Leeds United were falling apart again – but Luke Ayling wouldn’t let them

The chants were inevitable as soon as Lukas Jutkiewicz’s 61st-minute equaliser hit the back of Kiko Casilla’s goal.

Leeds United had started the game at St Andrew’s with a serene control not seen since Sean Morrison pulled a second goal back for Cardiff City at Elland Road. That was only in mid-December, but Leeds cruising at 3-1 that day feels like a lifetime ago.

They ended up drawing 3-3 and since then Marcelo Bielsa’s men had banged their heads in frustration at Fulham and scrapped their way to a point against a Preston side that almost bullied their way to all three.

Then on Sunday, Leeds were suddenly 2-0 up inside 21 minutes against Birmingham City and cruising again.

Then they weren’t. Sixteen-year-old Jude Bellingham, taking a break from asking bigger boys to buy him beer from the off licence, pulled a goal back, and the Peacocks imploded.

When Jutkiewicz equalised in the second half, taking advantage of some weak goalkeeping by Casilla, the refrain that has haunted Leeds for the last three years rang out around the West Midlands.

“Leeds, Leeds are falling apart again.”

It was an all too familiar sound towards the end of Garry Monk’s reign as manager in 2016-17, when Leeds blew an 11-point cushion to drop out of the top six and watch neighbours Huddersfield Town penalty shootout their way to promotion.

Leeds supporters have tried to ironically reclaim the chant ever since, but each campaign has ended with the song being ultimately prophetic – last season’s play-off semi-final defeat to Derby County being the most emphatic case in point.

There are only a handful of survivors from Monk’s season in charge left at Elland Road, but in the intervening years, they have only collected more mental and physical scars, with each addition soundtracked with glee by a chorus written – to add insult to injury – by a band from Manchester.

Come Birmingham’s equaliser at St Andrew’s, one of those survivors, Luke Ayling, had clearly had enough. Having already berated team-mates Gjanni Alioski and Jack Harrison in the aftermath of Birmingham’s first goal – and again just minutes later as Leeds’ left side were given the runaround by child prodigy Bellingham – Ayling took it upon himself to drag his side back from the brink of psychological oblivion.

Running onto Alioski’s cross-field pass, Ayling’s first touch took him past Birmingham’s Jeremie Bela. His second and third touches teed the bouncing ball up temptingly on the edge of the area. His fourth touch screamed the fucker into the back of the net.

It was Ayling’s third goal in over 100 appearances for Leeds, all three of which have been celebrated exactly like you would expect a man who once went just shy of four years without scoring to celebrate, flailing his arms and legs around at St Andrew’s like a child coming up on a sugar rush at his first school disco.

Never a team to turn down an opportunity for masochism, Leeds weren’t done there. More soft set-piece defending allowed Bela to make it 3-3. Again, Ayling was having none of it.

Within a minute of Bela’s header, Leeds’ right-back was driving his team forward, marauding into the left side of Birmingham’s half, passing the ball to Harrison on the wing and continuing his run towards the edge of the box. The ball returned to Ayling’s feet, and he scruffily picked out Stuart Dallas to side foot into the top corner.

You probably know the final score by now. It was only fitting Leeds ended a decade in which they perfected absurdity by trying their best to squander a 4-3 lead as Alioski – a Macedonian lunatic initially signed to play on the right wing but wearing No.10 and being deployed as a left-back – bombed forward and lost the ball in the 91st minute, leaving himself completely out of position as Birmingham took advantage of the empty space for Jutkiewicz to score his second.

The hosts could have been forgiven for bringing out Peter Hook to play bass guitar in the middle of the pitch and kickstart the chant there and then, but the psychedelic odyssey of Bielsa’s 18 months in charge was summed up by the sight of Gaetano Berardi, brought on as a third centre-back to shore things up at 4-3, winning the ball deep in the opposition’s half as Leeds refused to accept anything less than all three points.

Ayling, quite rightly, was the hero, showing both bloody-minded grit and cool-headed composure to get to the byline and fire the ball across goal, forcing Wes Harding to divert it past his own goalkeeper, followed by another charming I-don’t-know-what-to-do celebration.

The 28-year-old is thriving in his role as one of the leaders in this Leeds squad, speaking with pride at his chance to captain the team when the club celebrated its centenary in October, coming in a much more straightforward 1-0 victory over Birmingham.

There is also a lesser-known story regarding the influence of Ayling from that match.

When the club initially approached the squad with the idea of recreating the classic photo of Don Revie’s legendary team waving to the adoring Elland Road faithful, the players were self-consciously reluctant. By the time staff arrived at the training ground the following day, they found Ayling leading his team-mates in front of a mirror, ensuring each player was correctly reflecting the corresponding member of Revie’s 1974 title winners depending on where they were stood in the line.

Leeds’ latest victory over Birmingham means they end the decade top of the Championship, eight points clear of third and favourites for promotion.

Their fans are taking little for granted, however, given they ended the previous decade top of League One, eight points clear of second with a game in hand and favourites for promotion, only to eventually secure second place on the last day of the season thanks to the most dramatic of victories over Bristol Rovers, coming back from a goal down with 10 men to drag themselves over the line.

Leeds so nearly completely fell apart 10 years ago and, let’s face it, they will no doubt threaten to do so again this season. With the strength of character epitomised by Luke Ayling, they may just hold things together.

By Rob Conlon

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