Daniel Chapman - Memories of Alan Smith terrorising Arsenal ease pain of absence of Leeds United

Last week was a long week and this will be, too, because all the time I’m missing Leeds United.

Tuesday, 17th November 2020, 6:00 am
Alan Smith takes control as the Arsenal defence fall back in 1999 (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

There’s an old joke when teams aren’t playing, about how at least they’re not losing.

Leeds didn’t get beat! 4-1! Twice! Not for a while!

That said, we could argue about the Papa John’s Trophy and whether defeat at Blackpool counts as a first-team fixture, or anything at all.

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Pascal Struijk - last defender standing at Thorp Arch this week (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

That discussion might fill 90 minutes but ultimately it’s pointless. Which at least fits the theme.

The Trophy is bravely scheduled for international breaks as if it can convince bored fans that Under-21s against League Two journeymen is the future: a sort of glorified dads ‘n’ lads tournament with free pizza at the end.

It had one benefit, because the only border crossing en route to Blackpool or Barrow is the natural one over the top of the Pennines.

International football has no such saving grace.

Scotland's Andrew Robertson and Liam Cooper celebrate victory in the penalty shoot-out (Picture: PA)

If the Papa John’s feels like a tournament of shrinking horizons, the big games of this so-called ‘break’ have felt like an exercise in pushing football to the brink.

Who can go furthest? Fly to the most distant country, injure the greatest number of players, return the maximum number of positive tests for Covid-19?

There was some excitement for fans of Scotland and North Macedonia, true, by winning their qualifying play-offs for Euro 2020. We’ll gloss over Northern Ireland’s fate.

The reward, though, was only to play again. And again. Then maybe the players can go home. Games give way to dislocation: nobody’s sure what country they’re in, what tournament this is, what the local Covid-19 risk might be.

And dislocation becomes isolation if you breathe the wrong air. Or actual dislocation if you fall awkwardly.

So far only Gjanni Alioski’s swollen hamstring is a problem for Leeds, but to be fair, that could have happened on the pitch or at the post-qualification party.

Or anywhere, knowing him.

Earlier international rounds had the defiant feel of mid-pandemic victories for the old normal. The world might have been ending, but England could still play Iceland, and England players could still rustle up trouble in Reykjavik. It was just like old times.

But all that is being defied by the current round is the vacuum football always assumes is its enemy. The combined lockdown and shutdown might have been an opportunity to review and reset, to adapt with new strategies to a world being redefined by a pandemic when all we thought we had to worry about was climate change.

But no. Back on the aeroplane, everybody, because those few months without a match were terrifying for football authorities who, if they can’t fill stadiums, have to fill broadcasting schedules.

International football’s default mode of ignorant bliss has, if anything, been reinforced, as they can pretend England versus Belgium would have been a scintillating event.

Aston Villa fans are happy enough with some 10-second clips of Jack Grealish to post on Twitter, but nobody else can even rustle up an opinion on sacking Gareth Southgate, because the biggest danger the England hotseat poses is vacancy. If Southgate goes, England might come after your club’s manager. And while he’s there, he’s not managing your club. It’s win-win, except against Belgium.

Club allegiances dominate and there are lessons there for anyone pushing a European Super League. And although they don’t like to say it out loud, everyone is.

The theory is that glamour will attract more casual fans, and it’ll be easier to sell, say, Napoli versus Dortmund into non-European television markets. It’s Napoli! And Dortmund! Don’t you just love that? Maybe you can create glamour, but you can’t create history, and that’s still football’s finest selling point.

Leeds and Arsenal are rivals thanks to more than 50 years of history on the pitch, from Gary Sprake decking Bobby Gould, to the FA Cup final in 1972 and the three replay saga in 1991, to Alan Smith fighting their back four twice a season at the turn of the millennium.

But what of the match itself? After letting in eight goals in two games, Marcelo Bielsa might have liked a few words with his defenders. But Robin Koch is in Germany’s midfield, Liam Cooper is away with Scotland and Diego Llorente is nursing his groin. At least he’s got Pascal Struijk to talk to, but he’s probably getting him ready to play up front.

Two weeks of travel and boredom won’t lessen anyone’s expectations come kick-off time, and if the game isn’t good, Bielsa and Mikel Arteta will tell us why. I’m looking forward to it, anyway, but in a week still full to the brim with fixtures, football feels a long way away.

Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, 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.

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