Back in the spring, when the first blush of the pandemic shut things down around the world, one of the “holy shit, this is serious” moments was when the sports world ground to a halt. In the United States the big deal was when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, March Madness, was cancelled outright. In Europe, soccer leagues shut down one by one across the continent.
At the time, there were serious discussions about what that meant for the 2019-2020 season that was in the home stretch. Would it be completed later, keeping in mind that the 2020-2021 season kicks off in August? Would the standings be set and stone at the time things were halted, even though the season wasn’t complete? That’s the path the French leagues took, setting final tables based on points earned per game. Would the powers that be simply declare things over, void, and disappear the entire season? That’s what the Dutch leagues did.
In England, the debate about how, and whether, to finish the season centered around Liverpool FC, which were well on their way to their first Premier League title and first top-flight championship in three decades. I was more interested in what was going to happen in the Championship, England’s second tier, where Leeds United topped the table at the time things shut down. It had been 16 years since Leeds had been in the Premier League and I’d been rooting for them to get back all that time.
Why? How does a person born and raised in West Virginia come to root for a team in Yorkshire?*
While I played soccer growing up, it wasn’t really until I was in college that I became a fan of the game. Part of that was due to the 1994 World Cup, which was hosted in the United States and all over TV. Major League Soccer was an outgrowth of that, too. But what really captured my attention was the one-game weekly broadcasts of UEFA Champions League games on a regional sports station. In the Champions League the top teams from all over Europe (each nation has its own league – even each of the UK nations have their own!) from the previous season play to crown a continental champion.
That’s where I first met Leeds United.
At the time I didn’t know anything about Leeds or the county, Yorkshire, when the city is located. What I saw was a team that appeared to be overachieving. It appeared to be doing it with young talent that was largely British or Commonwealth based (it was a little odd for a newbie to see English teams primarily made up of players from around the world – I hadn’t learned about the Bosman ruling yet). In other words, they looked like underdogs and I’ve always had a soft spot for underdogs. So they won my support.
In the years since I’ve developed a little bit of an affinity for Leeds and Yorkshire. Two of my favorite bands are from Leeds, The Tangent (or at least its main man, Andy Tillison) and Kaiser Chiefs. The latter is even named after the prior club of former Leeds captain Lucas Radebe! And Yorkshire has a history as one of England’s major producers of coal, so it resonates with my West Virginia roots.
Now, at the time, I didn’t know that Leeds United had a glorious history, particularly in the mid-1960s and early 1970s when they were one of England’s elite (around the same time progressive rock ruled the land – coincidence?). From the time I was in law school until just about the time I started my current gig in 2002, things were like that again, with the team finishing in the top five for five consecutive seasons.
Then the wheels came off. The team had made some bad financial decisions, gotten overstretched on credit, and had to sell some of its best young players. The bottom fell out and the team was relegated to the Championship and then, three seasons later, to League One (which, confusingly is England’s third tier – the equivalent to AA baseball). They bounced back to the Championship at the start of this decade, but were frustratingly underachieving, until crashing out in the promotion playoffs last year.
Which is what made the pandemic pause so nerve wracking. This season it looked like promotion was theirs to take. Would the interruption mess with the team’s chemistry? Would a compressed schedule put too much stress on Marcelo Bielsa’s thin squad? Would there even be any more games? Thankfully, the rest of the season played out and the right result ensued:
Had the pandemic not swept along, my wife and I had planned to visit England and Scotland in the spring and see Leeds play at Elland Road. We might have wound up at the game where they clinched promotion. Alas, it was not to be. At least the promotion part happened! “Marching On Together” as they say.
* I should note that I do my soccer loyalties like some people do publishing rights – for the United States and then for the rest of the world. I root for DC United in Major League Soccer. Who suck so bad right now they’re giving me all the soccer pain I can handle.