One thing those defeated Leeds players will be sharply aware of today; most of the football world will be laughing at them for their abject surrender at Hillsborough. That’s not a pleasant thing to know, it’s even less pleasant for a Leeds fan to say. But it’s a fact and one we have to acknowledge before, as a collective, we can put the horror of this new year so far behind us, and start to move onwards and upwards.
I say “as a collective” because it’s not just the players who have to recover from a shattering blow such as this. It’s the fans too – we’ve all been getting it in the neck from delighted followers of other clubs ever since the final whistle blew to signal United’s worst defeat for 55 years. The problem for the fans is that we have no means at our disposal whereby we can address the matter directly – if sleeves are to be rolled up, if air is to be cleared, if basics are to be got back to – then it’s the players and the coaching staff who will have to grasp those nettles, bite those bullets and somehow drag themselves up from historical depths of despair and defeat. The fans just have to hope that this will happen, and happen soon. It’s left to us to exhort our heroes onto greater efforts, or possibly just to squabble among ourselves as has been seen on various internet forums. But whatever the limitations in our options, the fans are hurting and the fans are humiliated – it’s to be hoped that the players are being reminded of this salient point at some stage of today.
“Back to Basics” is a fairly obvious mantra to be chanting today, and it’s what Brian McDermott seems be running with. That’s understandable, particularly for anyone who witnessed the full horror of United’s display against a team in Wednesday they should have beaten with something to spare. Leeds played as if they thought ball control was a discipline to be exercised in a monastery. They looked about as comfortable in possession as a shell-shock victim trying to juggle live hand grenades. It did very much look as though the basics of the game at this level – passing, trapping a ball, getting rid – were indecipherable mysteries to the men in those tacky “gold” shirts. Is all of this truly down to a lack of confidence? Or is there a deeper malaise?
Leeds United at the moment are a living, breathing contradiction in terms. One part of the organisation oozes confidence and optimism, churning out new initiatives and new ideas, communicating messages of hope and a brighter future through numerous social media outlets. This is the vibrant, innovative United that is announcing link-ups with the 49ers and hinting at redeveloping the stadium for our inevitable return to the top. The relentless message of positivity and optimism has so far yielded only two loan deals to enhance the squad – but there is still that tantalising promise of more to come. Possibly. But not before the Leicester game.
The other side of United is the ugly duckling that waddled its way unhappily around Sheffield Wednesday’s manor yesterday, shot at from all sides, uncomfortably aware of its own hideousness and unable to do anything about it. There were no signs that this ugly duckling might ever grow into a beautiful swan, as the fable tells us it should. We’re left with the feeling that, being Leeds, fables don’t apply. The contrast of this self-loathing, pessimistic, on-field United with the public face of the post-Bates Leeds is as stark as it is puzzling. If we’re on our way back with a bright future ahead of us – why isn’t this remotely reflected by the product on the park? Why do the players look as if they’ve forgotten how to pass, how to defend, how to tell one end of a football from the other?
So, it’s back to basics – to get these matters thrashed out. Presumably, if any of the brighter sparks in the squad have their own ideas about the tactics being employed, then now is the time to air them. We appear to be on the brink of playing in a whole new way anyway, with all our eggs so far this window being placed in the “attacking width” basket. The two wingers recruited to that end rather sank without trace yesterday – understandably so, given the way the game went – particularly with what happened to Smith, who might otherwise have given the new lads someone to play to. It really was all most unfortunate. Back to basics, then – and see if the air can be cleared. But I would hope that, as well as the manager’s three-word mantra, somebody will think to revive the older, two word motto in the picture at the head of this article, that hung so famously for so many years on the Elland Road home dressing room wall. Keep Fighting, it told the players – and for the decade and more of Revie’s reign, that is exactly what the United players did, to devastating effect.
“Fight” was something visible only in the briefest of flashes yesterday. Smith was perhaps over-zealous in the challenge that got him sent off. Byram showed the right idea when he clattered into Kirkland in the second half. Michael Brown epitomises “fight” when he plays, but he’s sadly prone to getting into trouble early and recklessly – and then walking a tightrope for most of any appearance he might make. Fight, if it’s to be helpful, has to be shown with a moderating layer of common-sense – but no Leeds team will get far if it is so totally lacking as it appeared yesterday in those fighting qualities which, allied to world-class skill and unflinching togetherness, made the club a global name almost half a century ago. I suspect that the sign which once adorned the dressing room wall disappeared long, long ago – but that image is still as iconic as ever it was. It’s something that the players of today need to look at and adopt if they are to equip themselves to avoid a repetition of yesterday’s spineless and clueless performance, so lacking in skill, technique, attitude and, above all, fight.
Whatever emerges from today’s meeting, we need to see a radically different Leeds United take the field against Leicester next weekend. Let’s not kid ourselves – the players in our squad can play. They can pass, they can retain possession, they can mark the opposition. Yesterday, it just looked as though they couldn’t. Next weekend is about correcting any such misleading impression – and it’s about fighting for the shirts, for the badge and for the fans. Back to basics, fair enough. But above all, Keep Fighting.