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Searching for the Real Thing

27 October 2015
Searching for the Real Thing
There was a moment at Bolton Wanderers’ Macron Stadium on Saturday, during the resulting 1-1 draw, when Leeds United fans had smiles on their faces and chanted their team’s name with wild abandon and deep-rooted passion; and everyone within earshot looked on with a mixture of curiosity and beaming pride. This was at half-time in the concourse under the stand.

Out on the pitch Leeds trailed 1-0 to bottom of the table Bolton at that point, the goal scored by debutant striker Shola Ameobi, his first goal in 539 days of football, a period in which Leeds United have employed five different head coaches. Those statistics go some way to explaining how Leeds fans were somewhat struck dumb by an insipid first half display that failed to test a rock bottom team devoid of confidence. And while having an away end with two separate tiers is never conducive to a raucous atmosphere, the 4,400-strong Leeds United travelling army were surprisingly muted given the circumstances of the past seven days. The ritual half-time release from a Leeds fans’ travails has become de rigueur, a sort of open confessional, a habitual part of the day and like a synthetic methadone treatment; a substitute for the real thing.

The ‘real thing’ is that indefinable quality that brings us back again and again, until we either find that kind of comfort and elation elsewhere in our lives, or the ‘real thing’ doesn’t quite feel real anymore. That time has felt near for much of the past decade, but never more so than now.

Another home defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion on October 17th – the third in succession at Elland Road – was followed by the sacking of head coach Uwe Rösler and the Football League’s announcement that president and owner Massimo Cellino was to face a ban on running the Club due to yet more tax irregularities. Amongst all that some good news, of sorts, when fans’ group Leeds Fans United managed to locate and appeal to Cellino’s compassionate side and reverse his decision to cap away ticket allocations to Leeds United’s fans at 2,000, in protest at continual fixture adjustments by the Football League and Sky Sports.

For many the damage had already been done, however. The 1-1 draw at Fulham in midweek – the first game in charge for incumbent head coach Steve Evans – was laced with frequent chants of ‘Massimo, time to go’ from the vast away end. But in truth, animated spirit of any kind was largely missing from the Leeds fans at Bolton on Saturday, and the watching Cellino was spared another public condemnation of both his regime and his continuing status as the Club’s owner.

That is not to say, of course, that Leeds fans are united in their distrust of Cellino, despite increasing and almost daily evidence of a string of outstanding and costly legal cases against ex-suppliers and ex-employees of many years, and tales of the erratic and tyrannical rod that Cellino rules Elland Road with. It is easy to get wound up by the institutional commotion surrounding Leeds United, but to many fans, they care little for who owns Leeds United, and simply want a team to watch on a Saturday or a Tuesday or even a Thursday, and Cellino’s antics are merely an irritating sideshow to watching football. If only life were that simple, because we would all love some of that.

Others are somewhere in between, and while Leeds United salvaged a largely unprofitable draw from Saturday’s game, via a second half penalty scored by Mirco Antenucci, the 71st-minute equaliser was greeted not with bloodthirsty venom and a frenzied demand to go and win the game, but with a rather muffled resignation. With 19 minutes remaining against ten men – Bolton’s defender Prince Gouano was sent off for the challenge that brought Leeds’ penalty – Leeds failed to truly test the goal of the Championship’s bottom club. There was no anger or incredulity, just a stoical indifference and an acceptance that this is just how life is; because life has been like this for a long time and Leeds fans are conditioned accordingly.
You sense that an undeserved Bolton winner at the other end would have finally picked the scab off Leeds fans’ wounds, but in truth there was also an element of rationality and patience amid the impassivity. An immediate improvement in the 1-1 draw at Fulham was not followed through at Bolton, but Leeds at least dominated possession and looked largely solid at the back; all progress along the right track and but for more quality in the final third Leeds would be on a more severe upwards trajectory.

It is also true that all fans have different breaking points. For many it was the tenure of Ken Bates, which seems a lifetime ago. For some it was the day Cellino stormed into our lives like Erik the Red, sacking Brian McDermott, making unfathomable promises and prompting office staff to flee to the hills. For others it has undoubtedly been the last seven days, and the inevitable unravelling of a productive summer after Adam Pearson pulled the rug from under Leeds United’s collective wellbeing when he resigned his chief executive officer’s post in September. Thanks to Sky Sports’ ill-considered charity, a Thursday night appointment with Blackburn Rovers could be the vehicle through which Leeds United’s currently impoverished welfare under Massimo Cellino is laid bare for the nation to see.

Ticket sales at present are nothing short of a disaster, in the absence of any concerted attempt to attract the half term crowd despite several weeks’ notice that the Sky cameras would almost certainly rob Leeds of a fair chunk of their usual Saturday afternoon crowd. The loss of roughly five thousand fans for a midweek game is standard of course, but the sparsity of the attendance on Thursday evening appears likely to carry with it a potent sub-plot. Rather than an orchestrated boycott as such, many seem to be choosing the Blackburn game as the point at which enough is enough; as if Sky Sports robbing Leeds fans of yet another traditional Saturday afternoon rendez-vous is as much a convenient contributing factor to reaching the final straw as Cellino’s ongoing antics.

It is true that Elland Road in midweek is an echoey and largely joyless place, and with seven and a half months without a home win, it is not hard to see how such a flurry of mitigating factors has combined to see so many Leeds fans voting with their feet. The argument that the attendance will be adversely affected simply by the fact the game is live on TV, is a valid one. But also you look at ticket sales for Cardiff’s visit to Elland Road next Tuesday, and it seems those floating voters are staying away from that one too. It is a difficult habit to get out of, with such a paucity of encouraging coercion to do so.

Certainly this adds up to heap more pressure on Steve Evans to get a result. With his team settling into a more comfortable 4-4-2 formation, and Antenucci enjoying the freedom that faith and successive selection brings, Evans will be looking for Leeds to attack from the first whistle on his Elland Road touchline debut. Evans has spoken vividly of his respect for Leeds United’s heritage in the past week and has called for Elland Road to be “bouncing” on Thursday. His last exposure to Leeds United’s almost destitute abode was with the 31,850 that came to witness his sombrero shenanigans as Rotherham United manager and Neil Redfearn’s anticipated farewell last May. Elland Road will be very different on Thursday night with just over half that in attendance and carrying with them a pre-match perspective very much of the ‘entertain me, if you can’ variety.

Three points at Elland Road against an out-of-sorts Blackburn Rovers has never seemed so attainable and yet so far away. Equally, it has never seemed so crucial. For the future of Leeds United, for the future of Massimo Cellino and for the future of Steve Evans, you fear for the consequences if a twelfth game passes by without maximum reward on home soil; another game where the ‘real thing’ drifts further from the memory. Breaking point may well then be audible and visible.

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