Change coming at 'amazing' Elland Road as Leeds United's final week decides futures

Elland Road is a special, spiritual place for Leeds United fans and players alike.

By Graham Smyth
Tuesday, 17th May 2022, 4:40 am

For Isle of Man resident John Cherry, a trip to the famous old LS11 stadium was a bucket list item, one he was due to tick off at the end of the promotion season before the pandemic foiled his plans.

Imagining just how special it would have been for the 57-year-old, who has cerebral palsy with athetoid spasticity, to see Marcelo Bielsa’s side in their pomp, romping home to an historic promotion, is almost painful.

Instead, John had to wait another two long, long years to walk into the home of his beloved Leeds - a club he has supported since the age of five and not, he’s keen to point out, just because he shared a surname with Whites legend Trevor Cherry.

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“I supported Leeds for Leeds,” he told the YEP, having travelled with the Isle of Man Whites, supported by his equally-Leeds-mad friend Diane.

Tension-gripped relegation battle or not, the trip met all John’s expectations, and more.

“It was absolutely brilliant,” he said.

“Everyone [in the disabled section] did everything they could to help me, with anything I needed. When Struijk scored we were all jumping up and down. Seeing what the crowd does for the first time was amazing.”

WHAT NEXT? Kalvin Phillips' Leeds United future remains uncertain until their relegation battle is either won or lost. Pic: Jonathan Gawthorpe

John is determined to get back to Elland Road again in the future, by which time a number of the players he cheered on during Sunday’s game will be gone and the landscape could look so very different.

The poignancy of Raphinha’s post-game sit down on the pitch was lost on no-one. For a player courted so openly by Barcelona, this was very much the long goodbye, whether or not the Championship beckons for Leeds next season.

At least Raphinha will take with him some special memories, both with and without the famous Elland Road roar. The fans weren’t there for his nutmeg on Gary Cahill but they were for his late penalty winner against Crystal Palace this season. And his beautiful equaliser against Everton, his free-kick against Leicester and that gorgeous assist for Joe Gelhardt for the winner against Norwich. It has been a pleasure for both parties – granted not as good as it could have been – and, even for a player with a hint of transience about him, one suspects the fondness he carries forward to Barca, or whichever European giant prises him from Leeds, will equal that with which he’s held at Elland Road.

While his future seems largely settled and certain, others walked around the pitch taking in the applause of the fans without that luxury on Sunday.

SPECIAL PLACE - John Cherry made his first ever visit to Elland Road to support Leeds United on Sunday and it more than met his expectations.

Kalvin Phillips was the most obvious example, as a player whose career prospects, age and England involvement will surely make a summer exit necessary should Leeds fall out of the Premier League. He appeared emotional after the game and welcomed his extended family onto the pitch for photos, each and every one of them hoping, praying and willing for the right end to the season so their star boy can stay where he belongs, where he wants to belong. A new contract awaits in the summer but it’s almost impossible to see his signature on it unless Leeds finish above the dreaded dotted line next weekend. If they don't, it's really not very difficult to picture him in a Manchester City shirt as they set about replacing Fernandinho.

Relegation would likely see a number of the current crop off. Rodrigo hasn’t so much experienced Leeds as he has suffered it, with struggles for form, fitness and confidence in each of his two seasons. The flashes of his brilliance have been too few and far between and not enough to allow any argument that the £27m outlay was good business.

Would fellow internationals Robin Koch and Diego Llorente stay put for a crack at the second tier, or would Leeds consider Liam Cooper, Pascal Struijk, Charlie Cresswell and Leo Hjelde sufficient at centre-half? Cresswell is a serious prospect and, as such, needs serious game time whether that’s on loan or at Leeds but, if it’s to be the latter, then someone, you suspect, must make way.

And what of Jesse Marsch? Clearly bitten by the Elland Road bug, as evidenced by his eagerness to get involved with the crowd even after defeats, was he wounded by their chants for Bielsa on Sunday? Would a relegation this weekend, with him at the helm, damage him and Andrea Radrizzani’s decision to appoint him too heavily?

On one hand, Marsch did not help build this squad and he walked into a nightmare of a job, risking a comfortable summer succession by accepting the position and hectic fire-fighting duties early. Squeezing players into roles and a system that has never looked ideal, all the while battling injuries, has proved costly. On the other hand, patience for his positivity has worn dangerously thin with sections of the fanbase, with a few off-field missteps in interviews contributing, along with a struggle to elicit good football and convincing performances from an admittedly confidence-bereft squad.

He was adamant, not long after his arrival, that he was all-in with Leeds no matter the outcome of this season. Staying up should keep him in place and perhaps even the despair of relegation will not kill that enthusiasm. It will necessitate a miraculous resurrection in the eyes of some supporters, however.

Then there’s the board, at whom difficult questions will follow the volley of Elland Road anger on Sunday. Who has the stomach for not only criticism, but another Championship scrap?

It’s always tooth and nail in the second tier, parachute payments or not, and it won’t take another full season for anti-regime sentiment to burst forth from fans if results, performances and the entertainment is not up to scratch.

This summer, at least on the squad front, will bring change. How sweeping it is and how much it spills over into other areas of the club depends entirely on the next week. Whoever is not here the next time John makes his pilgrimage will miss Elland Road. It cannot fail to leave its mark, not when there are moments like the one that made a 57-year-old’s first-ever visit so unforgettable and left him dreaming of the next one. Elland Road might miss them, too, depending on how big a mark they have made. But no single departure will ever make it a less special place to be.