Normal for us • The square ball
It was a great game and it helped prevent the Blues, and the Blues, from winning on a rainy day. Elland Road was full again and this was the result of a draw, which might have seemed a disappointing result if we had watched it on TV.
A crowd makes a difference for a soccer game, but being there makes a difference for the fans. Leeds United need it, in what could be a fairly scoreless season. All the anger we couldn’t dispel after Old Trafford, knowing that losing so heavily is unlikely to change the season overall, has been resolved against Everton. It didn’t matter that we didn’t win, because the match was an experience.
It was the Premier League as I remember it. Not the version from seventeen years ago, which Mateusz Klich filled by scoring an equalizer here, Elland Road’s first top home goal from Alan Smith’s penalty against Charlton. Maybe we should have chaired Klich on the pitch too. That goal was for Leeds in relegation, but this match brought me back to Leeds ascendant, the late 90s version I grew up with, the end of George Graham’s management and the start of David O’s. ‘Leary, before babies were title challengers. I felt it walking up Elland Road in the rain, because of the ignorance of this situation. I was nervous when I was sixteen going to games, when I didn’t know the unwritten rules, and I was nervous now, walking under the train station and over the river, I didn’t know if the rules were still the same after eighteen months. The streets on Saturday weren’t as they have been for a year and a half, they were full of people and R2 buses, chants and drunks, and the new liveliness of the pavement brought me back to the energetic thrill that i felt like a kid, in the rough pub corners I never would have dared to walk in if I wasn’t football, drinking a pint of bitter and hoping the police didn’t come verify identity documents. I haven’t felt the rain then or now.
All worries about how the crowd would adjust to any emotion of the day, from remembering lost gamers and friends to crying anger at a touchscreen beverage ordering point, were quickly allayed. Football crowds adapt easily. In the minutes leading up to the players’ release, Leeds fans mocked Everton with songs that for legal reasons I’d better not discuss. Then there was a full-blown rendition of Marching on Together as the two teams lined up, the Leeds players reveling in it, the Everton players forced to listen. Ahead of kick-off, a list of names was read, to applause from across the stadium, all of a sudden paying homage to more people than anyone could do justice or be supposed to cope with. I wonder where Eddie Gray was at the time, and I hope he felt happy for this love and sad for so much loss. Then an anti-racist move was applauded, the game began, and “Get into ’em, fuck’ em up” was the first song in the game from the post-containment era of Elland Road. Within minutes Everton were taunted again, and the south stand was sure that a ‘big ginger bastard’ on the outside was going to cry in a minute. Because all that is what football crowds do. You can’t explain it, you can’t really say it’s a good thing, especially if you’re a well-built redhead scouse. When the commentators say they missed the crowds, then correct themselves because obviously they don’t miss everything about the crowds, they know honestly you can’t separate it. It’s hard to think of another phenomenon encompassing so many feelings of change, like those crowd photos of Manchester United fans when they heard about Aguero’s goal, or like when Leeds fans move seamlessly through memory, support and pissing in successive breaths.
Back in the late 90s, then, for the game itself. Leeds played a lot of games like this in O’Leary’s first season. It had been a good season under Graham, and the team were good, but we knew it wasn’t great. Lucas Radebe, Nigel Martyn and Harry Kewell were classy, Jimmy Hasselbaink always scored. We liked Alfie Haaland and thought David Hopkin was fine. David Wetherall and Gary Kelly were the furniture, Gunnar Halle and Clyde Wijnhard were junk. We could go to Elland Road to watch ourselves play at Everton, or Spurs at the time, or Martin O’Neill’s Leicester or Aston Villa, all decent teams, and we would think we would probably win. But sometimes we would lose. Maybe it was when I was young, or the internet wasn’t an option, but I don’t remember the micro-analysis of the squad and the club’s progress match by match, not compared to it. The anxiety of taking a step forward or backward that accompanies this summer is worried about not buying a midfielder. We had a good team who were probably going to do well and watching them play was fun. So being on the ground helped, because that was the best way to take advantage of it, and it helped against Everton on Saturday.
