What Leeds United's season was all about and why Ellie Goulding's association isn't random
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.
This season wasn’t only about this season. This season is already last season, and Angus Kinnear says Leeds United have been planning for next season since halfway through it.
The final game celebrated the contributions of two long servants, Gaetano Berardi and Pablo Hernandez, and it is still astonishing how many of Marcelo Bielsa’s players now were part of his first squad, playing Stoke City in August 2018.
Eleven have made it from Bielsa’s first squad to his – let’s not say last, let’s say most recent – but history doesn’t end there. Seven of them were involved in the first game of the season before, Andrea Radrizzani’s first in sole control, away to Bolton.
It was tempting, back in 2017, to think everything had to change, tempting and perfectly correct. But part of the skill in what has happened since has been keeping so much the same that didn’t ought to change.
It’s the whole point about a sleeping giant – you don’t need to swap them for some other giant, you just need to wake the one you’ve got.
United have done their waking through a surreal year while all around them were hibernating in quarantine, like an insomniac marking the last hours of night until the household can join them for breakfast.
After so much quiet, 8,000 people were an incredible difference to the streets around Elland Road, forests of tarmac and road signs filling with a dawn chorus of singing and pre-match chatter.
Inside the stadium, the noise was enough to draw tears from Berardi and Hernandez, who heard company for their emotions rather than hard echoes from the tin roofs and plastic seats that have been United’s audience in the Premier League.
It was an occasion for old fans to come back and new faces to get seen. Radrizzani had the US-based contingent of the Leeds Owners’ Club in attendance, Paraag Marathe and Jed York from the San Francisco 49ers, and Peter Lowy, the new board member whose family billions are backing them. Ellie Goulding is not, as far as we know, an investor, but she had a front and centre table for the evening’s awards dinner, clapping enthusiastically as Stuart Dallas took all the gongs, helped out in the kitchen and served at tables.
If we can judge an ownership group by the company they keep, Goulding’s addition to Leeds’ celeb-fan ranks is an upgrade on Massimo Cellino’s long nights with Verne Troyer, David Haigh desperately tweeting for Pamela Anderson’s attention, and Ken Bates having no mates.
Her association is not entirely random, either.
With her was Mr Goulding, Casper Jopling, a Yorkshire born art dealer whose aristocratic family owns Frickley Hall, in the ‘nice bit’ between Barnsley and Doncaster. In their modern way, they are old Yorkshire money.
The pandemic has meant Leeds United, and Leeds the city, have not yet felt the influence of such as the Goulding-Joplings over the last year, but local bar owners will be hoping the tills ringing all weekend for Peter Lowy’s fizzy appletinis were the first signs of Premier League relief.
This was always part of the deal, but Covid-19 broke it. It sounds absurd, but the economic power visible in Manchester and Liverpool is helped by having a couple of Premier League clubs each.
The hunger for redeveloping Elland Road isn’t only a natural response to patching up the same Main Stand since the 1950s, but a desire to have somewhere east of the Pennines, and the Atlantic, for Ellie Goulding and Jed York to hang out, then all back to Frickley for afters.
Leeds are inbetween. If you want a symbol of the club in 2021, it’s Peter Lowy being interviewed on the awards show coverage in front of double doors en route to the ladies’ loo, that were becoming more frequently staggered through as night fell and inebriation rose.
Somewhere between a billionaire and a bingo hall is exactly where I like my Leeds United.
As executive boxes go up and city centre bars cater for new clientele, Leeds needs an eye on its cheese-wedge ticket prices, on the pubs, clubs and libraries under pressure to survive; new money tends to move fastest towards the wealthy, and it’d be nice if Leeds could do Premier League riches in a different way.
Another scene from the awards inspired optimism. After his Player of the Year interview was gatecrashed by team-mates, a ‘tipsy’ – his word – Dallas tried to make a serious speech about the squad.
“Ah, boo hoo hoo!” yelled Rodrigo and Raphinha together, the two newcomers cry-laughing their heads off at one of United’s longest-serving players’ players.
It was like Rod and Raph have been here forever, and it was perfect, and this season was like Leeds have been in the Premier League forever, and it was perfect. And it wasn’t only about this season. It’s been fun watching, but next season, we want to join in.