You’ll have to excuse the self-indulgence and sentimentality of the following words.
This article is not a cold reflection of how Marcelo Bielsa masterminded Leeds United’s return to the Premier League. If you want a deconstruction of tactics, decisive fixtures and insightful statistics, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere.
This is simply an outpouring. One that has taken me a few days to release, and not just because the alcohol has finally left my system.
Why the abandonment of objectivity? Why a sudden commitment to sincerity? The reason is rooted in the brutal reality of football: happiness is sparse. This is the great unspoken truth of our sport. Unless you support Barcelona, Bayern Munich or another of their ilk, moments of tangible success are few and far between. For the majority of fans, supporting their club consists of the lifelong investment of emotional health in exchange for a meagre handful of genuinely triumphant moments, if they’re lucky.
You have to savour such moments when they come along, otherwise what’s the point? Football is fuelled by anguish and misplaced hope. If you don’t milk the instances of satisfaction for all their worth then you might as well renounce football entirely. You have to enjoy it when you can, you owe it to every supporter of a club outside the super-rich European elite.
With that being said, I feel obliged to type the next two sentences very slowly. Leeds are champions of the Championship. Leeds will play in the Premier League next season.
That felt good.
I was born in 1991, a few months before Leeds United won the last top-flight title before it was rebranded as the Premier League. I was yet to speak my first word when Gordon Strachan, Gary Speed, and the rest of Howard Wilkinson’s crop lifted the trophy, the last to enter the cabinet before 2020’s addition.
My dad took me to Elland Road for the first time in 1997, we beat Newcastle 4-1. Erling Haaland’s dad played for us that day.
In 2004, when I was beginning to understand what football truly meant to people, Leeds were relegated.
The 16 years between that day and the moment Emile Smith Rowe put Huddersfield 2-1 up against West Brom was an onslaught of frustration and suffering. Fate’s wicked hand dealt us misery in various guises: Wembley defeats, owners resembling James Bond villains, points deductions, a subsequent relegation into League One, the catastrophe of Derby’s second half.
There were reasons to cheer, most notably a win at Old Trafford in the FA Cup and promotion to the Championship – both secured by Jermaine Beckford goals in 2010 – but such moments provided only temporary relief. We celebrated promotion from League One at the time, but we all knew it was only a reversal of something that should have never happened — what were we doing in League One for crying out loud?
Last weekend, the deep-seated hunger pangs felt by every Leeds fan since 2004 suddenly vanished. The starter was West Brom’s defeat to Huddersfield that confirmed our promotion. For the main course, Brentford’s slip-up at Stoke, meaning we were crowned champions. And for dessert, something sweet: a guard of honour and three points in Derby’s back garden. Delicious.
When promotion was secured, I was out and instinctively told some of fellow revellers at the tables close by that I loved them — if any of you happen to be reading this, I want you to know I meant it. My girlfriend and I celebrated with such unbridled obnoxiousness, the bar staff mistakenly thought we had just got engaged and brought us a free bottle of champagne. We went with it, I didn’t think they’d understand if we told them something much better had happened.
Throughout the weekend, I paused to indulge in the offerings of my Twitter feed. There was Kalvin Phillips, Leeds born and bred, leading his team-mates and a few thousand fans in song outside Elland Road. Marcelo Bielsa stopping outside Pride Park to greet a wheelchair-bound fan. El Loco embracing Patrick Bamford as if they were father and son. A champagne-soaked Mateusz Klich break-dancing on Derby’s pitch. Thousands gathered in Millennium Square, smothered in blue and yellow smoke, navigating the songbook from first page to last and back again.
Celebrations were not contained to Yorkshire or English shores. A group of Australians paid for a bridge in Brisbane to be illuminated blue and yellow. Fans in Norway gathered to toast victory, many of them having dedicated considerable time and money to regular pilgrimages from Scandinavia to Elland Road. A cluster of New Yorkers had beer for breakfast. And a lone Ghanaian man marched down his road adorned in a Leeds flag, aware that passersby thought him mad for hollering into the night sky.
Fans have also used this time to reflect on how their lives had changed since Leeds were last a Premier League team. Many who were children in 2004 now have sons and daughters of their own. Some who used to follow the team around Europe are now house-bound by weathered bones and aching joints, relying on their television to provide updates. Several who used to accompany their parents to Elland Road, wishing their mum or dad were alive to watch a trophy lifted by Leeds hands once more.
For me personally, in the time passed since top-flight stints, I’ve learned to shave, finished school and university, moved out, started paying taxes. I’ve lost family members, friends too. Over half my life has passed since Alan Smith trudged off the pitch at Bolton wearing Jay Jay Okocha’s shirt, tears streaming down his face as Paul Robinson consoled him to little avail. My dad recently found a box in the attic of Leeds shirts I wore when we a top-four team. I couldn’t believe how small they were, they looked like doll clothes. Back then you paid per letter if you wanted a name and number printed on the back. I guess that’s why I never had a Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink shirt.
I try to tell myself: it’s only football. But that’s the problem, football is duplicitous. It’s simultaneously trivial and important, insignificant and yet salient, meaningless and overwhelming in the same breath.
Again, I must apologise for lacking substance. I have said nothing. And yet, everything.