How emotions in Leeds United's football are stirred by numbers - Daniel Chapman

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.

Tuesday, 18th February 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 18th February 2020, 10:27 am

Somewhere, in an alternate reality, an alternate Leeds United are storming clear at the top of an alternate Championship, and the alternate fans aren’t being put through weeks like these, the mood swinging from defeatist and anxious to victorious but also still very anxious.

One form of that alternate reality is an old story you’re familiar with by now: the league table on the Experimental361 website, calculated using expected goals rather than real ones, that has Leeds top with 81 points, 15 ahead of Brentford. Last season Leeds finished the season with 83.

That’s just numbers, though, and, in football, numbers exist to stir emotions, specifically nostalgia.

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

There’s a reason Elland Road’s telephone numbers end in ‘1919’ or ‘1992’; there aren’t words to articulate what happens when a white cloth shirt has a No 4 sewn on the back.

All the expected goal average and shot counts and possession stats feed into one calculation at the end of 90 minutes, and then the numbers tell us if we’re going to remember feeling bad or remember feeling good.

Against Bristol City on Saturday, Leeds put up big numbers for a small final count, and it’s true that, when the whistle blew, they could only get three points anyway.

Just as the real league table doesn’t care about expectations, it doesn’t care about the manner or margin of your victory, either. There are no extra points on offer for finesse.

Leeds United's players at Elland Road ahead of kick-off against Bristol City. (Image: Bruce Rollinson)

But there are extra memories, and that’s where Leeds United keep falling short of what they deserve.

Nostalgia doesn’t wait and, even in February with 13 games until our fate, we can be wondering about how we’ll remember all this.

When Leeds United are adding new phone lines one day, will they be using ‘2020’ to honour this team? What will be our defining memory? If Leeds had taken their chances against Bristol the game would have become unforgettable.

Helder Costa had Leeds’ first chance after 82 seconds, and that set the tone for an afternoon of attacking so relentless that, when City did venture into United’s penalty area, it was like watching someone turning up for a job interview in fancy dress.

As a performance, you could put this alongside the 4-1 demolition of Aston Villa that helped define the title season in 1991/92, a game that still gets rewatched today; Leeds were that good.

As a result, though, we can only take the three points and move on, puffing out our cheeks with relief that Bristol didn’t get a goal and ruin everything. A lot of fans talk about frustration with United’s finishing this season, but that’s not quite the word, as long as they win. As the season goes on it feels more like a shame.

Once, just once this season, I’d like Leeds United to get what they deserve. Promotion, obviously, that the ol’ xG table says should be all but settled by now. But also for a game like this to end with a scoreline that reflects it.

For three points to be delivered to us by – now, let’s not get greedy here – 10 goals to nil. And for those goals to be beauties, crisp cut-backs, confident strikes, billowing nets.

A game when the nostalgia kicks in so early, you know by half-time that you’ll never forget what you’re watching. Football’s ultimate euphoria.

It doesn’t feel like the Peacocks are going to do it that way.

Luke Ayling’s winner was the ultimate Bielsa-Leeds goal: a frantic scramble that seems to last for hours until the right-back forces the ball in.

The other chances – Stuart Dallas and Jackie Harrison hitting the bar, Daniel Bentley stopping certain goals by Patrick Bamford and Helder Costa, Jean-Kévin Augustin shooting just wide – all belong to the alternate, perfect Leeds United, out there somewhere in an alternate, perfect reality.

If that’s where perfection is going to stay this season, so be it. We need promotion more than perfection and, despite everything over the last few weeks, we still just might get it. And then we’ll have memories of something peculiar to this team: its character, its human fallibility, its relentless tireless effort in pursuit of something that, for 15 years, has felt impossible.

You can’t put anxiety on a DVD, so we’ll remember this team instead in our hearts and nerves.