It was a close and steamy morning at Elland Road last Saturday as I arrived at the ground in good time to see the atmosphere build towards the start of another Leeds United home season. The wind was up in more ways than one as I sat in blustery conditions outside what used to be Sheila’s Cafe, opposite the West Stand car park gates. In the past, you would often see United stars in there, gathered around one of Sheila’s tables, winding down after a Fullerton Park training session. Now, the cafe was chock-a-block with nervous fans, trying to control those butterflies in the stomach with fry-ups and copious draughts of hot tea, and relegating me to that outside table.
The nerves were understandable; every Leeds fan was keenly aware of the need for a win to build on a great start to the season down at Bristol City. The prospect of Nottingham Forest, always awkward opponents for United, made the pre-match atmosphere crackle with tension, even at 9:30 before a half past twelve kick-off. From here on in, that tension would build and build.
A welcome end to the summer hiatus was marked by the sight of match-going friends being reunited with a hug and a slap on the back. “Happy New Year”, they greeted each other, only half in jest, acknowledging that we football fanatics observe a different, seasonal calendar. After the hellos and the hugs, the talk was all of the squad changes over summer: how much would we miss Pontus and Roofe? Would this Arsenal kid (Eddie Nketiah) be able to fill Kemar’s talented boots? Could Patrick Bamford finally hit form and rip up the Championship? It was a buzz of excited talk, reflecting the hope and optimism of a season hardly started, with three precious points already in the bank.
Inside the ground, fresh from a welcome sausage butty outside that packed cafe, I find that the press lounge matchday fare is… a sausage butty. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. So I chew away happily, read the programme, try to put some names to new faces and collect a bottle of water to take aloft to the West Stand gantry and gape anew at the best view in the house. From here, the ground looks like a perfect bowl, the asymmetrical East Stand upper tier hidden by the West Stand fascia, with the scoreboard and gap at the south-west corner almost invisible somewhere to my right. In the first half, I position myself towards the south end of the gantry, next to the BBC Radio Nottingham commentators who are busy with their match preview piece. Looking straight down, I’m almost directly above the tunnel from which the gladiators are emerging in dribs and drabs, to go through the pre-match warm up. In the second half, I’ll move north, towards the Revie Stand, the Kop. Meanwhile, the Forest fans below are trading insults with the South Stand, and the atmosphere ramps up another notch.
Now it’s nearly kick-off, and the teams run out for real to a clamour of rival welcomes. Below me, the Forest substitutes pick their way through the Leeds technical area, being politely careful not to kick Bielsa’s bucket. All is ready, it’s now time for the hostilities to commence.
United, as expected, dominate throughout, but their superior possession yields only one goal and, near the end, they are punished by the classic sucker punch. But they’ve played well, and have legitimate complaints about the standard of refereeing. That’s an all too frequent lament, something that Leeds, yet again, will simply have to overcome. All the signs are that this squad has the potential and the ability to do just that. In the end, I’m left regretting not only the undeserved loss of two home points, but also my unforgivable failure immediately to recognise the guy sitting next to me in the second half as United legend Andy Hughes, a stalwart in the League One promotion team of 2010. Sorry, Andy. I’m clearly not worthy.
So, another season has started at Elland Road. And who can really know what’s in store for us in the next nine or so months? Maybe tonight’s League Cup tie at newly-arrived Salford City will provide some clues, as a few signings and some fringe players seek to stake their claims. But all we have right now are fervent hopes and the optimism that somehow still infects those who have been let down so sorely and so often. Come on, Leeds, let’s really make it happen this time around…
Marching On Together.