Leeds complete glorious return – to a ghost town
Fans can gather in pubs to watch the first Premier League home game in 16 years however Elland Road must remain empty
Shrouded in silence: Leeds United’s Elland Road ground is deserted due to coronavirus regulations as kick-off approaches for the club’s first Premier League home game for 16 years
Elland Road is a ghostly shell, a vision of vast hollowness on what should have been its grandest day for 16 years. And yet The Old Peacock pub opposite, which bleeds Leeds to the extent that one patron has stationed a Winnebago in club colours in the car park, is full, with every one of its distanced tables prebooked. It will, in time, be one of the pandemic’s many mysteries: why watching a match outside in crisp September sunshine is deemed an intolerable risk, while gathering for an afternoon’s drinking indoors, Covid’s favoured habitat, is actively encouraged.
“If it’s not safe to watch the game at the ground, I don’t think it’s safe to watch it indoors at the pub,” says Chris Hall, secretary of the Leeds United Supporters’ Club. “I want to return to the days when we’re all together. But I would rather be together inside a stadium. We are desperate to get back there. Football without fans just isn’t the same.”
In a benighted year, the spectacle of a forsaken Elland Road on a Premier League match-day, its first since 2004, counts among the bleakest. The Government rhetoric is of “mutual understanding” with clubs, and “rapid review” of fan restrictions, but there is no evidence of it here. A hastily printed notice hangs in the ticket office window to warn that booths will be closing at 5pm on March 23, and will remain so until further notice. Almost six months on, there is still no update.
Ghost towns are such chilling relics because they stand untouched from the moment they are abandoned. The postcode of LS11 feels much like one, even on a pristine late summer’s day. This should have been a day of vibrancy and euphoria, as the restlessness of supporters long denied top-flight pleasures could at last be let loose.
The lockdown-defying sights of summer – a Championship-winning side staging an open-top bus parade, while manager Marcelo Bielsa posed with autograph-hunters at his Wetherby home – hinted at a fan base ready to erupt.
A lid is being kept firmly on their passions, though. Graveleys Fish & Chips, which proudly advertises its round-the-clock opening hours for matches, stands eerily quiet. Renditions of the are replaced by the sound of cars rushing by on the M621. The scarf stall beside the Billy Bremner statue desultorily packs up for business an hour before kick-off. A few fans do stop to have their pictures taken by their monument, if only to mark one of the club’s strangest days.
All across Bremner Square is a mosaic of granite tiles, each marked with the name of a fan who has paid for the privilege. Eddie Gray, such is his status as an icon of the Don Revie era, has been given 18 tiles on his own. Typically, Gray would be at the ground delivering his commentary for club radio, but even he must settle for now with being on the outside looking in. “It’s such a pity the fans can’t be there, because the whole city is buzzing just now, with the club being back in the Premier League,” he says.
“The opening performance against Liverpool didn’t do anything to diminish the optimism.”
Following a 4-3 defeat with a win by the same scoreline against Fulham: it is a start that only heightens the craze around Bielsa. Much is made of how assiduously the Argentine compels players to follow his system, but the only constant seems
Fan tribute: Kevin Marshall with his son Zak
to be one of glorious defensive chaos. “He’s adored within the city,” Gray says. “You only have to look at the murals popping up: “In Bielsa We Trust.” It is deserved, when you look at what he has done for the club in two years. The people have taken him to their hearts. He walks around Wetherby with a backpack and he sits on a bucket. What other manager does that? The other thing to stress is his ability to get players to perform. He has improved them beyond recognition.”
That much is evident from the display by Patrick Bamford, who electrifies the victory over Fulham with his pace, scoring the third goal and teeing up Helder Costa for the fourth. “Our ratio for creating chances is amazing,” Hall says. “There’s a lot of hope. Bielsa does so much research, puts so much effort into everything he does. You just feel there’s a genuine togetherness.”
It is almost cruel, the starkness of the contrast between Leeds’ dynamism on the pitch and the deathly hush that pervades the streets all around. The patience of Angus Kinnear, the club’s chief executive, is wearing thin.
There is only so long that great occasions can be played out against such a sorrowful backdrop. “Worryingly,” he writes in the programme, “a government that centrally funded half-price Nando’s one week and complained about young people over-socialising the next seems unlikely to possess the intellectual clarity to facilitate a solution anytime soon.”
The suggested limit of 1,000 fans for this game, in a ground that can hold almost 38,000, was deemed too draconian to be worth the bother. And so still they wait, the Old Peacock punters and the children playing kickabout on Beeston Hill. Their Elland Road cathedral is one that they can see but not savour. Rare and precious moments are being kept maddeningly beyond their reach. The only certainty is that in a city of such soul, this most austere of realities cannot last. improve, it’s about improving personality and putting that stamp on us.
“We all realise the challenges. We are in the best league in the world. We won’t let these defeats cripple us. We will come back fighting again. We are going to have to learn quickly.
“We are going to have to try new things. We have to learn quickly what this league is about.”
Patrick Bamford, Mateusz Klich’s penalty and another strike from Costa accounted for Leeds’ other goals in their first Premier League match at Elland Road for 16 years.
“I think there will be a few long meetings this week just to pick up on what we can do better,” Bamford said. “We’re very demanding, Marcelo Bielsa has installed that into us, we nitpick everything and the fine details and we are all willing to learn and he’s the perfect guy to learn from.
“We only had two pre-season games, so I don’t think everyone is up to full speed yet.
“I think give it five matches, we will be in the flow of it and more settled, hopefully it is something we adjust to and we are a fit team as you can see.”