Leeds marked one year of Covid-enforced absence from Elland Road at the weekend.
A year since beating Huddersfield; a year since promotion felt, for the first really real time, weeks rather than decades away; a year since Luko Van Ayling’s Basten-ball volley; not quite a year since his hair flowed free in Beeston’s breezes.
He gave us an extra glimpse of his mane last week, twice in one year, a gift we never knew we needed until it was unwrapped.
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It’s hard to say whether this weekend was a celebration, a commemoration, a memorial, or a wistful dream.
LL Cool J’s involvement, unboxing a set of Leeds shirts for social media, didn’t make anything clearer.
Is he a Leeds fan now? If so, what about the last 12 months won him over to soccer?
The year has been like a dream. A bad one, with numbers of dead and ill rising around us like tides and no sign of a beach and nobody near enough to help.
A pandemic year of anxiety is a bad time to spend alone, trying to sleep off your dreams.
One steady message from the weekend was a reiterated wish to end all that and come together again at Elland Road.
We won’t be beating Huddersfield again when we do. It won’t be a seamless resumption of remembered happiness. Although we might be able to persuade Ayling to treat us by leaving his locks long.
And the strange thing is only 35,000 of us will be there. It’s a small proportion of hundreds of thousands of Leeds fans, but some are better than none, and part of football’s power is that experience is shared as long as some people are having it.
The romantic ideal of football at 3pm on a Saturday persists long since television dragged fixture lists out of that clean form, and even though it prevents another sort of football dream – the kind we’re living through.
The ceremony of Saturday afternoons is a little like the sacred Sunday mornings of churchgoers.
Your game is enhanced by the feeling that, around the country, there are thousands in other stadiums feeling the same thing as you.
I don’t particularly care about, for example, Everton FC. So I can’t explain the electric sensation of a momentary hush at Elland Road punctuated by news of, say, a red card at Goodison Park.
The cheers at full-time when the scoreboard declares an away win at Old Trafford can’t be beaten.
On important weekends, football grounds are the one place a medium-wave radio will earn you cred’. Mobile internet hasn’t quite cracked it.
Even with a phone full of scores in your pocket, you’ll put more trust in a half-heard report from a radio three rows away announcing Sheffield United are down.
And nobody has invented anything better than Sports Report on BBC Radio 5 Live, telling us Portsmouth have won, so I can pretend to know something about their season while being shushed by someone who wants to mock their cousin, depending on how Grimsby did.
If all that sounds tragically nostalgic, isn’t everyone at the moment yearning for the return of their particular version of the past?
And that’s one of my fevers, for days at Elland Road to come back as part of that bigger feeling, of football happening everywhere.
I mentioned that shared 3pm kick-offs prevent another kind of football dream, because in theory, right now is a golden age for experiencing the game.
There was always an alternative ideal, favouring the fixture lists the Premier League has now.
I remember being overjoyed by the advent of internet streaming, when I realised that any time, day or night, I could find a game of football being played somewhere by somebody.
It felt like an enhancement of my favourite lazy Sundays, tuning the radio to commentary of whoever against whoever, listening for the reassuring sound of perpetual football.
I’m not there, but I like knowing someone is.
We’ve got that now – fixtures strung out end to end, back to back, game after game.
And we’re discovering why playing them at the same time worked better, hiding the boring ones behind the thrillers, telegraphing the best bits around the grounds, letting Match of the Day’s editors take the strain of teasing out the entertainment.
Sometimes, the less you see, the more you feel.
Remember Saturday, March 7 2020, the way it was?
Fulham drawing with Bristol City at lunchtime, as we were travelling to our game.
After 3pm, Brentford scoring three of their five against Sheffield Wednesday before half-time, disappointing but expected.
While Ayling and Bamford were scoring for Leeds, our anxiety sought out gossip from Swansea: who has an update? Jake Livermore. A big chance. Missed in stoppage time.
And West Brom drew 0-0.
From a point behind at 3pm, Leeds were a point ahead at 5pm. That was the buzz. We were top of the table, and we weren’t alone.
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Thank you Laura Collins