An imperfect but very Leeds United ending - Graham Smyth's verdict on 3-1 Elland Road win over West Brom
It would not have been a Leeds United ending had it been perfect, but it was more than enough.
Football does not often permit perfection, certainly not when this club is concerned, so there was no goodbye goal for Pablo Hernandez in the 3-1 win over West Brom and the stadium was not full for his and Gaetano Berardi’s swan song.
But, after 442 days of enforced severance between Leeds and their fans, and dozens of games played in empty stadiums devoid of noise and soul, there was finally feeling at Elland Road.
The emotions were mixed, but they ran so high from start to finish that the goosebumps never really subsided and tears, enough to fill Marcelo Bielsa’s bucket many times over, spilled onto thousands of cheeks.
Around 8,000 Whites made their long-awaited return and filled the old stadium with a noise that belied their number.
It was the warmest of welcomes for the departing Hernandez and Berardi, before the saddest of goodbyes.
It was love at first sight for new boys Raphinha and Rodrigo, the latter getting on the scoresheet from the former’s corner to introduce himself, his proper self, to a family he has belonged to for a full season without meeting the other members.
For Bielsa and the rest of the squad, absence had made the heart grow fonder and the lucky few with tickets took every opportunity to make their heroes aware, singing their way through the briefest of reunions before the season came to an end.
The result mattered for all concerned but how it happened didn’t. The details weren’t important so long as Hernandez and Berardi went out on a high and a team that has defied all expectations ended their return to the Premier League in a fitting matter.
On the back of three straight wins, with confidence sky high and in front of a portion of their beloved fanbase once again, Leeds were always going to prove too much for a relegated and visibly deflated West Brom. They still had to go out and win the game, however and, as it happens, there was a lot to like about the way it all panned out, even if there was a fly in the ointment late on, in the shape of an injured Kalvin Phillips.
It could have all been quite different had the VAR roulette thrown up an alternative outcome for the connection Liam Cooper made on Darnell Furlong with a flailing arm inside 20 seconds.
A yellow card was his punishment but, with Kyle Bartley heading wide from the free-kick, there was mercifully no double jeopardy.
The atmosphere and the sudden introduction of atmosphere to the sport may have played a part in a rocky start for Leeds but they soon acclimatised and took control.
Jack Harrison had already seen a goal chalked off for offside when Leeds took the lead, Rodrigo beating Harrison to the back-post header Raphinha’s corner deserved.
It was just reward for the hosts’ early intent, Hernandez pulling the strings and Rodrigo looking like a fully in-focus version of the player we saw only a blurry, not-yet-fit imitation of for most of the season.
Berardi was winning tackles, Cooper was winning headers and there was little surprise when a second goal arrived, even if its arrival held an element of fortune.
Hernandez’ won a free-kick with a darting run, Phillips curled it goalwards and the bounce made a fool of Sam Johnstone.
Barring the goals there was little else to shout about in the first half, not that it deterred the Elland Road crowd from giving voice to months of pent-up adoration and excitement, but the second half was memorable. It wasn’t so much the football that made it a special 45 minutes although, at times, Leeds played some eye-catching stuff and passed their way with speed and with ease around the outgoing Sam Allardyce’s beleaguered Championship-bound side, but the people involved.
Hernandez tried his very best to write his name on the scoresheet and give his storied stint at Elland Road the fairytale ending everyone was wishing for but Johnstone was equally determined to amend for his earlier mistake.
The ’keeper denied the Spanish wizard twice, first from a lovely shot on the swivel after a flowing counter attack, then from an effort fired towards the roof of the net.
By the time a third attempt was deflected wide, Tyler Roberts and Pascal Struijk were stripped off on the touchline and Bielsa intervened to turn on the waterworks.
Berardi went first, 8,000 rising to their feet to acclaim a man they see as a warrior, one Cooper claims would have to be killed to be stopped. He didn’t have to bleed in this game, but he would have had the need arisen, and so his ovation was loud and his embrace with Bielsa long.
Then it was time for Hernandez to complete the long walk to the touchline. The job, when he first signed for a Leeds United who had finished 13th in the Championship the season before, was to drag them back to the top table of English football. As he sat down in the the John Charles Stand and became overwhelmed with emotion as his name rang out around the stadium,
Leeds sat ninth in the Premier League and his job was done.
He was still crying and they were still singing his name when Okay Yokuslu handled a Harrison cross, allowing Patrick Bamford to win a debate with Raphinha over who would take it and subsequently make it 3-0 from the spot.
Leeds strolled to victory but there was to be no jogging, Bielsa and his staff imploring their players to work to the final whistle.
Yet in the very final minutes the imperfection came to the fore, Phillips miscontrolling a pass and allowing Hal Robson-Kanu to blot the home side’s copybook and worse was to come.
Doubtless wanting to end the game on a much stronger footing, Phillips went in too strongly on Grady Diangana and hurt himself in the process, cradling his shoulder as he was helped from the field in worrying scenes for England boss Gareth Southgate.
Phillips was unable to join his team-mates for a lap of honour that was the very least the newly promoted side deserved.
Looking back at their Premier League season, Bielsa admitted there were points they could and should have earned. But he declared himself satisfied, with a top-half finish and the most points amassed by a promoted side since Ipswich Town in 2000/01.
Leeds in 2020/21 weren’t perfect but they were more than enough.