Leeds United tears as hope evaporates into Wembley air on day new memories were carved out

In the end, it’s the hope that kills you. And for Leeds United all that is now left is hope, hope that next season can bring the Premier League return the club missed out on this year in the most agonising situations of all.

If you’re going to get promoted, doing it in front of 40,000 plus of your passionate supporters is most certainly the way to do it. But when you lose at Wembley, it’s the worst place to be. Memories have still been made, a first visit to the national stadium for many and in the future the good memories will survive, but that won’t feel like much consolation right now.

Four years after Covid spoiled the promotion party for Marcelo Bielsa’s men, nobody was going to stop Leeds fans enjoying this day, until 24 minutes into the game that is.

After one or two sleepless nights in anticipation, Leeds fans arrived early in the London district of Brent, stepping out of Wembley Park tube station to the sight of the now famous arch. Making their way along Olympic Way towards the stadium, each step was greeted with the decibel level increasing and the heart rate doing the same.

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A day of anticipation was punctuated by mixed emotions of hope, expectation and trepidation. Leeds fans had been here before after all. Their last elevation to the Premier League had been 16 years in the making, now 16 years on from the crushing League One play-off final defeat to Doncaster Rovers, the Whites were back at the national stadium for the first time hoping for a different result. A different result for a club in a much different place than those dark days of the third tier.

For those too young to remember there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. Wide eyes and even wider smiles were on show as children climbed on shoulders, held parents’ hands and proudly wore their shirts. For a few hours at least, it felt like Wembley was the selfie capital of the world, with every moment an opportunity to be captured.

The atmosphere was vociferous, but good natured. The fact Southampton had sold out their allocation must have been questioned until actually entering the stadium as it felt like for every Saints shirt on show there were 20 Leeds ones. Inside the BoxPark which had 24 hours earlier entertained Manchester City supporters, the roof was ready to come off as the party really started.

On the steps leading up to the stadium which in recent years have replaced the two long walkways, the vast number of security will go home tonight and find themselves humming “All Leeds are we” such is the amount of times those four words filled the concourse. If the atmosphere outside was concert-like, inside was like a cauldron of noise. A competition between rival fans who could make the most noise, it served to whip the full house into a frenzy, with a brief rainstorm maybe cooling temperatures but not the fevered approach to kick-off.

And so the back and forth continued with every “marching on together” met with, “when the Saints go marching in,” until with 24 minutes on the clock Wembley erupted again, unfortunately in a sea of red and white limbs as Southampton celebrated the opening goal from Adam Armstrong.

A sucker-punch to deflate the most optimistic, Leeds supporters were losing the battle on the field and in the stands as deflation overtook the senses, for a short while at least. The second half brought fresh optimism and hope, along with fresh legs on the pitch. But as Crysencio Sumerville, Dan James and Georginio Rutter all saw chances come and go, so went Leeds’ hopes and as the final whistle sounded any hope that remained evaporated into the mild Wembley night air.

Now, where there were smiles and wide eyes as big as the Wembley arch, there was now tears and a sense of frustration and disappointment at what may have been. Leeds fans had come in hope and left with an all too familiar feeling in the pit of their stomach. And like 16 years ago, there hadn’t even been a goal to celebrate.

The club will regroup, the fans will be back at a sold out Eland Road for the opening home game of next season, but for now the sense of what could have been will hurt.