Patrick Bamford is dividing and conquering again
Sometimes it takes a story like the one told by Patrick Bamford this week to persuade football to extract its head from that place where it gets lodged all too easily.
If you haven’t heard it, and you can find his quotes here, the gist of it involved the Leeds United striker returning home after missing a penalty against Newcastle United late last season and finding a few Leeds fans, or people he believed to be Leeds fans, parked across his driveway and giving him the eye.
Leeds were en route to relegation from the Premier League, that penalty in what ended as a 2-2 draw tightened the noose and the mood had become so toxic at Elland Road that an idiot from the crowd who confronted Newcastle head coach Eddie Howe in the technical area wound up with a 12-week jail sentence.
None of that, if the tone of those sentences is at all ambiguous, constitutes fair criticism. None of it constitutes unfair criticism either, both of which Bamford has grown accustomed to with Leeds. The line between those can be thin and debatable, and it is fine to neither rate nor like Bamford.
The Saturday just gone has not won him any friends down the way in Rotherham. But the line between criticism of a footballer and intimidation is a mile wide, with no excuse for crossing it. Abuse is one thing, Bamford said. Feeling threatened at home is another level, and no wonder if the thought occurred that it might be wise to cut his losses and leave the club.
It is not as if these five and a half years as a Leeds player have consistently drenched him in milk and honey, but perhaps that moment found him at his lowest.
He is nothing if not an enigma, Bamford, and partly because the debate around him is so endless and contradictory, with constant twists in the tale. Marcelo Bielsa loved him and the crowd loved Bielsa but that triangle was never able to complete itself, and some of that was down to Bamford. If we’re being frank, some of it was down to his finishing, and latterly his penalties. But at the same time as describing his worst ebb, he looks happier in his skin than he has for a while, with purpose and, crucially, newly-dependable fitness.
Bamford missing good chances was never a concern for Bielsa. All that mattered was that he did what he did as a No 9. But what chance for a player’s reputation when costly misses combine with a body which is always letting him down? The tide turned against him and for so long, injuries and interruptions stopped him from turning it again.
He started a sixth league game in a row in Saturday’s 3-0 mashing of bottom-of-the-table visitors Rotherham United. The last time he did that, in May 2021, he was on the cusp of what’s still his only England call-up — a different lifetime.
That Bamford is back and in the goals is indicative of the fact that he is on the straight and narrow physically, injuries no longer stalking him.
A mark of that came against Norwich City last month, in the league game he settled with a header in the first half. On that night, Bamford covered more distance over 90 minutes than he had at any stage of his Leeds career, nudging up towards 12km, and it hardly needs saying that under Bielsa’s gaze, Leeds’ ability to clock up the miles was legendary.
Bamford was the refresh and change in focal point Daniel Farke required after successive defeats between Christmas and New Year’s Day turned a little fire on the club’s current manager, and this is the next stage in the wait to see if Bamford, when the day comes, moves on from Elland Road with his name in positive or negative equity.
If Leeds have the legs for promotion, taking 18 points from 18 to start 2024, with Bamford in vogue and second place coming into view, will be seen as a moment when they seriously upped the ante.
Five league wins in a row became six without fuss against Rotherham, sparked by a goal which Bamford dubiously claimed as his. Only he knew if it actually was his, but if it was, it should have fallen foul of deliberate handball — the forward flicking an elbow at a Junior Firpo cross, which then caught either Sean Morrison or Christ Tiehi and spun inside Rotherham’s near post.
History shows that Bamford, for all the niceties, has at-all-costs flashes when he indulges the darker arts but whether his sleeve touched the ball or not, he made the crowd think it had, with a beaming smile and no apology.
Leam Richardson, Rotherham’s manager, promised not to make a big deal of it — then said Bamford had “cheated (the officials) out of a decision.”
Rotherham last won away from home in the days of Henry VIII — not quite, but they are genuinely counting the days in hundreds — so when Leeds scored first on Saturday, that was that.
Farke bristles at his team wasting opportunities they should devour, primarily because fixtures could be put to bed more rapidly than they are, but Rotherham, now seven points adrift at the foot of the Championship, offered less than the collection bowl in an empty church.
Crysencio Summerville should have made it 2-0. Bamford and Willy Gnonto should have made it 2-0 also. Summerville eventually did, in the 53rd minute, Georginio Rutter slaloming and playing him in, and then scored Leeds’ third too, when Bamford shaped to take a penalty on the hour before passing the ball to the Dutch winger. Summerville sized it up and dinked in the coldest of Panenkas.
That there — Bamford following the script, common sense prevailing — was everyone on the same page; the only way Leeds as a club ever get anywhere.
Season six at Elland Road rolls on for him, edging him closer to a second Premier League promotion with a club who took 16 years to magic up the first one. Not ignoring the relegation in between, of course, but Bamford was the pivotal finisher in the Premier League season which went well for Leeds, and without much acknowledgement, he took himself past 50 league goals for the club last month, none of which can be in spite of his attributes.
Last season could have been the end for him here. It is no bad thing for Leeds that it wasn’t. And in the grand scheme, the £7million they paid Middlesbrough for Bamford can only go down as £7m well spent.
(Top photo: Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)