Daniel Chapman: How the ghosts of Leeds United's decade descended on Birmingham City

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, 31st December 2019, 6:00 am
Leeds United celebrate at full-time following Birmingham City victory. (Bruce Rollinson)

The 2010s have been a difficult decade for Leeds United but we’re almost, almost there. So naturally, with a fresh era in sight, the players have, at the last moment, lost their senses.

The ghosts of 10 years flashed like strobes around St Andrew’s on Sunday: Marius Zaliukas, flash, Paul Rachubka, flash, Steve Evans, eclipse. As Birmingham City were making the score 4-4 in the 91st minute, you could hear Nikola Zigic cackling.

The Peacocks have plunged to unprecedented third-tier depths in the modern era, so it’s fitting they should tick off an unprecedented 5-4 win in their centenary season, a score that couldn’t be found in the record books, until now.

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We’ve lost 5-4, famously to Liverpool in 1991, when Lee Chapman inspired a fightback from 4-0 down at half-time, and all the high-scoring matches I’ve known have been like that: glorious fightbacks, 4-3 against Derby and Southampton, or crushing defeats, like the 6-2 to Sheffield Wednesday in 1995, 6-4 to Preston, 7-3 to Nottingham Forest.

I’ve never known us trading goals back and forth like at St Andrew’s, let alone doing it and winning. Even with the three points, I’m not sure I like it, and even if I do, I’m not sure I can take it.

I wondered, while watching, if this was what ‘soccer’ was always like in Leeds United’s early years, when the 1920s threw up sequences like a 4-1 win, then 3-1, then a 4-4 draw at Leicester City before a 3-2 win over Manchester United, all followed by a 6-1 defeat at Huddersfield Town.

That was a hell of a start to 1928/29, and the rest of the season included two 4-3s, a 1-5 and a 2-8. A shout-out too to the relegated team of 1930/31, whose only wins among a run of nine defeats and a draw were a 7-3 and a 7-0.

These were the years following the relaxing of the offside law in 1925, when Leeds went from finishing 18th in Division One under the old rules, their top scorer getting 11, to 19th in Division One under the new rules, their top scorer, the great Tom Jennings, getting 26. The Football League hasn’t changed any significant rules lately, but Leeds United have.

Two goals in the last 10 minutes and two more in stoppage time might be unusual for anyone else but, since the Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers game last Christmas established the new high crazymark, we’ve all shrugged and said, ‘Guess that’s why they call him El Loco’. It gets forgotten because it’s painful to remember, but that second leg against Derby County ended 2-4. It was madness. That’s normal.

Bielsa aims for beauty in football and often hits it, but you can’t keep punching a Picasso without damaging the canvas. He defends his way of playing because it’s a brittle, fragile thing; it needs that plexiglass case, the velvet rope and security guards given to precious artworks.

The guard on Sunday was Gaetano Berardi, brought on to ensure the 4-3 win, but his contribution summed up the extent of the infection of Bielsa’s style. He won the tackle deep in Birmingham’s half that meant Luke Ayling, the right-back who already had a goal and an assist (from the left) to his name, could get into the penalty area and cross for the 95th-minute winner.

Nobody was where they should have been, but if they were, Leeds wouldn’t score the winner. Or maybe the winner would have been a regulation shot in the 60th minute of a 1-0 win.

Leeds end the decade on top of the league – like always – but that trivia is a tiny fraction of the Peacocks’ story. Last season Leeds showed what they thought of teams top at Christmas always going up; there’s no evidence that they’re about to start conforming now.

Leeds don’t do comfort, or cushions, or soft furnishing of any kind. If you got a Lucas the Kop Cat pillow for Christmas, you’ll be resting your head on a lump of leopard print concrete. Luke Ayling’s hair always looks lush, but there’s nowhere near enough of it to weave the soothing hammock I’m delirious to have for myself, let alone the rest of you.

There’s a claim that the Birmingham game could be a wake-up call, a reminder that Leeds can’t expect to win promotion by playing like this. But it won’t be.

The alarm is not a siren for change: it’s like an air raid warning, a call for constant alertness, to keep scanning the skies for another stoppage-time winner. In the 2020s, like always, Leeds will demand attention.

That’s the wake-up call.