Leeds United, Liverpool and the moral high ground - a different dynamic for Reds' latest Elland Road visit

Liverpool’s last visit to Elland Road to face Leeds United was not a pleasant one for Jurgen Klopp or his players.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 9th September 2021, 8:14 am
GOOD FIGHT - Leeds United took the good fight to the 'big six' when plans for a European Super League emerged, making their feelings known to Liverpool at an empty Elland Road. Pic: Getty
GOOD FIGHT - Leeds United took the good fight to the 'big six' when plans for a European Super League emerged, making their feelings known to Liverpool at an empty Elland Road. Pic: Getty

Not only were they harangued by supporters of both clubs upon their arrival in LS11, they were left by their owners to fight an uphill PR battle, without a weapon, against a club who came armed to the teeth.

Leeds, incensed by European Super League [ESL] plans that would hoist out of reach a ladder they are attempting to grasp, went to town on the ‘football is for the fans’ theme, with warm-up t-shirts for Marcelo Bielsa’s squad and a banner on the Kop.

‘Earn it on the pitch,’ said the t-shirts, preaching the sanctity of competition to an irritated Klopp and a bemused bunch of players who most likely agreed with every word of criticism being aimed at the self-proclaimed Premier League ‘big six.’

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

Though they didn’t agree enough to accept a box of the same t-shirts, taken into their dressing room by Leeds’ kit man.

Leeds seized the moral high ground and punched downward – not just at Liverpool but at all six of the clubs flirting with the idea of a breakaway European competition and, ultimately, a bigger slice of a pie they’ve already claimed most of.

“A fortnight ago we left the Etihad with an instinct that Manchester City didn’t take well to being humbled by lowly Leeds United, but we could never have predicted that it would be the catalyst for them creating their own league where they would never have to be inconvenienced with the spectre of on-pitch failure again,” wrote Whites CEO Angus Kinnear in his programme notes a few days later as Manchester United followed Liverpool into Elland Road.

Sunday’s visit will be a much different one for Liverpool. This time the fans won’t just be outside the ground when their coach pulls up, there will be no escape once they duck inside.

The fury and protests over the ESL have long since died down, sheepish apologies of varying degrees of sincerity were offered, but Leeds fans might still choose to bring up the subject once or twice during the game.

Leeds, as a club, however, are not perched quite so loftily on the high ground however, not after a summer partnership with Socios that made ‘fan tokens’ a reality. Essentially tokens buy influence, not on key club decisions but more inconsequential matters like the naming of training ground pitches.

The fact that everyone else is doing it – around 48 sporting organisations were on board before Leeds – was not a justification that met with much sympathy in the fanbase and as the replies to each Socios Tweet the club has issued will attest, scepticism among supporters remains high. The initial fan token offering appears to have resulted in around a 60 per cent take-up of the one million tokens earmarked for initial release.

Even ignoring the potential financial risk from as volatile an investment as cryptocurrency for those without trading knowledge, the delivery of Leeds content on the Socios app has been unfortunate at best and disastrous at worst.

The multiple-choice answers to a quiz question posed to Leeds fans included the names Nigel Marty and Gordon Stracham. This, of course, is not Leeds’ fault but they are now associated with it, tied to it along with a host of other clubs whose various fan groups have joined the Leeds United Supporters Trust in voicing dissent over the partnerships.

There is an argument that clubs for years have been doing deals with betting firms – Leeds have one on the front of their shirts – and producers of alcohol – Leeds partner with Heineken – to little or no protest, and Leeds are of course trying to establish themselves in a mega-rich world where rival clubs can draw upon almost unlimited sources of wealth, so turning up their noses at certain revenue sources would be self-defeating, but no-one can say the Socios deal has been a win in any other sense.

And if you set yourself up as a moral judge and jury, as Leeds did when they quite rightly took the good fight to the ‘big six’ in April, you always run the risk of being accused of hypocrisy.

Under Andrea Radrizzani Leeds have moved so far from the calamitous times that preceded his ownership era – as Phil Hay’s excellent new book ‘Marcelo Bielsa and the rebirth of Leeds United’ lays out in the starkest of detail. The club that welcomes Liverpool to Elland Road could not be more different from the one that delivered misery with remarkable consistency for years on end.

When things have gone wrong, Radrizzani’s Leeds appear to have learned the lesson – ‘badgegate’ a prime example – and major decisions have gone spectacularly right. Appointing Bielsa was a masterstroke, Leeds are back in the promised land and all the noises from Radrizzani’s boardroom partners the San Francisco 49ers about modernising fan experience while retaining the authentic, raw spirit of Elland Road have been welcome.

They cannot and will not get everything right and simply have to accept that the fervent passion of a fanbase they harness to help build for the future may at times result in a bloody nose.

A visit of Liverpool, one so different to last time, one that will create a truly magnificent atmosphere and occasion, is a timely reminder that football is for the fans. That mantra has to be at the heart of decisions made at Elland Road. It can’t just be a t-shirt.