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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Total Football - By Oliver Brown chief sports writer Bielsa Rhap­sody

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.”

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