Daniel Chapman: Leeds United have a grudge and they're hellbent on payback
You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry, they say. Then they point at Pat Bamford. And if you’re a Leeds fan, you ask if they’re kidding. Like him angry? We absolutely love him.
Bamford said in the summer that he wanted to be stronger and meaner, that he wasn’t going to be pushed around anymore, that he was going to wait until he was actually punched before hitting the deck. Maybe not that last one. Then he went 10 games without scoring, and Mr Nice Guy seemed to have packed up and taken the goals with him.
November got Bamford in the mood, the bad mood, the mood with the goals. The referee had to hold him back from Elliott Bennett at the end of the Blackburn game; he spent part of the Middlesbrough match slyly fake-sobbing at Daniel Ayala’s feet, pushing buttons he uncovered in training on Teesside.
Ayala made sure he had words back, but that was after full-time, and that was typical of Middlesbrough on the day: doing nothing on the pitch until it no longer mattered.
Winning on Saturday mattered to Bamford, whose first touch was booed by the Boro fans; his second touch was saved by Aynsley Pears, and his third went in the net.
Pep Guardiola’s Jackie Harrison was fighting off flashbacks to the Tony Pulis culture shock he experienced on loan at the Riverside, while Adam Forshaw and Victor Orta watched on, willing Leeds to prove their point.
It was harder to find a player in the Leeds team who didn’t have something to prove, whether to Middlesbrough FC in particular or to the world in general. One of the underrated factors in the Peacocks’ ascent with Marcelo Bielsa is the age of the players.
They’re old enough to have the maturity Bielsa’s methods require, the grudges that come from a long career in football, and the desperation to win something before that career is over.
There’s a smattering of Premier-League experience at Leeds, but Kiko Casilla apart, hardly a medal between them. Bielsa has given players like Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling and Mateusz Klich their last, best chance of achieving something worth looking back on one day. No wonder they’re so willing to follow him to extremes. They’ve got nothing to lose, and want something to show.
It’s a method Howard Wilkinson relied on to save Leeds from eight years in Division Two.
The team that won promotion was, by and large, old. Of the 13 who won at Bournemouth, only Gary Speed and David Batty were under 25, and Batty had lost his place in the run-in to 32-year-old Chris Kamara.
That was a typical Wilko move: Kamara joined in January, an experienced and professional life-long Leeds fan who could be relied upon to give everything for the team. Bielsa would have loved him, and although he only played a handful of games, Leeds fans still do.
Wilkinson signed seven players from top-flight clubs for that campaign, knowing they’d be motivated to get back there. It was a bandwagon rolling on bitterness.
Gordon Strachan discarded by Alex Ferguson, Vinnie Jones written off by the purists, Wilkinson – like Bielsa – denied titles by unsupportive boardrooms; it’s fair to say they all made their point.
Leeds United’s current squad should be in the Premier League now. Failure last season has sharpened promotion from a general aim to an existential need. Everyone knows the implications if Leeds don’t go up this season; everyone remembers how they felt in May; every player knows they won’t have a manager like this again.
If you’re Liam Cooper, dropped down the divisions by Hull City as a youngster, working back up only to run into Dave Hockaday, Darko Milanic and Steve Evans, you’re going to give everything you can for the only world-class manager you’re likely to play for, take the best chance of Premier League football you’re ever going to get, and fight to erase the memory of last season’s play-offs.
The Leeds players stayed on the pitch for a long time after the last whistle in May. There were scuffles with the Derby players, and tears from Kalvin Phillips.
That’s the night this weekend’s 4-0 win over Middlesbrough was made. Leeds have a grudge, not with a specific opponent, but with an entire division, that has been growing among the fans for 10 long years. This season the players feel it too. All aboard for payback.
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.