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The Day the Laughter Stopped

1 November 2015
The Day the Laughter Stopped
The thing about gallows humour is that you’re not really supposed to laugh at it. It is self-deprecation taken to an extreme, and a wry, sardonic assessment at a point where rational discussion has become exhausted. Leeds United fans have practised it for over a decade. Thursday night’s 2-0 home defeat to Blackburn Rovers somehow found darker depths of absurdity, and walking amongst the crowd at half-time and after the game there were pockets of laughter; laughter in incredulity perhaps, but laughter all the same. A release of sorts, but to what end nobody knows.

Leeds fans had approached the evening already at a point where the slightest thing could tip them over the edge. It was Steve Evans’ first home game as head coach, and although Sky Sports’ decision to televise the game and move it to a Thursday night had badly affected the attendance, it was expected that Evans’ bullish approach would at least see some fire in the players’ bellies and perhaps the sparse crowd would finally re-awake in response. It has happened before when the hardy attendees have least expected it.

I have remarked previously that if Leeds don’t score in the first ten minutes of a home game then you can pretty much write off the entire first half. Once an away team has settled into the game they can usually defend our ponderous attacks with ease, and keep our pleasant-looking possession at a comfortable length, before picking the Leeds defence off and taking the lead around the half hour. Against Blackburn, therefore, you expected a fired-up Leeds to set off out of the traps like a coiled python; hurting and primed.

To therefore concede after 17 seconds from the first attack of the game was next level risibility. Craig Conway controlled the ball neatly from Sol Bamba’s mis-directed clearance and drilled it competently past Marco Silvestri, and the black comedy that is Leeds United resembled a sketch from the League of Gentlemen, which ended with its dumbfounded audience failing to find any humour in the depraved situation and concluding that it was simply macabre and perverted.

Blackburn doubled their lead in the sixth minute through Jordan Rhodes and the scenario was beyond anger and far beyond Leeds United. The rest of the game was played out pretty much as you would expect; 80% Leeds possession but virtually no clear-cut chances created from open play. I watched the second 45 minutes unmoved, feet up on an empty seat in front of me. Deep in contemplation, this was as far removed from what the football experience used to be, as it was possible to get. The second half was notable only for the fact that the Elland Road crowd grew steadily more vocal in its exasperation at the general dog’s dinner that Leeds United has become. Condemnation of the current regime on Twitter is one thing; far more powerful and influential you suspect is the exacting of direct action in the real world, within earshot of the owner and president, and on the most public of stages. That happened at Elland Road last night.

It is fair to say that the players alone were at fault for the cheap concessions against Blackburn and the subsequent inability to repair the damage. It is fair also to excuse Steve Evans from the lion’s share of the blame on his first Elland Road outing, and few raised an issue with his team selection prior to kick-off. We are lead to believe, however, that Cellino is central to player recruitment - if not necessarily selection – in every way. And what can be said is that this is a team fashioned in Massimo Cellino’s image. That the team is disorganised, disorientated and lacking backbone, leadership and direction are traits that can be levelled at the entire football club and the president himself. From top to bottom fundamental issues are there for all to see, and if the prevailing question at the end of Thursday night was ‘where do we go from here?’ from Massimo Cellino’s point of view the answer is obvious. The problem is whether he has the desire, humility or strength of will to firstly recognise that and secondly to enact it.

From one day to the next, from one hour and even from one minute to the next, Cellino is impossible to read and predict; and however this plays out, the end game will not be reached without further gruesome detail. Clearly the Football League are now in motion with the next advancement in their crusade to rid English football of Cellino, a battle they have fought with varying degrees of success since his name was first whispered in Leeds nearly two years ago. How this plays out for the day-to-day functioning of Leeds United over the next weeks and months is the key now.

Steve Evans claims he requires five or six new players to complement his squad, and he has conceded that some players are not good enough to play for the club. This is a charge that few fans would have levelled at the squad in August after a hugely productive summer, and I maintain that we have a talented and competent squad, simply devoid of an environment in which to thrive. It’s not quite as simple as new ownership of course, and that won’t be achieved quickly, if indeed it is achieved at all, but once again we find ourselves scouring the market for quick fixes and praying for the transfer window to offer some release from the purgatory. The black and white of Leeds United’s situation on the football pitch is that this simply cannot continue.

How all this morose satire affects the players is plain for all to see. Confidence and buoyancy is absent from the Club at any level, and the suffocating despondency is borne out on the pitch. Home defeats against form teams such as Brighton and Birmingham were almost excusable, and you could see a chink of light in that Leeds would eventually face teams at Elland Road who didn’t travel well and would suffer similar anxieties to those that the Leeds players were patently suffering from. That opportunity arose on Thursday evening, when Blackburn arrived not having won away from home since their 3-0 win in April at Elland Road, of all places. Ninety minutes later that monkey was off their back and added to those wrestling Leeds United to the ground, indeed Blackburn have now won twice at Elland Road in the period of time during which Leeds have failed to win once against anyone; a damning and twisted statistic.

A weekend of suffering awaits Leeds fans now, as we watch other clubs flourishing and doubtless pushing us closer, if not into, the bottom three in the Sky Bet Championship. We have known it for some time but a plague is endemic in Leeds United; successive regimes have somehow contrived to rid the club of any self-respect, honour and dignity and cultivated nothing but in-fighting and division based on empty promises and half-truths. What is left can still be built upon, in the right environment and with the right personnel. The collective will is always there.

As fans, we might laugh again with Leeds United one day; we might enjoy some harmony and kinship and fight battles together on the pitch and from the stands, intrinsically linked in a bond that is almost unique in British football. We might smile and embrace and enjoy days in the sun. But for now there are no smiles, only the frank acknowledgement of an irrevocable separation, and the heavy sigh that tells us the relationship has broken down and we are heading for implosion. Today is the day that proceedings must be started for the greater good. Today is the day the laughter stopped.

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