According to a number of pundits, Leeds United have become everyone’s second favourite team. This is, of course, wrong on so many levels, and rival fans have rushed to distance themselves from such claims. While we have certainly been entertaining so far, no amount of Bielsa-ball will win over a country that loves to hate Leeds United. Put bluntly, Leeds are not ‘second team’ material.
Jamie Carragher, Ally McCoist and Alan Brazil are among the pundits to have heaped praise on Bielsa’s side, claiming Leeds’ high-octane style has captured the imaginations of rival fans and prompted a reappraisal of the ‘Dirty Leeds’ label.
Granted, Leeds have impressed so far and their willingness to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City has thrilled pundits and rival fans alike. Fans of other cubs have also welcomed the prospect of reigniting historic and deep-rooted rivalries with Leeds United. But a distinction must be made between recognising that Leeds enhance the spectacle of the Premier League and claiming that they are being adopted as the country’s second team. To appreciate this, it is crucial to understand the unique circumstances in which Leeds have re-entered the Premier League and how this has prevented us from slipping back into the swing of things.
McCoist recently claimed that Leeds have been ‘a breath of fresh air’. Indeed, the unrelenting energy Bielsa demands from his players combined with Leeds’ prolonged exile from the Premier League has made our return a novelty for most topflight clubs. But if we do reclaim our status as topflight regulars, the nostalgia that has seen us welcomed by many will no doubt dissipate and be replaced by spite and loathing — just the way we like it.
Playing games behind-closed-doors has also had a big impact on perceptions of Leeds United. Football without fans is sanitised and sterile — a point that Gary Neville has stressed when ruing the absence of Elland Road’s raucous atmosphere this season.
When fans do return to stadiums, their presence will intensify the rivalries that have been dormant for sixteen years and help to quash the idea that Leeds are second team material. The Leeds faithful will delight in reminding Kasper Schmeichel what they think of him (and his dad), referees will feel the pressure of a vocal and often hostile crowd, and the much-hated Patrick Bamford will revel in playing the role of the pantomime villain. Something tells me that when normality resumes, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who considers Leeds their second team.
Aside from the peculiarities and quirks of football during a pandemic, the reality is that Leeds United do not fit the second team mould. No amount of media flattery will change the fact that for every fan who is pleased to see us back, there is another who would rather Leeds were eternally banished to the depths of footballing hell (Leeds United circa 2014 would probably suffice).
Alan Brazil recently likened Leeds to Leicester City’s title-winning team, claiming that we have earned admirers in the same way that Leicester did. He has a point — both teams have a clear identity built on fast-paced attacking football, but that’s where the similarities end.
Leicester City lack the size and history of a club like Leeds United. You will never go to a football ground and hear ‘We All Hate Leicester Scum’ or ‘Leicester are falling apart again’. Replace ‘Leicester’ with ‘Leeds’, however, and such chants are common at grounds across the country, irrespective of whether the fixture involves Leeds. This is an honour reserved for the most hated of football clubs.
Prior to being relegated, AFC Bournemouth were another club brandished with the ‘second team’ label. They won admirers by playing entertaining football and were seen as plucky underdogs for whom eventual relegation was inevitable. Leeds, on the other hand, will not be content with making up the numbers. While Bournemouth were seen as inoffensive, Leeds are a scalp worth taking — a club with history and ambition that teams want to beat. Put bluntly, we are too relevant to fit the ‘second team’ mould.
The likes of Carragher and McCoist were right to some extent: a lot of Premier League football fans are pleased to see Leeds back. Not because they like us — they don’t — but because they look forward to playing us, love to beat us, and revel in hating us. The pandemic and Leeds’ long toil in the lower leagues have served to obscure this and pundits can be forgiven for misinterpreting praise for Bielsa’s team as affection for Leeds United. Only when all is back to normal and stadiums are full again, will United truly be back. At which point it will be as clear as ever that Leeds United are not second team material.