Ten days ago, Leeds United lost their third league game in a row, 1-0 at home to struggling Reading. Pablo Hernandez missed a late penalty to claim a point, but Leeds struggled to create presentable chances. They had three shots on target.
A funny thing happened after that defeat: nothing at all. There was no panicked reaction amongst supporters, worried that the owner’s trigger finger would get twitchy, no suspicion that the season was falling apart. Manager Thomas Christiansen ended his post-match press conference with “as a team we have to stand together and fight” and everyone agreed.
It was almost two years to the day since Leeds had last lost their third successive league game, a 2-1 home defeat to Brighton in October 2015 sealed by an 89th-minute Bobby Zamora winner. The next day, manager Uwe Rosler was sacked by Massimo Cellino.
Rosler had lasted 12 matches in all competitions, and became the fifth casualty of Cellino’s ownership. By the time Cellino, a walking hurricane of a man, had left Elland Road after three-and-a-half years of ownership, 18% of Leeds United’s permanent managers were the Italian’s appointments.
A week after that Reading defeat earlier this month, Leeds travelled to a Bristol City side that had conceded two goals in their last six home matches and beat them 3-0. If you needed any more proof that Andrea Radrizzani is no Massimo Cellino, this was it.
Then again, how could anyone be? Leeds had spent years turning financial collapse into spectacular art form under Peter Ridsdale’s stewardship, to the extent that ‘doing a Leeds’ even has its own Wikipedia page. Cellino was proof that you do not need economic disarray to turn a club into a crumbled heap. Astonishingly bad decision-making can have the same effect.
There is an accusation that fans of sleeping giant clubs are somehow entitled, spoilt brats, expecting to compete for major honours and host European football. Leeds United supporters have suffered similar treatment to Newcastle United fans, with Kieron Dyer this week taking particular care to put his foot in his mouth (and presumably suffering a mystery injury in the process).
The similarities between Newcastle and Leeds are obvious. Both are the only clubs in northern cities with a thriving passion for football, thus enjoying exclusive support from a local community desperate for their team to succeed. Both have enjoyed prodigious recent histories, but fell on hard times due to systemic abuse by incompetent owners. The only difference is the murder weapon; Newcastle were strangled while Leeds died from a thousand stab wounds.
The allegations of entitlement are unfounded. Every football supporter dreams of success, but there is a crucial difference between hope and expectation. After years of neglect, fans are not expecting shortcuts to success, merely asking that their club is allowed to be the best it can be. Patience must be exercised; demons must be exorcised. Promises must not be made to keep supporters quiet and temporarily sweet, but simply kept. Only then can a club truly move forward.
In Radrizzani, Leeds finally have a guardian rather than an absent parent. The purchase of Elland Road 13 years after selling it on a lease-back deal to relieve debts was an easy PR win for a new owner, but represents far more than that. Cellino had promised as early as 2014 that he would “buy back the house”, but it must have slipped his mind. Sacking and hiring managers takes up an awful lot of time.
Yet even the comparatively small gestures make a difference. Last week, the club announced that players and staff will donate a day’s wages to raise £200,000 and fund treatment for Toby Nye, a local boy who requires treatment on high-risk neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer.
“At Leeds United we do things as a family, Toby is part of our family and he needs our help,” Radrizzani. “I know our supporters will unite behind us and together we can get him the treatment he needs to get better.” These things matter.
Radrizzani clearly has bigger aims than mere consolidation, but is wary of running before walking. He has stated publicly an intention to have Leeds in the Premier League in five years, which seems entirely realistic. The Italian is keen to bathe in warm water heated by huge broadcasting revenues, and who can blame him? This is business, not charity.
Yet there is a way to conduct business, and Radrizzani understands that upholding the morale of supporters is a part of the process. A club that stays together moves forward together. Home attendances are up over 4,500 on last season, and every away game has been a sell-out.
That includes the EFL Cup tie at the King Power Stadium on Tuesday evening. “Leeds are falling apart again,” they sang after Pablo Hernandez’s superb opening goal. Now there is joyous sarcasm where once there was only dark humour.
Football fans are a notoriously fickle bunch, but capriciousness has its advantages. We can dislike everything about our clubs, players, managers, owners and their plans, but we can never truly fall out of love. Like an errant child who gets suspended from school but then makes his mother breakfast in bed, we spend the darkness waiting for a moment of light.
One moment is enough to fuel the collective hope. Marching on together, you might say.