What mattered most for Leeds in wild Norwich drama - Graham Smyth's Verdict
Football, to borrow from the lexicon of Leeds United head coach Jesse Marsch, is ‘awesome’ again.
When it delivers moments like the one that turned Elland Road into a sea of bodies in the 94th minute, there are few words more apt.
Raw emotion exploded forth in all four stands. There was drama as far as the eye could see. From the boyish glee of match winner Joe Gelhardt, verging on disbelief at what he had just done, to the pure relief of Raphinha and Jesse Marsch, Leeds was United in feeling once more.
A good first step against Leicester City had given way to a backwards leap against Aston Villa, cranking up the pressure, tension and uncertainty about the club’s precarious Premier League position and the suitability of this new man in the technical area.
None of that mattered as Raphinha rounded Tim Krul and smoothly cut the ball back for Gelhardt to score from a couple of yards. That Norwich were battered for the first 45 minutes and allowed to go down the tunnel just 1-0 down didn’t matter as Gelhardt sprinted off to the corner flag, pursued by a stampede of team-mates and the Leeds bench.
That Leeds contrived to miss so many chances and allow Norwich back into the game with a stoppage-time equaliser didn’t matter as Marsch leapt off the ground, Mark Jackson threw a fist in the air and Victor Orta wept.
Tomorrow can look after itself when living in the moment feels this good.
And when moments like that one have been so scarce ever since the pandemic locked fans out in 2020 - the last one of this magnitude was arguably Luke Ayling's wondergoal against Huddersfield Town in the final game before lockdown - they have to be allowed to linger.
By the time Marsch sat down with the press he was already steering the conversation back to the work still to be done, but he allowed himself to get lost in the moment that brought his first win as Leeds boss – so lost that he was holding Dan James in the centre circle when Jackson pointed him in the direction of the waiting Dean Smith.
Marsch issued an apology, the pair shook hands and went their separate ways. Another two or probably three wins are needed now to ensure the two clubs go their separate ways for the 2022/23 season.
Leeds know they will have to match or probably better this performance to get those victories, but you can only beat what’s in front of you and ultimately, even if they left it late, they did enough.
The amount of credit you get for beating bottom side Norwich is usually tempered, yet to do so Leeds had to drag themselves off the canvas. Changes from the Villa game were necessary and the game’s magnitude convinced Marsch to give Patrick Bamford his first start since September. He partnered Mateusz Klich with Adam Forshaw in the midfield too, and brought Diego Llorente into the back four.
Jack Harrison, Robin Koch and the injured Junior Firpo dropped out. Rodrigo, despite stinking the place out against Villa, remained in the side after a heart-to-heart with Marsch.
From the off, his eagerness to prove he’s the leader Marsch claims him to be was evident, manifesting in a couple of early fouls. He and Leeds were aggressive, tiptoeing the line between control and indiscipline and testing Stuart Attwell’s patience. The referee’s leniency saw an early penalty appeal for Milot Rashica waved away. Off the ball Leeds were tigerish, on it they were rushed, Marsch appealing for calm from the touchline roughly a minute before calm left the building.
Diego Llorente’s long ball for Bamford was headed out only as far as James, he knocked it into the area and Rodrigo spun to fire in off the post, via a slight deflection. The Spaniard beckoned the subs and staff for a mass celebration, while Norwich lost their cool over Bamford’s offside position in the build up.
Tim Krul and the woodwork kept Norwich in it as Leeds visibly grew in confidence, Rodrigo ticking over nicely and Bamford making a world of difference as a target for passes and aerial balls. Had Bamford’s knock for Raphinha resulted in a volleyed goal instead of a rattling crossbar, or had Pascal Struijk not blazed over a three-yard rebound from his own free header, the floodgates could well have opened.
In the absence of further goals, there was non-stop drama. Luke Ayling was only shown yellow for his VAR-checked lunge on Rashica and James was barged down from behind in the area by Brandon Williams.
The Whites missed their best chance yet when Raphinha played in Bamford and he shot wide with only Krul to beat, rust, indecision or both getting the better of the striker, who was replaced by Jack Harrison at the break.
Leeds weren’t as much of a threat in the second half but still appeared to have it all under control ahead of the hour mark. James had a goal chalked off for offside and then ignored a simple pass to put Klich into the area, shooting himself to be denied by Krul’s diving save.
Klich was playing well alongside the quietly efficient and dogged Forshaw. Rodrigo was finding space in which to operate and showing fight. All in all the midfield was working as it should, but with the goalscorer’s quad muscle tightening, Marsch had to send on Koch and push Klich further forward.
Norwich then began to have their moments. Jonathan Rowe smashed a shot against Meslier’s crossbar from 14 yards and with the woodwork wobbling, Leeds did too. Teemu Pukki was given too much time and space in the box, enough to find Rashica who went down as Ayling slid in. Attwell gave a penalty, Mike Dean recommended a second look and replays got Leeds off the hook.
The reversed decision was celebrated like a goal and the noise inside Elland Road only added to tension clearly felt by both sides, as tempers began to fray.
Leeds desperately needed insurance and Norwich needed an equaliser with equal desperation. Raphinha hit the bar with a free-kick and Norwich hit the net to seemingly undo all the hosts’ good work. A ball over the top found Pukki, his cross found Kenny McClean and he found the back of Illan Meslier’s goal. For a team who had the stuffing knocked clean out of them three days earlier, it was a hammer blow and perhaps the stiffest test yet of their mettle.
Marsch responded with Gelhardt and with two minutes of the added six remaining the vertically challenged teen rose to win a big header, against the odds, and sent Raphinha away on the right. The Brazilian dribbled past Krul and as all of Elland Road lost its head, he kept his, finding the pass that gave Gelhardt his and Leeds’ moment.
There was time yet for more drama but Meslier was in the right place to pull off a point-blank save from Pukki .
When the sides met at Carrow Road, Leeds weren’t great but they had an in-form Raphinha and character. At Elland Road they were good but still needed their star man and every bit of their character.
The full-time whistle sent Raphinha and many others to their knees, joy abounding at long, long last, but Leeds are back on their feet and moving forward, finally. It is but one moment in a season that still requires much more of Marsch and his men, but the American said after that he will take this one to his deathbed. For him and everyone lucky enough to be inside Elland Road, it was awesome.