In the end we only got as far as the beginning, and Leeds United going down the way they’ve been going all season: waiting and hoping for someone else to save them at the last moment. Sam Allardyce started with six defenders and an unfamiliar back five, hoping a clean sheet and friendly scorelines at Everton and Bournemouth would help a nicked goal make the difference or set up a late push for safety. Leeds would make the last ninety minutes of the season last as long as they could, hoping for a chance.
After the World Cup, Leeds had chances, but instead of taking them, they were always waiting and hoping for the next one until the season had no chances left to give. Maybe at home to West Ham, or at home to Brentford, then surely away to Nottingham Forest, but none of those chances were taken to be wins. So it had to be away to Everton, but wasn’t. There was a brief, stumbling revival but losing to Crystal Palace put Leeds back on the treadmill of wasting their chance and hoping for the next one: Fulham looked winnable, Leicester had to be beaten, Bournemouth was an opportunity, three points were there to be taken from West Ham. So many opportunities to get just one, season-changing win, all squandered, until there was less than an opportunity left, at home to Tottenham, when even a win might not change the season.
It was all over after ninety seconds anyway, when Tottenham scored, and the next 88 minutes plus stoppage time did last as long as Allardyce wanted, but not the way he wanted. As Leeds players sent passes astray and tripped over the ball in attack, midfield and defence, I looked at the clock, hoping at least this would all be over soon. The game was only twenty minutes old. Twenty minutes is a long time at the end of a season like this, ninety minutes even longer. Futility is hard to take when it means good effort being wasted for nothing. But there was no point in Leeds being this bad in this game.
Allardyce sharply defended his strategy after the match. “I’ve just said we’ve got 21 attempts at goals so we had more pressure on Tottenham than Tottenham had on us,” he said. “We were just inept at converting those attempts and pressures. I’m sorry for getting a bit touchy but it’s a bad day.” What he seemed to be missing was that those 21 chances might have been turned into something more had they not been falling to players like Weston McKennie and Robin Koch, defensive players shoved forward, but to some of the many players on the bench who, whatever faults they may have, have scored goals within recent memory. Even more chances might have been created had Wilf Gnonto and Crysencio Summerville been crossing from wide positions, instead of Luke Ayling and Pascal Struijk. Taking off the full-backs might have weakened Leeds defensively, in theory, but they were playing in attack and anyway Spurs scored four. Allardyce might also point out that Javi Gracia tried fielding teams in which the defenders defended and the attackers attacked, and that ended by needing Big Sam to save the day.
Misusing resources has been a theme at Leeds this season. Marcelo Bielsa built a team here of attacking players who dominated possession but struggled to defend without the ball. Jesse Marsch changed that to a team that attacked by tackling and dribbling, playing more often without the ball, without improving their capability to defend against the rising tides of possession against them. In a brief interlude, Javi Gracia tried to find balance. In an even briefer fever dream, Sam Allardyce tried to rely on defending and passing to get Leeds out of trouble, while the majority of the squad’s attacking players sat on the bench and watched.
The other major part of the problem has been the resources themselves, best summed up by the right flank. According to Jesse Marsch, he spent nearly two years talking to Victor Orta about taking over from Bielsa at Leeds. But despite their apparently detailed planning, the season ended with their chosen successor for Luke Ayling, attacking right-back Rasmus Kristensen, playing horribly at centre-half, while Ayling, a week after telling the press he had nothing left in his tank against West Ham, looked that way as a right wing-back.
If Marsch and Orta had done their job properly, neither player would have been on the pitch in this match, Ayling because he’s self-confessedly tankless, Kristensen because he’s not good enough. And that story repeats across the pitch. Pascal Struijk, a young centre-back bereft of confidence, preferred to Junior Firpo at left-back. Weston McKennie, an out of shape box to box midfielder, playing in attack where Pat Bamford was lost again to his two year battle with his body, alongside Rodrigo, risking his plantar fascia. Brenden Aaronson sat on the bench. Adam Forshaw played in midfield ahead of Marc Roca, the player Orta was ‘proud’ of swapping for Kalvin Phillips, alongside Robin Koch, a central defender. With the exception of Tyler Adams — sidelined for two months injured — the type of player signed, and the quality, have not been good enough for this season. Some, like Aaronson and Gnonto, might be brilliant in the future, but right now has changed the future before they can get that far. Joe Gelhardt, so exciting and so excited about the start of the season, might wonder why his Leeds future got so spun around, why Marsch hardly played him, why after helping Leeds through one relegation battle last season, he spent this one with Sunderland while Georginio Rutter galloped ineffectually around Elland Road during the last half hour, succumbing to defeat.
And speaking of resources being wasted, it was hard to find a sadder sight in the last half an hour than Jackie Harrison’s desperate attempts to make something happen ending in something that hardly ever happens to him: injury. He even scored a good goal, but scores elsewhere meant it was too late for that, even before Spurs scored again two minutes later. In some respects, Harrison has it easy: he’s 26, apparently with a relegation clause in his contract, ready for a simple transfer to spend his peak years playing for a good Premier League team that should bring better from him than the last two years trying to resist Elland Road’s quicksand. But, typically, he made his day as difficult for himself as he could by trying, trying, and trying again, dribbling into brick walls then demanding the ball back from the equally determined Forshaw to try again. It was almost a relief when Harrison went off. Somehow, him trying so hard was making the day feel worse.
They were all trying, and maybe that’s the worst thing about it. When Lucas Moura, on as a late sub for his last Spurs game, did what Harrison was trying to do and waltzed through half the Leeds team from halfway to score, Luke Ayling stood in the six yard box as if trying to understand what has happened to him, aghast at the contrast between the player he was and the player he is. It must have hit harder for the players who did what we’d been pleading with players to do for sixteen years and took Leeds up and were never properly thanked for it, except by a few surrounding an ill-advised bus, but who took the full brunt of the crowd singing that they’re not fit to wear the shirt. For three seasons they fought against and transcended the pressure that had crushed dozens before them who tried to play for Leeds, and it felt for a while like they’d somehow redefined the modern Leeds player. Even in the glory days, there were never murals of the team on the city walls. Football has its way, though, of making the best times feel like they were all for nothing.
They weren’t. The other week, speaking for the first time as manager of Uruguay, Marcelo Bielsa said that, “In football, football is the fans and the players. And then there are those who mediate between the fans and the players. Those who mediate between the fans and the players are the coaches, the journalists and the leaders. I believe that the coaches, the journalists and the leaders are the worst of football, clearly.”
In this way at least, Leeds United remains an expression of Bielsa’s beliefs, where the leaders in particular — owners and executives — have driven a wedge between the fans and the players the fans love. Again at right-back, the executives signed a player to replace Luke Ayling, and it’s not Ayling’s fault that the replacement wasn’t better, that he has had to keep turning out and turning out, playing worse than he ever has at Leeds but still better than the new guy, until the fans turn on him. Building from Bielsa’s thought, this is where the players are made to stand between the fans and the leaders, by design. The owners and executives have made this a money game, to enrich themselves, and now boardroom decisions can be more influential than anything done by any player on the pitch. But it’s the players who have to go on the pitch and live or die while carrying out, as best they can, the implications of those decisions. They’re well paid for this, and that’s why it can feel easy castigating the players: leaders will quickly highlight the high transfer fees and wages wasted on underperforming footballers. But if we assume some Leeds players are paid a round and obscene £100,000 per week, that’s £5.2m per year. Andrea Radrizzani, from purchase to sale, was hoping owning Leeds United would net him around £400m profit. A footballer would have to play for eighty years to make that much money, and yet football is structured to make fans think the players are the greedy ones, ‘stealing a living’. Which is a long way of saying I still like you, Luke Ayling, and I’ll always be glad for the players who made us happy when everything else about 2020, on top of our sixteen years away, was bleak.
I’m even grateful to them, in a way, for being there yesterday to take the brunt of the crowd’s anger. Or, I can respect it. Andrea Radrizzani, who gave himself the honour of carrying the Championship trophy onto the pitch in 2020, was not there. While Sam Allardyce was gathering Eddie Gray, Gary McAllister and Gordon Strachan as desperate inspiration, Radrizzani has been in Genoa, negotiating to buy Sampdoria. Last season, amid the euphoria of staying up at Brentford on the final day, the club website published a message, ‘For the fans: a message from Andrea Radrizzani’, that ended, ‘The hard work for the 2022/23 season is already underway. Andrea’. This season, after relegation was confirmed, the website published a ‘Club statement’, but unsigned. ‘We apologise to our fanbase that the performances this season have not seen the club consolidate our status,’ it says, never telling us who this mysterious ‘we’ is, but making sure the apology highlights ‘performances’ as the problem — the players.
The players, and their performances, were not good enough this season. The last few weeks were pathetic. But when Pat Bamford misses a match-winning chance or a vital penalty, he does so in front of 36,000 people while wearing a shirt that has his name in big clear letters across his back. Beneath every footballer’s mistake, you’ll find their signature, their unavoidable ownership of their error. The players made a lot of those as Leeds were relegated this season, and in every game they heard and felt the fans’ anger. That does not make them responsible for the avoidable errors of ownership that have sent Leeds United down.