where Leeds never lose, and yell ‘whatever happens, we’ve won. Fuck off.’
This is not some nerveless, ice-cool passage. We hurt for 45 minutes. We gasp at every errant ball; every dribble and slick one-two flashes us back to Forest, Swansea, Derby. But the players hang on, and we, the fans, provide the cliff-edge from which to swing.
The final whistle is greeted with exhalation: the sound of 34 thousand people finally breathing again. I apologise to my friend (who I promise is real and not some fever dream) for punching his kidney several times in relief. Not at length, nor as verbosely as Bielsa’s redress to Tyler Roberts — unluckily hooked after 25 second-half minutes — but, you know, it’s understood. Perhaps this bloodshed will become a regular feature: a Fight Club for nervous wrecks.
Hopefully not. We don’t want violence; we don’t want nervousness.
But when your back is against the wall, and mirrors are only mirrors, sometimes the only option is to fight the beast you’re facing.
Sometimes the only option is to fight the beast that faces you.