'People are frightened of relegation' - Graham Smyth's Verdict on mood at Leeds United before Southampton draw

Nerves are starting to jangle on Elland Road an hour before Leeds United kick off against Southampton.

By Graham Smyth
Sunday, 3rd April 2022, 8:18 am

Ian and his son, also Ian, are making the short journey from Subway, walking into uncertainty.

"Bielsa's just gone, the hero, the saviour as it were, there's the dread of this second season syndrome everyone talks about and we've got to beat it - we've just got to beat it," says Ian senior.

"I just think we just need to get a grip and stick together."

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A season ticket holder in the Kop, he believes uncertainty is one of the factors making the atmosphere so intense inside Elland Road this season.

"I actually think that it's better because we're struggling, rather than being a mid-table team, I think the fact that we're in this relegation battle, the dread of the drop and the state of the club, is Radrizzani going to stay or sell to the 49ers? I think it's actually increased the level of anticipation and anxiety.

"I think when we do score a goal the relief is just immense."

His son concurs.

GETTING CLOSER - Leeds United drew 1-1 with Southampton at Elland Road to move a point closer to Premier League safety. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

"Being out of the Premier League for almost all of the time I've been able to come to games as an adult, that's added to it," he says.

"We don't want to lose it. When you're at the bottom it means more. We had games in the Championship that were dead rubbers against teams that we didn't care about and we were going nowhere. But it matters, doesn't it?"

In the carpark of The Peacock, or The Bielsa as it's known until the end of the season in tribute to the recently sacked Whites boss, a trio of fans are tucking into burgers having made the journey across the Irish Sea.

They expect Elland Road to be buoyant after the Norwich and Wolves wins, but they expect tension too.

"They're a heart attack to watch at times," says Whitey.

Richard adds: "Watching that Norwich game, you could just sense the tension in the ground and relief when we scored, but also nerves, it was just so nervous."

Rain is starting to fall, the team has been announced and both Liam Cooper and Raphinha are in it. Kalvin Phillips is on the bench. Outside Graveleys stands another Richard, along with Joe and Phil. They're feeling it.

"Always nervous," says Joe.

Phil is a little more confident than prior to Norwich and Richard believes a win would be huge, but he is fearful that a defeat to the Saints will give teams below Leeds a sniff.

"Even a point today puts us in a.. you just need to notch up points, just enough to get enough to survive - that's the only objective this season, to stay up," says Phil.

The teams have warmed up and gone back inside to make their final preparations.

In the West Stand home and away season ticket holders Jane, Linda and Neil are hoping for the best and steeling themselves for the alternative.

"I'm always hopeful," says Linda.

"But I never expect to win. I'm very nervous - it's part and parcel of being a Leeds supporter."

Neil, who struggles to sleep after some games as the adrenaline continues to course, believes fear is helping to make Elland Road a cauldron of noise.

"I think people are frightened of relegation, having worked so hard to get where we are and invested so much in terms of money, emotion and support, we're all so desperate to stay up," he tells the YEP.

"Because of the tension in these games, the crowd feels it and expresses it. When we win games it's a massive relief."

The atmosphere is building. Josh Warrington is on the pitch with his newly-won belt. Elland Road is Marching on Together, loudly.

The game starts well, Luke Ayling leaves Kyle Walker-Peters on the deck and steaming away to start a counter that results in a corner. Diego Llorente is free, he meets the ball and heads it just wide.

An aggressive press makes for an uncomfortable early experience for Southampton, whose best moments come from their lively full-back pair, although Walker-Peters is being controlled more effectively than Tino Livramento on the far side.

He helps create the first Saints chance, Che Adams touching the ball to Mohamed Elyounoussi whose shot is saved by Illan Meslier.

Leeds are slowly but steadily taking control, though, with clever link-up play between the midfielders and Rodrigo who looks in the mood.

Daniel James' pace is a problem for the visitors, his composure is a problem for the hosts. Fraser Forster has already saved from the makeshift striker when he hares through again but fails to find a clean-through Raphinha.

Back come Southampton and with what has become affectionately known as a 'typical Leeds game' threatening to break out, Meslier looks up to see Rodrigo free but pauses, under the wild gesticulation and direction of Llorente. The Spaniard, so often a drama magnet, wants calm and Meslier provides it, allowing Leeds to get set up before they build another period of control.

A short while later, relief abounds.

Cooper gets the better of Armando Broja on halfway, the ball is worked to the right and Raphinha takes full advantage of a fortuitous bounce, just about keeps the ball in and when his cross is clawed out by Forster, Jack Harrison knocks it into the net.

Nerves ease and Elland Road settles, but so too do Southampton and Meslier has to save brilliantly from Adams, who is equally brilliant to create the shooting chance.

A period of Saints pressure is punctuated only by a slick Leeds counter that starts with Mateusz Klich's clever outside-of-the-boot pass and ends with a poor touch from James' - so the half-time whistle comes at a good time.

A glance at the table shows the Whites in 14th and a look to the stands shows a proposal. The sun is shining, she cries happy tears and says yes. Elland Road is relaxed.

The second half is four minutes old and James Ward-Prowse is standing over a 25-yard free-kick as the home crowd murmurs. He curls it up and over the wall into Meslier's top right hand corner. It's 1-1. Walker-Peters is giving the Leeds' right flank a torrid time. Broja sidefoots just wide at the near post from Livramento's cross. Control is long gone. Elland Road is anxious.

Rodrigo is still in the mood and bursts through the middle to cut it back for Raphinha who opts for a chip and clears the bar.

Jesse Marsch is making changes. Joe Gelhardt is on, running at players, drawing fouls, making an impact. Phillips is on, adding muscle, getting on the ball and playing it right to Ayling and Leeds are calmer. Shots are being blocked but it's better. Control is returning.

Time is ticking away and Leeds want the win. They're building play well from deep but it's fizzling out in the final third. Southampton are stalling for time, making it ugly but with the end nigh they're suddenly attacking, play is at the wrong end and Luke Ayling is going off, asking why as it becomes clear the home bench have made a mix-up. Cooper is stretching. He looks uncomfortable. Pascal Struijk is on and having to defend. The nerves are back.

Anthony Taylor is blowing his whistle. There's no roar, just a collective breathing out. Leeds didn't win but there is applause. Watford, Burnley and Norwich haven't won. Leeds aren't safe but they're unbeaten in three, with Phillips back in action and another point in their pockets. They're almost there. It's almost over.

"It's not over until it's over," says Jane.