Leeds United 3-1 West Brom - billionaire heir pitch invasion, Marcelo Bielsa's welcome and off-camera moments
Leeds United ended the season with a 3-1 win over West Brom on a special day at Elland Road.
Around 8,000 Whites returned to the stadium for the first time since March 2020 for a game attended by faces both familiar and new.
Another goal made it four in the last four games of the season, to add to his assist at Southampton. A fine finish to a frustrating campaign, but came good at the right time for the Euros and to convince Leeds fans he can be the player they expected when the club spent £27m. It isn't just his finishing and movement that has impressed but his sharpness, willingness to run and desire to defend. Pressing isn't his strength but against West Brom he forced errors and won the ball back.
Southampton fans made a good amount of noise on Tuesday night but this was something else. Elland Road was more cauldron-like than you would expect, given there was only 8,000 in attendance. The ovation the team received when they ran out to warm-up, the reception for Pablo Hernandez and Gaetano Berardi and the celebrations for the goals were moments when the hairs on the back of the neck stood up. It felt like football, finally, after months of empty stadia. It was a tonic just to see people in white shirts and scarves making the walk from The Peacock across the road.
West Brom never really looked to be in with a chance. When they conceded from a corner, which was so poorly defended, the writing was on the wall. The difference in the current fortunes and the feeling around these two clubs could not be more stark. When they emerged for the second half they had the body language of a defeated team.
His performance, for 89 minutes or so, was excellent. But having miscontrolled the ball and allowed West Brom to score, he then launched into an unnecessary tackle and injured himself in the process. It will be an anxious wait for everyone with Leeds at heart, and Gareth Southgate, as the extent of the shoulder problem is explored. A terrible way to end such an impressive season, but Phillips is a player who always bounces back quickly from injuries. Some players need weeks in the 23s, he's usually straight back in the team after a knock. That will hopefully stand in his favour with the Euros looming.
NUMBER OF THE DAY
Leeds United were not only the best of the three newly promoted sides, they bested nine other more established top-flight clubs. Finishing ninth, three points off a European place, was a magnificent achievement that few will have predicted with any certainty. Even Marcelo Bielsa said he was satisfied with the season, which shows just how good it was.
It was a day full of emotion and a significant one in the history of the club. Leeds this week announced changes to the structure of the board and there were some big hitters in town to catch the final game of the season.
Before fans began filing into their seats, some of the board members and key figures in the ownership made their entrance. Peter Lowy, billionaire heir and member of a hugely successful business family, wandered out onto the Elland Road pitch to take it all in and brush his hand over the hallowed turf, drawing the attention of Martin Sykes, a member of the club's security staff. Sykes was purposefully striding across the pitch in Lowy's direction when the Australian wandered off again, avoiding a brush with Elland Road royalty.
Lifelong supporter Lowy, appointed to the board this week, posed for photos with Leeds CEO Angus Kinnear, 49ers CEO Jed York and Whites vice chairman Paraag Marathe before they headed inside.
When the players emerged to have a look at the pitch a smattering of fans were already in their seats to give them a reception. Stuart Dallas was late to emerge and got one of his own, not only from the supporters, but Kalvin Phillips.
Jermaine Beckford got in on the act with a well-timed stroll across the front of the Don Revie stand to participate in a live broadcast, his personal song getting its first public airing in a while. Beckford was joined on the broadcast by the likes of boxer Josh Warrington and singer Ellie Goulding.
The warmest welcome was reserved for Bielsa, of course. He was serenaded by fans in all four stands as he made his way along the West Stand to fulfil his pre-game media obligations. His response was a polite, but delighted, wave. The Argentine could scarcely keep the grin from his face.
By the time the players ran out for their warm-up the atmosphere was already building and the noise truly impressive. Fans in the Don Revie stand ran through their repertoire of songs for their heroes, refamiliarising themselves with a squad they haven't seen in the flesh for 14 months. As they belted out the classics, the Leeds players formed a huddle. Ordinarily fitness coach Benoit Delaval or the captain Liam Cooper will have a few words to say but it was Hernandez and Berardi who delivered the necessary inspiration.
It was all very new to Rodrigo, the £27m man who had not yet played in front of Leeds fans, and Luke Ayling took time to put an arm around the Spaniard and fill him in on the finer points of an Elland Road that was beginning to rock.
When the rest of the players ran in to make their final preparations, Hernandez and Berardi were summoned to the touchline for a special presentation made by majority owner Andrea Radrizzani and sporting director Victor Orta. And then it was game time.
Ayling's face, just before kick-off as Marching on Together belted out around the stadium, was a picture. He helped himself to a good look around, breathing in the sights and sounds he has been denied since his stunning goal against Huddersfield in March 2020, with a huge grin on his face.
That grin was replaced with a scowl in the first half when he went on a trademark bombing raid down the right and fed Raphinha, only for the Brazilian to stop and take the speed out of the move. The pair were not on the same page for a moment and the defender let his winger know all about it with a withering look.
It was soon all smiles again with Leeds taking full control, going into the break ahead by two goals. The third arrived in the second half, but not before Raphinha tried his best to become the penalty taker, engaging in some debate with Patrick Bamford. There was shades of security supremo Sykes in captain Liam Cooper's dash towards the scene of the discussion, but Raphinha relented before the centre-half arrived and it was Bamford who found the net.
Sadly by that stage Pablo Hernandez was off the pitch, otherwise he might have got the goal he so wanted on the occasion of his Leeds farewell. The embrace both he and Berardi enjoyed with Bielsa was a lovely moment and the emotion got the better of the Spaniard as he sat in the stand and listened to his name being sung to the rafters.
At full-time the players took a well-earned lap of honour and then cracked open the beers in the dressing room. Berardi emerged again, his young family in tow, to soak it all in and savour the moment. It was his day. It was Hernandez' day. Most importantly for both men, it was Leeds' day and a special one to boot.