Leeds United fan anger fuelled by more than tribalism as Gareth Southgate joins Patrick Bamford's long list
If it’s the hope that kills you, Gareth Southgate administered a lethal dose to Patrick Bamford yesterday afternoon.
The England boss was well intentioned when he spoke about Leeds United’s leading goalscorer, in an explanation of his decision to add Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins to his squad for this month’s trio of internationals.
It will surely have come as a bitterly disappointing blow for Bamford, whose 13 goals and top-flight performances for the newly-promoted Whites had put him squarely on Southgate’s radar.
The goals have not flowed as easily in recent weeks – Bamford has just three in his last 13 outings after firing in 10 in the first 15 games of the season – but nor have they for Watkins, who boasts four in Villa’s last 20 games and 10 for the whole campaign.
Bamford has double the assists of the Villain and the pair had both been namechecked as players of real interest the last time Southgate unveiled a squad.
The England manager has been a regular at recent Leeds games and was there again on Saturday when Bamford limped out of the first half against
Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa revealed this week that it was just a knock to the hip, and Bamford should be able to play through the pain against Fulham tonight.
Now, he’ll be playing through two forms of pain.
What is perhaps the real killer for the 27-year-old is that the door has been left ever so slightly ajar by Southgate.
He went further than simply stating Bamford was ‘very unfortunate’ to have missed out, but dangled a carrot of possibility.
“Patrick is very unfortunate and, who knows, we could be sitting here in a few days’ time and we have a problem,” said Southgate.
“Patrick is a player that we’re very much looking at as well.”
The dream isn’t dead, it’s just dormant, tantalisingly out of reach and only circumstance, fate or the misfortune of others will wake it up. The dream has been there since the start of Bamford’s career and when he was progressing through the England age groups, from Under-18s to 19s to 21s, it seemed well on track to reality.
Southgate was actually in charge of the 21s when Bamford scored in a 9-0 win at home to San Marino in November 2013.
He was courted by the Republic of Ireland but, in the midst of a personal and collective transformation under Bielsa and with Premier League football an achievable goal, he resisted those advances and the dream lived on.
Make no mistake, Bamford was always a long shot for an England start before the Euros.
Just like at right-back, Southgate’s options up front are numerous and of the highest quality. Bamford was never going to dislodge a fit Harry Kane from his place leading the England line.
Behind Kane lie Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford, Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling.
And perhaps, as a player who under Bielsa plays solely as a No 9 and lone striker, it was felt that Bamford was a slightly worse fit than Watkins, who has recent experience in an attacking trio.
Southgate’s suggestion that what they liked about Watkins was his speed and runs in behind were fair enough but the mention of pressing, the very thing Bamford does so well for Leeds, was always going to rankle in Yorkshire. He isn’t the quickest striker in the Premier League but his movement and runs off the ball are very good. His pressing is exemplary.
Opting for Watkins over Bamford was never going to be a popular decision in the county Southgate calls home but the anger is fuelled by more than tribalism – as Opta pointed out, Kane is the only Englishman with more non-penalty goals and assists in Europe’s top five leagues this season than Bamford.
‘Overlooked’ was how Opta put it.
Maybe now that the decision is made and the waiting and wondering is, at least for now, at an end, Bamford will be able to focus on what it is he can control. Tonight at Craven Cottage, as long as he passes fit, he’ll have the floor and can provide his response in footballing terms.
He has shown incredible mental strength in the past to haul himself out the other side of goal droughts and remain confident in his own ability despite the volume of criticism he has faced for missing chances.
Making it as a Premier League striker after the previous unsuccessful attempts, proving previous managers and his critics wrong, is testament to his character.
Now he can add Southgate to the list of people to be shown the error of their ways.
If the hope is still there, it has to be fuel. It can’t be fatal.