Leeds United 2 (3) – 4 (4) Derby County

Long after the distraught Leeds United players had risen from where they lay strewn around the Elland Road turf to tearfully acknowledge the unrelenting support of the thousands that stayed to sing them off, the exultations of the delighted Derby hordes in the John Charles echoed around the gradually emptying stadium.

Some, like myself, remained standing in contemplative silence, staring out onto the pitch as what remained of the early summer evening disappeared into the hungry depths of night. It had never seemed more all-consuming.

Others pored over the post-mortem with equally perplexed match stewards in a vain attempt at catharsis, as if by the end of the ordeal both would come to the conclusion that, actually, what had transpired over the previous ninety minutes had all been part of the familiar recurring nightmare.

This was a genuine nightmare I had before the away leg, but the reality bit with ferocity, cutting right to the bone.

The clanging doors provided a cacophonic soundtrack for those leaving as section after section of Elland Road was cleared. The sound conjured a prison metaphor in my head with an irony that was hard to shake.

Outside the ground, the home supporters stumbled back and forth in near-silence, suitably chastened by the faint mirth of the travelling Rams still cavorting within. No one seemed fully able to comprehend the defeat that had emerged from the comfort of a 2-0 aggregate lead a mere hour ago.

Discarded scarves littered the pathway around me as I walked the length of the East Stand.  Placed painstakingly on every home seat, what had been intended as a thoughtful momento of a joyous occasion was now a hideous reminder of a grotesque tragedy.

The regal statue of Billy Bremner stood silhouetted against the impatient headlights of a jilted support, cruelly tethered to the scene of their side’s capitulation. Yet more scarves hung in sombre reflection either side of his famous number 4 jersey.

After the Villa game, I walked down Elland Road in the April sunshine to WACCOE’s unmistakable air, smiling at the sight of the scarves being swung with vigour over the low fence of The Peacock. So full of hope.

Tonight, only the dull hum of disappointment carried on the breeze to where the police escorted the slow march of Derby fans back to their transport.

In front of the chip van, a group of disgruntled Leeds supporters watch the Rams’ migration with both discomfort and a pang of jealousy. One of the group offers his own opinion on the reasons for the Whites’ demise.

“Too much bloody football, that’s the problem!”

No, no it absolutely isn’t.

The ludicrous notion that somehow too much Bielsa contributed to our downfall last night is one borne out of frustration. A lashing out, knee-jerk reaction to bitter and intense disappointment. Like the late-night protestations of an angry drunk, it sits uneasily and apologetically in the cold light of day.

With just under 75% of this tie completed, Leeds were in cruise control. 2-0 to the good after the outstanding Dallas’ opener, we were heading for half-time in a commanding position. Derby, for a fourth time this season were visibly wilting under the searing heat of the Leeds press.

The phrase that may come to define Marcelo Bielsa’s managerial career has never been more evident than in Leeds’ more vulnerable moments this season:

“If football was played by robots, I would win everything.”

Robot Bamford would not get bullied into conceding petulant fouls or display the work-rate of a Diouf-Varney lovechild. Robot Berardi would calmly stop after being fouled instead of plunging through the red mist to earn a card of the same colour.

Robot Cooper would not have cleared balls vertically into the air or blatantly dragged his man back by the jersey and Robot Casilla would not have performed the hoky-poky to allow Derby to roll home the goal that changed the complexion of this tie.

The only man who did perform with robotic brilliance was Stuart Dallas, but his finest hour in a Leeds jersey was overshadowed by the meltdown epidemic that spread throughout the side when Derby went for the jugular.

Credit must go (albeit begrudgingly) to the Rams and to Frank Lampard, who caught the scent of a wounded animal and attacked directly at the weakest point. Time and again they targeted the centre of the Leeds defence and their persistence was rewarded with a sensational comeback.

Dallas’ excellent second goal looked to have swung things back in our favour, but Berardi’s belligerence left Leeds at a numerical disadvantage on which the visitors capitalised, breaking the hearts of the LS11 faithful.

Fortunately, football is not played by robots, but the emotion involved is a double-edged sword, with blissful highs and devastating lows. If ever a match summed up the ups and downs of following Leeds United, this was it.

Football’s escapism has been absent in the streets of Leeds for many years. Suffering was heaped onto embarrassment, scandal onto ridicule. This season has been breath-taking in its unpredictability – football at its most enthralling.

It is easy to attribute the late-season demise to a lack of investment, a lack of fortitude on big occasions or the physio table’s rotating door policy, but the exhausted bodies draped in white that lay dotted around a hurting Elland Road last night tell their own tale.

Billy Bremner once hung that famous ‘Keep Fighting’ mantra on his dressing room peg, a reminder to those around him that no matter what they were faced with, either in life or on the pitch, they needed to keep fighting until they could fight no more.

The current Leeds side has its own limitations, but one thing Bielsa has instilled in them is that old adage of Bremner’s. They run tirelessly, constantly attacking until they quite literally can fight no more.

This is the real reason that the crowds have flocked back to Elland Road. For years we have been watching teams take the field with indifference and apathy, besmirching our jersey with their bluster and false platitudes.

We’ve suffered hopelessly inept managerial appointments, ownership that lurched and leered into controversy and corruption and players that would make Bremner and Revie scoff in disbelief.

We once again have a team to be proud of, a team deserving of our vociferous support, a team that will simply refuse to accept its limitations and one driven on by a manager of integrity, passion and a desire for perfection.

We will keep fighting. We have to.

Right now it hurts like a gaping wound.

But all wounds heal.

The fight goes on.

On and on.

#lufc #mot