To demand a result at Brentford that trumps anything Burnley got against Newcastle United was, on the face of it, miracle territory – wing and prayer stuff.
The football gods haven’t been kind this season, taking it with one hand and then the other too, and, of course, they’ve had one last joke at Leeds’ expense.
Much of the hope in recent weeks has rested on the potential involvement of Patrick Bamford, who returned from an ankle injury in September to score at home against Brentford only to suffer a hamstring injury. He recovered from it only to damage his quad and then his plantar fascia. He came back only to break down after 23 minutes at Wolves.
On Friday, Jesse Marsch expected to have his striker available. He was back in practice, running on the foot that had tormented him so much and eager to get going. On Sunday, he was bedridden with Covid-19. It seemed completely in line with his and Leeds’ annus horribilis.
So no Bamford, no Adam Forshaw, Stuart Dallas, Luke Ayling, Daniel James, no momentum and no control over half the events that would decide their fate.
On Friday, Tyler Roberts returned to training for the first time since his hamstring surgery. On Sunday, he was on the bench just in case. Leeds have had bare bones all season, stomping their way through a ghost train ride, haunted by increasingly hysterical pressure and fear.
The Premier League table has long favored Leeds as other teams haven’t taken advantage of Los Blancos’ inconsistency and struggles. But, when the results started to turn elsewhere, the table stopped looking kind and a bad season threatened to overtake Leeds like a rock rolling downhill.
And yet they thumbed their noses at injuries, mathematical odds, form guide, predictions – few, including this correspondent, left them much luck when they fell into the relegation zone before the last day – and jumped out of the way to disaster at the very last second. Luckily, they didn’t need the gods, as they had Raphinha, winning and scoring a penalty, and Jack Harrison, firing in a 94th-minute winner.
It was survival the hard way, Leeds style, but won with a victory and a total of 38 points that proved enough.
It wasn’t a vintage performance at Brentford but it was as good as it got and maybe even better than you’d expect under the circumstances.
Details of the game will fade over time as the scenes go full time, but it’s important to note that Marsch, who can’t say he’s completely done with the entire fan base , understood when it mattered. Dropping Mateusz Klich, one of the best players on the pitch against Brighton, and replacing him with Sam Greenwood to send out Leeds’ youngest side of the season was a brave move. It was surely an opportunity to have firm hands, a cool head and experience. Wouldn’t a rookie wilt in the heat of London and the tension of relegation?
As the first few minutes progressed, even the oldest of Marsch’s men felt it. What Leeds fans inside the Brentford Community Stadium least needed to see in the opening 10 seconds was Ivan Toney charging Diego Llorente’s clearance – from the visitors’ kick-off no less – and winning a corner. They didn’t need to see Illan Meslier smack Liam Cooper to reach a ball under pressure, or the keeper fumble a routine catch near his goal line.
Leeds went through those moments, however, and the more they settled into the game, the more evident it became that Marsch’s big call was working. Greenwood, brought to Elland Road as a striker, was sharp in midfield alongside Kalvin Phillips and shone brighter than most in the first half. He spotted Jack Harrison in space on the left, whose effort was somewhere between a cross and a shot, drifting past the far post.
Then came a moment that felt scripted and ultimately turned out to be too good to be true. Harrison sent the ball in behind for Joe Gelhardt, just as Newcastle were awarded a penalty at Burnley. Gelhardt did his job, sending the ball crashing past David Raya, and Callum Wilson did his, beating Nick Pope from the spot. VAR taking over Gelhardt’s slightly offside position and ruling out the goal cut short half of the celebrations but, even at 0-0, the Whites were out of the drop zone.
They were playing well too, taking the game to Brentford and playing it in the right area of the pitch for the most part until half an hour later they stopped dealing with the ball and conceded possession, territory and chances .
Leeds survived the spell and, as they came back down the tunnel at half-time, they survived in the Premier League.
It was never going to be easy – Mbeumo wasted a glorious chance when he played behind Firpo again in the second half and Rodrigo did the same when Raphinha’s inside pass and the angle of his run took him into the surface.
It took an error from David Raya to make the breakthrough, his errant pass caught by Raphinha that went past the keeper and fired a challenge at him that Paul Tierney could only interpret one way. As everyone around him was living on their last nerve, Raphinha kept his and put the ball in the net.
Another Newcastle goal four minutes later was celebrated just as wildly and suddenly all that stood between Leeds and safety was a 30-minute period of football in which they could not concede twice .
A goal for Burnley raised nerves and, although Kristoffer Ajer limped off with all of Brentford’s substitutions made to give Leeds an advantage, the Bees equalized.
Pascal Struijk, who was replacing Gelhardt in a defensive change from Marsch, missed a tackle in the middle of the park and the hosts were out. Yoane Wissa crossed at the back post, Sergi Canos headed home and Leeds were one goal behind Burnley away from relegation.
In the carnage, Canos’ yellow card for his goal celebration was missed by many in the ground and, when he annihilated Raphinha, the red card followed his second caution. Leeds were up against nine men for the final 10 minutes. That must have been it.
At first, it all seemed a bit too much. What they had on the power play, they lacked composure, failing to hold off the ball properly and allowing the nine men to smash into them, creating unbearable tension. Survival was in their hands and they juggled it.
Someone was needed to grasp fate by the skin and Harrison decided it would be him. He picked up a loose ball on the edge, drilled it past Raya and Leeds had pulled themselves up to terra firma, with Burnley floating towards the Championship. Yes, it required a diversion. No, nobody cared.
The celebrations continued until the final whistle, when roars touched the heavens and Raphinha gave thanks in her own way, ‘paying a promise’ by walking onto the pitch on her knees after asking for divine intervention. Seconds earlier, he had twirled a Brazil flag around his head, halfway up the stand holding fans outside, leading the congregation in worship of the feat.
If it was his goodbye, that was just about perfect, but all of that can wait. It was a sacred moment for Leeds United, back from the dead.