Considering that last night’s draw against Fulham was settled so very late and so very spectacularly too, with a Chris Wood bicycle kick at the Kop End earning a point for Leeds United, some of the reaction today has been rather bizarre, to say the least.
With many clubs, such a picture goal at the last gasp would be greeted with a relief bordering on ecstasy. Leeds fans, of course, have to be a bit different. Their heroes were less than a minute from opening this season with three consecutive defeats, a shameful start unheard of for the last eighty years. Doom and gloom was on the menu, with nary a crumb of comfort.
Then, the nominated scapegoat of the evening, a player in Chris Wood struggling for form and confidence, who had been taking some vicious stick throughout the ninety minutes, finally came good – and Leeds mercifully had their first point of the season. And yet today, the focus has not been exclusively on the brilliance and timeliness of Wood’s finish, but largely on his so-called cheek in letting the crowd know he’d not appreciated their particular brand of “support”.
This tendency to barrack players is not exclusively a Leeds United phenomenon, of course. But it’s long been a particular problem with the Leeds faithful, especially at Elland Road, where generation after generation of United players, as far back as Terry Yorath in my experience, have gone in fear and trembling of the abuse they will receive should they have an “off day”. Or, indeed, an off night, as Wood had undoubtedly experienced up until the third minute of stoppage time yesterday evening.
It’s a brand of “support” that has many an away fan visiting LS11 scratching their heads in bemusement. People beg leave to wonder how such wholesale and sustained carping and criticism is meant to encourage and motivate a player. But that’s just one side of the problem.
The other side comes when the player on the receiving end of the abuse actually manages to come through it all and, in the time-honoured style of a Roy of the Rovers, save his team at the eleventh hour. Should this player then presume to gesture to the crowd, as if to say “There you go – now shut it”, the shock and hurt of the fans, who had previously been venting their spleen, is something to behold. It’s as if they feel they have unfettered licence to hurl abuse, but should be completely immune from any response from their target. Weird.
Chris Wood did react last night, relatively mildly in the circumstances, and it’s difficult for any rational onlooker to criticise him for it. Yes, he’d had a poor game. Yes, he’d missed chances. And certainly his work rate and willingness to chase and harry defenders compared poorly to that of his strike partner Marcus Antonsson. But the level of stick Wood took throughout the piece, in unison from a self-appointed jury of thousands, was unwarranted and arguably counter-productive. It would have taken a saint to have restrained himself from showing some kind of reaction in his moment of triumph. And, let’s face it, you don’t get saints in Leeds United shirts.
That cupping of the ear towards the Kop, plainly intended to convey “You were saying…?” to the massed moaners and whingers behind the goal, has reaped a petulant reaction from many of those who’d been blithely handing out the stick. How dare he, was an abridged consensus. Surely players are there to take abuse without a flicker of emotion or reaction. But even footballers are only human. And it’s happened before, in a less restrained manner too.
I can well remember, many moons ago, a certain Mark Aizlewood taking appalling stick throughout one game, which he then won with a late goal at that same Kop End. Aizlewood did not content himself with a mild cupped ear. He faced the Gelderd hordes eyeball to eyeball and coldly fired a V-sign at his tormentors. Now that is probably going too far, and Aizlewood never played for United again. But you can understand the frustration of a pro, outnumbered and vilified by thousands of amateurs who feel that the admission money they’ve paid affords them the right to scream anything they like at their representatives on the park.
Next to Aizlewood’s two-fingered revolt, Wood’s gesture last night was mild indeed. But the reaction, in these days of social media, has been even more hysterical than when Aizlewood flicked his V-sign so long ago. And it’s a shame because, after all, it was a very special and spectacular goal, one that saved us from another defeat, the type of goal too that could well lead to the boost in confidence a player like Wood so sorely needs. And what contribution to such a return of confidence would the Gelderd End Abuse Society have made? I’ll tell you. None at all.
Supporters are there to support, but it’s ok to express displeasure and disapproval too, of course it is. Match tickets are expensive, and the poor form of your favourites is galling to behold. But there’s a line, and Leeds fans do tend to cross it distressingly often. It’s frequently said that a crowd like Leeds getting behind their team is worth a goal start, and I’ve seen this proved often enough. But, in the opposite mood, that same crowd can destroy a player and chase them through the Elland Road exit door. I’ve see that, too – and it’s not what I’d call support.
Something else frequently said is that it takes a certain strength of character to play for a club and a crowd like Leeds United. Some very good players have failed to make it at Elland Road, and there’s been this suspicion that they’ve lacked the necessary “bottle”. There’s probably something in that, and maybe the club’s woes in the last decade or so are grounded in the bottler/fighter ratio being skewed unfortunately away from the fighter type. In other words, we’ve had too many talented players who have just lacked the character to succeed at a club like Leeds with the kind of truculent, impatient crowd we have.
Chris Wood had had a nightmare last night, he could hardly put a foot or a head right all evening long. But he came through, ignored the abuse manfully, kept trying and getting in there where it hurts – and he ended up getting his just reward. That, to my mind, is the type of character we need – and maybe the crowd will come around at length to that point of view. In the meantime, Wood’s gesture to the Kop last night said that he is not weak enough to be destroyed by the abuse from the stands, that the respect of his fellow pros will see him through. It was a reaction I applaud every bit as much as I applauded his goal, and I think it speaks volumes for the guts and character of our number nine.
It’s the kind of attitude, let’s face it, that we’re going to need plenty of in the coming months. So perhaps the Kop critics will manage to be a bit less precious and indeed a lot less hypocritical from now on, should they chance to have some of their constant, destructive abuse thrown back in their faces every now and then as a tough season progresses. Or perhaps they’ll even decide to see the light, and offer a bit more encouragement and support instead.
Yes, perhaps indeed. But, knowing that vociferous section of our support as I do, I won’t be holding my breath.