On the gable end of Elland Road’s East Stand were projected a series of protest images which left nothing to the imagination. And there was nothing anybody could do but watch them, again and again on an endless loop, re-enforcing the stark message that had been hidden beneath layers of apathy for a long time.
Finally Leeds fans had been shaken out of a stupor of disinterest, just as they had in the Blackburn game on October 29th, a game they approached already in a spikey mood. At that time Leeds had gone a record 11 games without winning at home, a run that stretched to nearly eight months, and the game had also been controversially moved to a Thursday night to accommodate Sky Sports coverage. The parallels with the visit of Middlesbrough were uncanny, although the second-placed Teessiders did not offer such a presentable opportunity to glean three points as Blackburn did.
Leeds going 2-0 down sparked breaking point on that particular night, whereas the latest breach of the dam was an interview Massimo Cellino gave to an Italian journalist, effectively admitting that his ‘Pie Tax’ sanction was his swipe back at the vocal hordes in the South Stand who led the chanting against him versus Blackburn. Cellino tried to dismiss his words as “just a joke”, but the Pie Tax remains, and only in the South Stand.
The pressure is mounting on Cellino, regardless of anyone’s thoughts on the nature of the protest. A few projected images on the stand certainly send a message, and while he will doubtless retort with some form of action, maybe not tomorrow, but sometime soon, mark my words, he can’t do anything about the bubbling discontent; pestering and duress that is growing ever more nagging and persistent by the week. A justifiable argument against visible and audible protests during games has been their effect on the players and their performance. Notwithstanding the fact that many of the players may well be tempted to join in, it added to the artistry and dynamic audacity of Monday night’s protest that it was done peacefully, legally and outside the ground. No doubt word got back to the players that something was going on, but if it affected their performance then it was a galvanising and positive one; as many suspected it might be.
Leeds were straight out of the traps and only lost control of the game for short periods. Granted, in those periods Aitor Karanka’s men could and should have scored the decisive goal, but a defeat would have been cruel on a Leeds side who scrapped manfully, played with tempo, and for once, finished the game on the front foot, building to a crescendo that sadly never came, but for once suggested it might.
Leaving home games in recent weeks we have struggled to name a player who has played well. On Monday night it was equally challenging to name a player who didn’t (Mirco Antenucci in case you were wondering). Steve Evans somehow manages to raise Leeds’ game against the better teams, and the tenacity, spirit and effort which did for Hull City and almost did for Derby County, was again in evidence against a Middlesbrough side who failed to gel in the face of an impassioned Leeds performance.
Two saves from Greek goalkeeper Dimi Konstantopoulos to deny Souleymane Doukara, the first of which he clawed away off the line from a seemingly impossible angle, provided as much goalmouth action in half an hour as Leeds fans have seen since Christmas. They were rueful misses, but credit at last to a Leeds striker for getting a header on a cross and for breaking into the box at speed to latch onto a through ball, as Doukara did with his late effort which rattled off the goalkeeper’s legs.
In truth Middlesbrough had chances that were equally well groomed. Rhodes, so often the scourge of Leeds, missed twice, the second a near post header from Albert Adomah’s cross, the type of opportunity on the break that Leeds have conceded so often; the sucker punch after they have controlled possession for large periods.
You can’t ignore the fact that Leeds remain predictable in the most part, painfully pedestrian and ponderous at times, but the competitiveness on display to largely nullify a dangerous Middlesbrough side, particularly the central axis of Guiseppe Bellusci, Toumani Diagouraga and Liam Bridcutt, was heart-warming, and reminiscent of the type of Leeds team that their fans desperately want to see again. In essence, the very least they expect. What is lacking is flair, pace and a genuine match winner, and it is unlikely one will be found before Saturday’s Fifth Round FA Cup tie at Watford.
Despite a fairly entertaining goalless draw, a point which was well earned and on reflection, probably fair for both sides, the major talking point was the fans’ protest. Prior to the game, Massimo Cellino took to the pages of the match day programme to explain his standpoint on his battle with Sky Sports and the Football League with regard to the constant disruption to Leeds United fixtures. Cellino namechecked the plight of the many overseas fans who had pinpointed the Middlesbrough fixture well in advance, but had been left severely short changed by the change of date, the first time the Club had acknowledged the helpless vexation such barefaced interference causes the innocent fan.
Such compassion would be well received had it not come on the same day the Bolton fixture on March 5th was announced as yet another Category A-priced fixture; the tenth already this season, against a total of six in the whole of last season. Add this to the ‘Pie Tax’ debacle and it is not hard to see how Cellino’s empathy towards the lifeblood of the Club is viewed as somewhat hollow.
It further came to light after the final whistle had sounded, that Leeds were offered a compromise with the fixture re-scheduling and could have agreed to the Middlesbrough game being moved to Saturday lunchtime; a kick-Cff time that many of the overseas visitors could have accommodated, assuming their hangover from Friday night excesses allowed them to. Why Leeds didn’t agree to this can only be answered by Cellino, and if he had the fans behind him 100% before – on this particular argument at least – he has surely lost many now. This would appear to be Cellino’s battle and his alone, and as ever, not one he appears to be able to fight with any coherent strategy.
“These fans feel the effect both financially and emotionally,” Cellino wrote in the Middlesbrough programme “but it is difficult for their voices to be heard.” Monday night saw a very clear projection of what Leeds fans are saying, and their words were heard and seen by many. They were words and pictures speaking directly to Massimo Cellino.
Following the last protest versus Blackburn, Cellino made his famous and swiftly re-considered concession to sell the Club to Leeds Fans United. It remains to be seen what action he takes after this latest most madcap and daredevil of stunts. You can only imagine how his mind is ticking over right now, and what equally abstract response he is about to conjure up, because these were pictures that you didn’t need to decipher. These were pictures that very much cut to the heart of the matter and left the door open for a response. These were pictures of you Massimo. So what happens now?