The first time should always be special, the moment when two parties who’ve spent their days flirting, coyly touching, exchanging complements and lingering glances finally take their relationship to another level. Whether this consummation marks the beginnings of a life-long love affair, a fraught, tempestuous bond that inevitably breaks down, or to a quick swift acknowledgement after the dust settles, both parties are looking for different things, that first orgasmic coalition of desires still represents a moment in the midst of time when everything felt perfect and nothing seemed impossible.
Such romanticised, rose tinted reminiscences of fledgling romances tend to cast everything in a heavenly light, even the imperfections are reframed as devices integral in making the experience all the more perfect. As pleasurable as these recollections they may be, what can be lost in warm reflection is what went before; the uncertainty, the awkwardness, the trepidation, the hesitation and the doubts that preceded that final, bold and decisive move to translate the anticipation into a realised mutual ecstasy.
Yesterday at Elland Road, it was time to relive those rites of passage again as a new man, led an increasingly new look team, with a new philosophy, into virgin territory as the Leeds United of 2014/15 went in search of popping their Championship cherry. While a summer of hopeful, rather than inspiring arrivals had done little to catch the eye of the suitors in the stands, defeat at Millwall had finally sparked a panic that signalled a flurry of fresh faces who did have the capacity to turn heads. In the blink of an eye, Massimo’s troops had gone from nowhere to first base without even kicking a ball.
With two new centre backs on board who resolutely were not Scott Wootton and a striker who should, rather than just might score goals, fresh hope had surfaced that something beautiful could yet be salvaged over the next 9 months. The arrival of Middlesbrough represented a stiff first test, but at the same time, an initial opportunity for those footballers to make their move.
The supporters were ready, the raucous welcome and an enthused if discombobulated accompaniment, as the communal chorus of ‘Marching on Together’ played over the Tannoy, suggested a collective primed to be swept off their feet by the right men. The players too looked ready, as early pressure on the ball and a swift break almost presented Sharp with an opportunity to close the deal and then Ajose a very decent shot of doing so before a game of metaphorical ‘footsie’ could even get into full swing.
It didn’t happen, a slick dart to second base at best, maybe, but after that initial burst of excitement, the expected, more pained process commenced. Leeds, while always willing were also nervous, the midfield, relative strangers both to each other and the system, divided their time between politely laying off safe, if ponderous passes and trying to avoid treading on each others’ toes, each individual reluctant to make decisive movements or any demands of his partners.
Because the midfield stuttered, so did the frontline, Sharp and Duokara, increasingly having to come deep or drift wide in search of the ball, while at the back, the cluster of bodies and lack of options ahead caused headaches amongst a back four now expected to play out the ball, rather than punt it. An off-colour Byram repeatedly played aimless passes down the right, while Pearce, desperately trying to follow the mandate looked on at the lack of movement and options in front of him with the sort of trepidation Cliff Richard might currently reserve for a trip to the newsagents.
In contrast, the visitors had a fluidity and confidence spawned of quality players, an embedded system and a strong start to the season. Up front, the movement of Adomah and Tomlin was stretching Leeds and only the awareness of Stephen Warnock plugged the holes that began appearing at the back. On 26 minutes however, even Warnock couldn’t save his team as Adomah put Boro ahead…at least, he probably should have done, but the referee’s assistant deemed his high boot represented dangerous play – Warnock’s desperate attempts to intervene with his head may have been too late to stop Adomah, but ultimately not too late to influence the officials.
Other than offer comedic relief – some travelling supporters could still be seen celebrating a full 30 seconds after the goal had been ruled out – the incident served to alter the path of the game as an re-energised Leeds and demoralised Middlesbrough gravitated toward a more level plain of mediocrity. By the half-time whistle, most home supporters could philosophically reflect on a passable 45 minutes, all things considered.
During the opening 15 minutes of the second period, Middlesbrough threatened to regain a stranglehold on proceedings with Leeds spiritedly chasing shadows as the game approached the hour mark. At that stage, Tonge was introduced for Duokara in an attempt to stem the tide and almost immediately Leeds looked a better side. The formation of the first 60 minutes that neither resembled a coherent diamond or convincing 4-3-3 formation was now unmistakably the former with Tonge, Murphy, Bianchi and Austin displaying a far greater degree of positional awareness and discipline. The nervous stares, coy smiles, hesitancy over misreading signals and the small talk were suddenly over with and that crucial degree of understanding and trust was emerging. A defender could look for his man, safe in the knowledge that he’d be there for them, the midfielders had that longed for security of having each other to lean on, it was only now the strikers left bemoaning that the others never returned their calls.
That was to be Leeds’ biggest problem for the closing 30 minutes. While a bond, a trust and an understanding was emerging in the middle and at the back, there was little sign of anyone capable of disregarding the pussyfooting between bases and going all out for the home run. The front six merrily cavorted in front of, but rarely beyond the visitor’s defence that remained rigid, like a metaphorical hymen that forbade penetration. Only one option offered solace – Matt Smith; while Murphy laboured from wide positions to deliver crosses from deep to a relatively Lilliputian front line, our man stood in the the dug-out, like a 6ft 6’ phallus, offering hope and salvation. The situation demanded that Hockaday simply had to release ‘The Giant’.
When Poleon emerged instead, most resigned themselves to opening day impotence and hoping that the steadily improving back four would at least see out the game with a clean sheet. In truth, when Sharp misdirected his header from another deep cross, it was hard to see anything other than that, but then it happened…Tonge strode onto Poleon’s knockdown, he struck firmly the ball from 25 yards and as Mejias spilled his effort, Sharp was on to the loose ball like lightning. The gasps, roars, ecstatic cries and flailing bodies on the Kop wouldn’t have looked out of place in Caligula – das ist gut, ya! Meanwhile pitch-side, Sharp tore off his shirt to mark his ultimate statement of footballing virility, as his adoring, lovestruck followers grasped lustily at his tone, sweaty torso.
And that was it. After all the nerves, the awkwardness, the painful, tortured thought processes, the good intentions and fantasies of making it a sublime, beautiful moment, it all eventually came down to a quick fumble and was all over in a blink of an eye…but it was still perfect – football mimicking life once again; the ‘Class of 2014/15’ and crowd consummating what will hopefully stand as the start of a beautiful relationship, as opposed to another regrettable season-long affair.
Love and passion may often be often perceived to be at it’s most vibrant and crucial amongst our youth, but there is also a lot to be said for experience. While some of the club’s younger talents may hopefully possess the ability to take our collective breaths away during the season, it should be noted that it was those who’ve been there, seen it and done it all before that laid the foundations for that first win. Without Warnock’s colossal performance at the back, the game wouldn’t have been still in the balance in the 87th minute, without Tonge, Leeds most likely would’ve crumbled from a further half hour or chasing shadows and without Sharp, we’d have been waking this morning still dreaming how that first time would be, this time out.
In Cellino’s words, Leeds finished the Millwall game with the team five or six players short of where we needed to be, which was pretty much where the club was back in June. Many players have arrived in the meantime, but maybe Silvestri apart, most have had the look of potential solutions; in the form of Sharp, Cooper and Bellusci, we have three who have more of a look of probable solutions. Another week of recruitment to compare with the one just gone and we might just have a good team on our hands and all the talk of a new era will really hold some substance. Proven quality wins games, a few more Billy Sharps across the team please, Massimo.
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