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Leeds complete glorious return - but nobody there to see it

Leeds United 4 Fulham 3

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Leeds United's Patrick Bamford celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game. Photo: Oli Scarff/NMC Pool/PA Wire

Leeds United's Patrick Bamford celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game. Photo: Oli Scarff/NMC Pool/PA Wire

PA

Leeds United's Patrick Bamford celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game. Photo: Oli Scarff/NMC Pool/PA Wire

Elland Road is a ghostly shell, a vision of vast hollowness on what should have been its grandest day for 16 years. And yet The Old Peacock pub opposite, which bleeds Leeds to the extent that one patron has stationed a Winnebago in club colours in the car park, is full, with every one of its distanced tables pre-booked.

It will, in time, be one of the pandemic's many mysteries: why watching a match outside in crisp September sunshine is deemed an intolerable risk, while gathering for an afternoon's drinking indoors, Covid's favoured habitat, is actively encouraged.

"If it's not safe to watch the game at the ground, I don't think it's safe to watch it indoors at the pub," says Chris Hall, of the Leeds United Supporters' Club. "I want to return to the days when we're all together. But I would rather be together inside a stadium. We are desperate to get back there. Football without fans isn't the same."

In a benighted year, the spectacle of a forsaken Elland Road on a Premier League match-day, its first since 2004, counts among the bleakest. A hastily printed notice hangs in the ticket office window to warn that booths will be closing at 5pm on March 23, and will remain so until further notice. Almost six months on, still no update.

Ghost towns are such chilling relics because they stand untouched from the moment they are abandoned. This should have been a day of vibrancy and euphoria, as the restlessness of supporters long denied top-flight pleasures could at last be let loose.

The lockdown-defying sights of summer - a Championship-winning side staging an open-top bus parade, while Marcelo Bielsa posed with autograph-hunters at his home - hinted at a fan base ready to erupt.

A lid is being kept firmly on their passions, though. The scarf stall beside the Billy Bremner statue packs up for business an hour before kick-off. A few fans do stop to have their pictures taken by their monument, if only to mark one of the club's strangest days.

All across Bremner Square is a mosaic of granite tiles, each marked with the name of a fan who has paid for the privilege. Eddie Gray, such is his status as a club icon, has been given 18 tiles on his own. Typically, Gray would be at the ground delivering commentary for club radio, but he must settle for now with being on the outside looking in. "It's such a pity the fans can't be there, because the whole city is buzzing just now, with the club being back in the Premier League," he says.

"The opening performance against Liverpool didn't do anything to diminish the optimism."

Much is made of how assiduously Bielsa compels players to follow his system, but the only constant seems to be glorious defensive chaos. "He's adored within the city," Gray says. "You only have to look at the murals popping up: 'In Bielsa We Trust'. It is deserved, when you look at what he has done for the club in two years. The people have taken him to their hearts. He walks around Wetherby with a backpack and he sits on a bucket. The other thing to stress is his ability to get players to perform. He has improved them beyond recognition."

That much is evident from the display by Patrick Bamford, who electrifies the victory over Fulham, scoring the third goal and teeing up Helder Costa for the fourth. "Our ratio for creating chances is amazing," Hall says. "There's a lot of hope. Bielsa does so much research, puts so much effort into everything he does."

The suggested limit of 1,000 fans for this game was deemed too draconian to be worth the bother. And so still they wait. Their Elland Road cathedral is one that they can see but not savour. The only certainty is that in a city of such soul, this most austere of realities cannot last. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk