An excruciating experience for Leeds United fans
15 Jul 2021 03:18 pm, by YorkshireSquare
Being a football fan is about shared moments, shared experiences, shared sorrow and shared joy. Be it a last-minute winner which leaves you hugging random strangers or ending up four rows in front in a tangle of celebrating limbs. Or the despair of relegation, sat on the steps of the Kop with tears in your eyes. The Coronavirus pandemic not only meant that we could no longer be there in person to experience those moments but in many cases it meant we had to experience them apart, without our mates, without the stranger you stand next to who has become your best friend for 90 minutes every week for the past twenty years.
For me that hit home the most on the 16th July 2020, when Leeds United played Barnsley at Elland Road. Leeds had taken a huge step towards promotion with victory against Swansea City four days before but with Brentford keeping the pressure with victory over Preston it felt like Leeds needed to beat Barnsley to secure promotion. I was already feeling anxious going into the game and that ninety minutes of football did nothing to make me feel any better. A horrible heart attack of a football match, nerves hanging by a thread, feeling sick to the stomach until Jarred Gillett’s final whistle blew.
Without the control Leeds usually exert on a game it was end to end. The first goal usually settles things down for Leeds, but it wasn’t to be so. Even after Michael Sollbauer diverted Patrick Bamford’s cutback into his own net it was still frenetic. Barnsley were already coming at us hard and going a goal down wasn’t going to stop them. Half time came and on came Pablo Hernandez, but his calming influence did not have its usual effect. Leeds defended resolutely, Cooper blocking chance after chance, Meslier tipping one over the bar. As the ninety minutes ticked by, I withdrew further and further behind the sofa, it was insufferable, intolerable, excruciating. But then it happened the whistle blew.
I wasn’t sure what to feel after the game, I was still a nervous wreck an hour later. There was no one to hug, no one to rationalise things with over a pint of Strongbow in the Drysalters. Was it the anxiety of the game still getting to me or was I just struggling to contemplate the fact that after 16 years we had all but regained our place back in the top-flight of English football? Texting mates it was clear that I was not the only one feeling like this. We may have been apart thanks to lockdown, but it was reassuring to know that it was still a shared experience, even one that we could not be together for, I was not alone.
West Brom and Brentford would play over the next two days and if either side failed to win Leeds United’s promotion would be confirmed. I wouldn’t normally have any interest in watching Huddersfield Town but when they took the lead against West Brom the next day it’s fair to say I got a little excited. West Brom equalised before half time and with time ticking down it looked as though that excruciating wait for a Premier League return would go on just a little longer. But then with just four minutes left Emile Smith Rowe gave Huddersfield the lead and with the whistle all of the anxiety of the day before, of the 16 years before dissipated and euphoria erupted across the city.
Even during a pandemic, the feelings were too great to contain as fans descended on Elland Road to celebrate with the players and each other. The weight of sixteen years of failure lifted at last, finally Leeds United were back in the Premier League!