My first heartbreak. – By @Mr_Shankly

My first heartbreak.

I was 8 when I first had my heart broken.

You don’t forget moments like that, do you?

It was a bright Tuesday night in May. Via the medium of radio. 

Savage, by anyone’s standards.

But the message was being relayed all the way from Valencia and it would be another 2 years before my parents discovered the possibilities of Sky Sports.

By this point you’ve hopefully realised the grief is of a footballing nature, so if that Bill Shankly quote about football ‘not being about life and death but being more important’ sends your eyes rolling heavenwards (like THAT David Beckham penalty against Portugal in Euro 2004), then now’s probably the time to return to your Sudoku or whatever gets you through self-isolation.

The background to young Alex’s anguish was a Leeds United side that had, against all odds, transformed from a youthful, inexperienced squad into one of the most feared in Europe.

I can still name them now, shamefully quicker than I can recall birthdays of those closest to me.

Martyn. Mills. Matteo. Viduka. Woodgate. Dacourt. Harte. Kelly. 

And then there was young Alan Smith. 

The inspiration behind every haircut I got between ages 7 and 11. The source of my password for every account to this day (pls don’t hack me).

Off the field, all manners of drama had sought to derail the dream. 

The trial and retrial of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate for an incident in a nightclub dominated both headlines and players’ thoughts alike; the £18 million signing of Rio Ferdinand broke the British transfer record; an incredible run of injuries to key players such as David Batty and Harry Kewell saw Leeds drop twenty points at home by Christmas and slump to fourteenth place in the table.

But in Europe, our young team had grown from boys to men. 

Leeds came through a group boasting Barcelona and AC Milan, and then one featuring Real Madrid and Lazio. And once restored to full strength, the team powered through to a battle with Valencia for a place in the Champion’s League final.

My dad and I gathered round the glorious hifi system, crouched in various poses of anxiety.

Despite a nervy opening five minutes, we settled well (both the team and us listeners). 

Then came a gasp of disbelief, crackling across the channel and piercing the Kentish night.

‘Surely he’s used his hand there?!’.

Valencia have scored. Sanchez diving headlong and nudging the ball into the net. Illegally.

These days it’d have been VARed away in a heartbeat. But back then it was another cruel twist of the knife for Leeds in a competition which had dealt them one cruel blow after another.

Precisely 100 seconds after the restart, Sanchez galloped into acres of space before unleashing a clinical left-foot drive into the bottom right hand corner of the Leeds net.

Our misery was completed when my hero, Alan Smith’s, reckless last-minute lunge resulted in a red card.

We never really recovered. 

In fact, the bottom fell through and a few years later we found ourselves bankrupt, playing the likes of Yeovil away in the depths of League 1.

Indeed, “Doing a Leeds” is still a phrase used to describe clubs that experience a similar fate of hubristic demise.

This season however, we’d got back on track for promotion back into the Premier League. Playing football everyone was envious of. Sitting at the top of the table with just 2 months left to play.

And then, as is the Leeds way, an unprecedented global pandemic hit to blow the fate of the whole season into jeopardy.

Maybe I should’ve stuck to Sudoku.

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