The hangover: coming to terms with Leeds United's play-off heartbreak
You wake up and feel shit, and know something bad happened. There’s a run through the checklist of people you might have upset or hurt, or offences you might have committed. Then you remember it’s 21 years since you had a drink and it’s not you who’s making you feel like that, but a football team. Leeds United, to be precise.
I’d imagine there are plenty of Leeds fans with real hangovers now, both football and alcohol related. Wracked with a terrible sense of frustration, helplessness and anger; a mixture of disbelief, expectations unfulfilled, fears realised; a desire to blame those responsible while also knowing they’re the ones who’ve given us a great season, albeit one with a shit ending.
I personally felt we’d blown it weeks ago against Wigan, so I hadn’t got my hopes up too much, but I watched last night as the anger, blame game, love and loyalty crashed in from different sides of Twitter. Those who see the need to move on instantly and be supportive. Others desperate to find a reason and someone responsible. The keeper, the owner, the players. The ones we all believed in last Saturday.
When the final whistle went I was sitting in a pub a long way from Elland Road, with four other Leeds fans adrift with silent despair. Heads in hands. Resignation. A crushing disappointment decorated with the annoying barbs of hindsight.
The match was a re-run of our Nottingham Forest implosion at New Year: a gifted goal, a penalty, and an unnecessary sending off. The circumstances the same as the Bad Good Friday against Wigan, who hadn’t won away since August: 1-0 up in the sun against 10 men before a packed Elland Road.
Back then we just had four final games to get more points than Sheffield United, who were one place below us outside the automatic spots in third. I figured we’d probably get at least seven: six against Wigan and Ipswich, a draw against Aston Villa and defeat to Brentford. I hoped it would be enough. It wasn’t. Sheffield United got eight points to our one.
Neither the Blades nor Norwich had displayed any tendency to actually implode like we had, but the Canaries had slowed down amid a jittery run of draws. Had Leeds beaten Wigan, we’d have been within one win of going top.
Instead we lost, and right there and then I felt we wouldn’t do it. We didn’t try to crush them. We didn’t shut up shop and play possession. Without captain Liam Cooper to anchor that style of play, we became skittish and careless, allowing Wigan to run at us freely. Already behind, they had little else to lose. Their careless ambition and our nerves gave them the win. If we couldn’t win a game we were ahead in against such poor opposition, how would we take nine points left or win the play-offs?
Last night Derby came to Elland Road with the same freedom to attack. They were a totally different beast to the slow and laboured animal we disposed of at Pride Park. But yet again we came away from a game saying we should have scored more.
With a minute to go to half-time, 1-0 and holding our own, keeper Kiko Casillas – who has spent four months being serenaded from the stands – decided to career out of his area, into Cooper’s space and make it impossible for either to make a decent clearance. It gave Derby an open goal, and loose ball to push into it.
At that point many of us were consumed by a horrible, nagging suspicion that we were going to blow it again.
The equalising goal gave Derby the half-time lift they needed, and they stole another within minutes of the restart. There followed a half of blind hope and foul rage; the cries of fans powerless over the performance of the team.
Despite fighting performances from Kalvin Phillips, young star Jamie Shackleton and double goalscorer Stuart Dallas, the advantage was surrendered to Lampard, a man we had joyously been pillorying in his own ground just four days before. Crying Frank had the last laugh.
And so here we are again with Leeds United. Disappointed but ready to start another season, with the sense of excitement that pre-season, new signings and friendlies bring just nine weeks away.
But before then, our business model needs player sacrifices. If Marcelo Bielsa is to stay, as everyone wants him to, funds will be freed up through the sales of one, or maybe two high-profile fan favourites.
Young Jack Clarke, previously courted by Manchester City, may be one; much-improved midfielder Kalvin Philips could be another; and almost certainly, World Cup quarter-finalist Pontus Jansson will be a third. Cult hero Pontus remained an unused sub in this vital game even after his replacement in the starting line-up, Gaetano Berardi, was sent off.
Jansson (profiled in FourFourTwo this month for his love of Malmo) desperately wanted to play for Leeds United in the Premier League. Like Berardi and Luke Ayling he has led the team by character, while Pablo Hernandez has steered the Whites with skill and ability.
After the match Jansson sat slumped against the pitchside advertising boards, raw eyes staring in disbelief across the empty stadium. One Twitter fan wondered why he wasn't in the dressing room with his colleagues. It must have devastated him to watch on, unable to change things while knowing it might have been his last chance to play for the club.
An economic certainty of football is players needing to earn more as they age, and clubs like Leeds must sell to stay afloat. If he leaves, it’s a terrible way to send him off. He’s been one of the true positives of the last few years. He will look back over the season, as we’re all doing, and wonder about the crucial moments that could have saved us – that could have changed his football career while still playing at a club he clearly loves.
I think, amid all the great times under an amazing man, three significant things have gone wrong this year at Leeds. That’s not many, but to me they are key.
We started the season with just two experienced centre-backs because of Bielsa’s belief that fighter-bomber Beradi, former teenage centre-back Ayling, and midfielders Philips and Adam Forshaw could fill in when necessary. I think that was a mistake. A one-year contract for a fit, seasoned campaigner who was available to bring calm from the bench and maybe play just six or seven games when needed – like John McLellan did for Howard Wilkinson – would have given us the stability and maturity we sometimes lacked. Back then Wilko had five centre-backs in his squad.
The inability to conclude a deal for Daniel James in January, when the player was at Elland Road in a Leeds shirt, has been blamed on Swansea – but it was us who didn't offer enough up front to get it done. Two or three million more could have secured a player who would have strengthened us and made us less predictable.
Finally, in the last eight weeks of the season, when players were coming back from injury to strengthen a bench once full of kids, I think Bielsa should have been resting the first-teamers who’ve played almost every game – Hernandez and Mateusz Klich, for example. Shackleton, Clarke, Dallas, Forshaw, Aapo Halme and Izzy Brown all had plenty to offer in terms of fresh legs and increasing competition for places. And yet the starting lineup stayed the same unless injuries forced change. Bringing some of those players in wouldn’t have significantly dropped the standard.
True fans believe in their teams wherever they are, and the truth is that the Championship is a good league. I went to bed wondering whether it really mattered who we play against; I go to see Leeds, not the opposition. But in my heart, I was ready to be taking Premier League scalps once again.
James Brown is Editor in Chief of FourFourTwo and author of Above Head Height: A 5-A-side Life
While you're here, why not take advantage of our brilliant new subscribers' offer? Get 5 copies of the world's greatest football magazine for just £5 – the game's greatest stories and finest journalism direct to your door for less than the cost of a London pint. Cheers!