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"Can we be heroes?"

16 October 2015
"Can we be heroes?"
Well, we can’t put it off any longer. The international break has provided some welcome respite from the perpetual toil of attending football matches at Elland Road. It arrived at just the right time, like the buffet at a wedding reception, when everyone was flagging from sheer grind; and after a second successive home defeat it offered a natural cessation in which we could gather thoughts and brace ourselves for the very real possibility of going through exactly the same experience again.

Except this time we really expect things to have changed. Einstein defined ‘insanity’ as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Of course none of us who follow Leeds United would put ourselves in the bracket of the clinically insane – in this context at least - as we have no direct control over the results. From one disappointing home result to the next, we expect things to change; while we do the same thing, we don’t expect the team and management to. Therefore, it would be insane for Leeds United head coach Uwe Rösler to approach this weekend’s home game with Brighton & Hove Albion without having spent a good chunk of the international break seeking change and implementing it.

Apart from the timely and hugely agreeable opportunity to push ‘Leeds United’ very respectfully to one side for a fortnight, the international break enabled sports fans in the City of Leeds to marvel once again at the exploits of the Leeds Rhinos. Whatever your thoughts on rugby league and the role Leeds Rhinos have played in monopolising team sporting success in Leeds for over a decade, what cannot be denied is that there are endless learning opportunities to be gained from their success. Whether that is putting foundations in place for ongoing prosperity, or establishing a winning mentality that doesn’t fade or rest on its laurels - in short; a plan - much of that is forged behind the scenes in a stable, perceptive and enterprising environment. The most immediate feature of Leeds Rhinos’ sweeping success that Leeds United could benefit from is right there on the field; the development of heroes, people who pick up the baton, take responsibility and find a way of winning whatever situation they find themselves in.

Planet ‘Leeds United’ was a sobering place on Monday morning after the heady triumph of someone else’s weekend. We awoke to information breaking down the details of Massimo Cellino’s many impending court cases; depressing not so much because there is no immediate end to any of them, as they clog up the listless Italian judicial system like an army of indecisive hedgehogs with defective shopping trollies, but because it reminds us that so much of the energy involved in following ‘Leeds United’ is spent on superfluous bluster that couldn’t be further from the displaying of basic honour and valour on the field.

At such times it is easy to think that Leeds United is not a place for heroes and players we can be proud of in the true, honest and undiluted sporting sense. But I don’t believe that is true. It certainly has been in the recent past, but not now. These players just need to take a risk, be brave and, well, ‘change’. Something or someone has to change.

Lewis Cook has the mentality to take players on, make things happen and worry the opposition. Charlie Taylor’s goal against MK Dons demonstrated his laudable drive and purpose. Alex Mowatt has splendour and grace in his left foot and the ability to create something out of nothing. Chris Wood’s goal at Derby County showed he can be clinical and remorseless in an instant. Jordan Botaka, in a bewitching 20-minute cameo during the 2-0 defeat to Birmingham, showed that the Elland Road stage will not engulf him and he has the backbone and intrepidity to truly turn it on and show his absolute capabilities; his capricious sorcery may have bamboozled his teammates as much as it did the Birmingham left back, but he embraced the stage and that bodes well.

So who will do it for Leeds United when it really matters? Now. Who will stand up and provide that one moment? Preferably in the first bloody half, pretty please? The players need to ask themselves if they can be heroes. Brighton come to Elland Road on Saturday as the only undefeated club remaining in the Football League. But as a football club that frequents itself with absurdity on first name terms, you wouldn’t put it past Leeds United to laugh in the face of that and deliver a first home win in ten games for their long-suffering supporters, quite simply because something or someone has to change.

Change could come in the formation, with players such as Mirco Antenucci and Botaka demanding to play from the start, but requiring a formation that allows them to impose themselves immediately on the opposition and for 90 minutes, rather than the tantalising vignettes that have appeared of late when the horse has already bolted. Change could come in the players’ mentality and the need to attack with intent and aspiration, while battling to defend with honour and a sense of fulfilment. Change could also come in the atmosphere of the crowd, with an unwanted winless home record in the balance and a fan base on the edge – yet again – of exasperation, the Elland Road crowd have the ability to propel the players forward or eat them whole. In recent weeks a dispassionate and disbelieving crowd, stunned into silence, have largely done neither.

The international break saw Uwe Rösler and his Leeds United squad sent away to Thorp Arch without any tea like a scolded child; given time to ‘think about what you’ve done’. Leeds fans were annoyed. The owner was annoyed and no doubt the players were annoyed. A cooling off period for everyone offers some breathing space and a fresh perspective of compassion, pragmatism and patience that wasn’t there in the heat of the vexatious moment. Still, we expect the ‘thinking’ time to have been used productively, and simply doing the homework that we were arguing about in the first place isn’t enough. We need to see evidence that something has changed, for the better and for the longer term good, and we will be asking questions on Saturday to this effect.

Time is a wonderful and precious commodity, if you use it well. Other than the changes suggested above, has this two weeks been used to form a bond between the players; a togetherness that can take you further than you realised you could go, and forms a whole from a miscellany of parts? Has the squad been dumped in a forest in the Dales National Park and instructed to get back without phones, food and those huge headphones footballers all insist on wearing? Have they gone fishing together in the Lakes? Have they even just gone out on an almighty bender and ended up in Pryzm on student night dancing in a 22-strong circle to the Grease medley? On such critical nuances a season and career can balance.

Fundamentally we need to see a reshaping of the approach. It is no good losing again to Brighton at home and then putting up an improved showing away at Fulham next Wednesday. We will learn very little from that that we don’t already know. Leeds are somehow released from their shackles away from Elland Road, liberated from the seemingly ‘heavy’ expectations that don’t even demand promotion but merely the humble execution of ‘improvement’. Such improvement right now would simply be to get the basics right and fulfil what most fans can’t compute that we cannot achieve; a win at Elland Road and the establishment of our home as our home; a place of comfort, warmth and unity.

We are not asking for promotion, three trophies, or even one trophy. It might just be a scuffed shot after a weaving run that trickles under the keeper. It might be a well-timed dash into the box from deep and a diving header from someone who finally bothered to try it. It might be a block-tackle of that nippy midfielder that has been running us ragged, followed by a precise pass to set up the winner. But we need something to believe in, someone to cling to, someone we can rely on, someone to take on the responsibility and deliver a moment to cherish and to motivate us next week and the week after, and the week after that. We need someone we can be proud of. We need heroes.

Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.