Yerry Mina, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison played an important role, and I want to thank them for their efforts to distract us from the seriousness with which we have been forced to view the game over the past eighteen months, summed up in through TV coverage and hype. They took us back to an afternoon of pantomime. What a big bad Mina would make, tall and beautiful, dominating the scene, but never a drama hero because he keeps doing ridiculous things. His favorite complaint seemed to be an easily bruised jaw, and as he hammered his grievances, he only cared because his training partner was Pat Bamford. When the two grabbed hold of each other in the southeast corner, struggling on the floor and then tickling each other’s stomachs, Bamford’s threat to Mina boiled down to how he was anxious to walk towards the referee with a full explanation of all the bad stuff. the other boy had made him. While Mina acted injured in the background, everything was about as stupid as on a soccer field. And it was great! I had never paid attention to Yerry Mina before, but if he’s still a part of Everton’s squad the next time they come to Elland Road, it’ll be great to hear the pre-game whisper. when the team is announced: “Isn’t that the jerk who quarreled with Bamford?” let’s hoot him.
Richarlison just complained the old-fashioned way about not getting free kicks, a pretty cheap way to show off. Calvert-Lewin’s effort was also fairly standard, but more specific. He was easily hated for winning Liam Cooper’s penalty, even though VAR reruns showed a nailed shirt pull dragging him down. Regardless, a penalty from Everton was not fair and it was his fault. He also tagged it, celebrating in front of home fans, silencing them, naming his name, completing it all while doing a silly dance. He has a strong case for being the best part of the game. My memories of our normal times in the Premier League are littered with moments like this, of some smart people from another team winding up our fans and turning up the atmosphere of a notch. Sometimes we lost, but it was less relevant than what one particular bastard had done. From my memory banks comes Willem Korsten, who Graham snatched from Spurs after a loan with Leeds and O’Leary, and who didn’t even do much in the game, but whose presence on the grass near my Kop seat was enough to send the fans around me mad with rage. I still hate him. I have no reason to do so. But it’s more fun than it looks when you try to explain it.
Calvert-Lewin wasn’t the best part of the game, as Leeds scored two equalizers, the first from Klich a revival of his South Stand shot that kicked off the Bielsa era in August 2018, the second a curved rocket from Raphinha , after Cooper’s set. him of the Kalvin Phillips cross. The goals and the noise mingled. It hasn’t been like this for eighteen months and it was awesome. Everton had taken the lead early in the second half, Abdoulaye Doucouré playing a one-two with himself on Pascal Struijk’s legs and playing with Demarai Gray for a very good finish from a very bad angle. Leeds have been exposed to games like this often, and Illan Meslier is already earning his place near the top of the Premier League’s “biggest saves” table, but it wasn’t an afternoon to analyze. We’ve had nothing else to do but analyze since March 2020. There’s not much to say about Everton: Rafa Benitez does Warnock stuff with them, massive center-backs, a target man and a bunch of fast attackers confusing our markers; they started off by throwing a grill style punt down. When Marcelo Bielsa’s football is at its best, it defies deconstruction, and there was a spell after Jamie Shackleton and Tyler Roberts added energy and a forward run in the final half. hour, during which Leeds equalized and tried to win by attacking so fervently. they gave Everton so many scoring chances. You can look through Everton’s box and see Roberts, Harrison, Bamford, Dallas, Raphinha, Shackleton, and Ayling all swarming around the ball, and it’s so risky you can’t help but get carried away by the thrill, and don’t worry about being caught off guard. Until the blue shirts sprint past Cooper and Struijk and shoot Meslier and, well, isn’t it good to feel so alive?
Football is a great sport because there are so many different things you can enjoy in it. It is not always a question of quality or technique. A match between two teams of donkeys in total can be more entertaining than a World Cup final, but an amateur 100m sprint will not come close to an Olympic final. Community ties and family inertia drive people to watch non-league football, but it’s not just a habit, it’s the promise of an incident. You can get the same rush when the ball is packed from a yard into a scrum after a long throw as when Raphinha shoots through the penalty area inside the back post. You can feel the same energy shouting bad words at a hostile opponent, no matter what team they play for, at any level. It was Yerry Mina on Saturday but it’s universal. “Ref! Do something for their # 13! ‘ At Leeds United, now we are in luck, even though we haven’t been among the best for months, as Bielsa’s football creates a whirlwind in which all the things we love to see in a game can happen. This is my main thought after seeing Elland Road full again. Yes, it’s good for the players to experience an atmosphere, for other teams to feel intimidated by it or to live up to it. But there is some good football being played out there that the crowds can feel a part of, so that’s good for us too. ??
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