the square ball weekBack
The weekend’s superlatives were bestowed on two players believed to exist on another plane, high above the humdrum of mortal footballers: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. In West Yorkshire, though, another superstar forward yet again did his best to convince me that he lives in a world not shared by other human men: Luciano Becchio.
The dramatic turn of the game against Barnsley was the penalty – not much else really happened, so everyone was sure to get as het up as possible when referee Darren Deadman threw ‘An Incident’ our way. I am quite confident that the offending tackle took place outside the box, because if it had been inside, Deadman would surely having given a free kick the other side of the line – he’s that sort of referee. That didn’t stop the Barnsley players pointing, gesturing, yelling, crying, wailing, moaning, and swearing their revenges before the next cock’s crow, most animated of all being keeper Ben Alnwick, making great sweeping statements with his gloved hand to a spot of grass outside the box, near to where Lee Peltier lay choking from the hammer he’d just received to his chest. All quite pointless, of course – as if five minutes after the decision Deadman would suddenly come alive to their point, “Oh, outside the box! Yes chaps quite right, so sorry” – but it kept the Tykes players and fans occupied.
None of this was of interest to Luciano Becchio, of course.
Becchio stood apart on the penalty spot, the ball tucked under his arm, waiting for everyone to calm down so he could do his thing. Alnwick eventually brought his protests over to Luciano, as if he was likely to agree, wittering at our striker and pointing at all the different places the goalie thought the tackle had taken place.
Becchio seemed to listen intently. I’ve wondered lately how much English Luciano truly knows, if his no-Ingleses interviews are just an act, or if he really does have to read the lips to follow the words. I have no idea if he followed Alnwick’s arguments, or if it was all so much white noise to him.
What I do know is that Becchio, quite calmly and quite gently, took the ball in both hands, bounced it off the stunned Alnwick’s forehead, and caught it again. Then he ruffled Alnwick’s hair as if he was about to give him a Werther’s Original. Then he scored past Alnwick with a sublime Panenka and ran away waving his arms like a maniac.
There is a sense of destiny about Luciano and penalties. In the old days, he used to squabble unrepentantly with Beckford and Snodgrass for the right to take a kick, most memorably spinning Snoddy around as neither of the grimly committed schoolboys would let go of the ball. They’ve all gone now, and while Diouf might have some sleight of foot to offer and Austin has the pure net-breaking power, Becchio is top dog and in form and taking every possible style of penalty you can think of.
Becchio is also taking these quiet steps outside the football maelstrom into his own world with increasing regularity. One of my highlights of the win over Forest was when, as Leeds’ defenders lined up to face a dangerous free kick and Paddy Kenny yelled for Becchio to get in the wall, Luciano first decided to drink from a bottle of water he’d found. His thirst satisfied, he threw the bottle, underarm, from the corner of the penalty area to the furthest corner of Kenny’s goal. Both Luci and Paddy forget about the free kick, about the game, and about football as a whole for those five or six seconds as the bottle arched through the air and then struck, with a satisfying clang, the angle of post and cross bar. Paddy looked at Luci. Luci shrugged at Paddy. Paddy went to move the bottle. Luci got into the wall.
The Barnsley game didn’t offer much more excitement than Becchio gave, but given our struggles against the Tykes in recent seasons it is progress to have toughed out three points. Fear and Loathing in LS11 pointed out that by not watching Becchio’s penalty Warnock missed the best bit of the game, which “seemed a seemed a shame, as doubtless the sight of our Argentine forward getting bollocked by our manager for trying to be “flash” while still celebrating the goal, would’ve made for a priceless spectacle.” Jenber’s Blog expected sterner retribution: “Fucking unbelievable that he scored as he did today else Warnock would probably have lodged some studs up his colon for a month.” Jen also put the hard-scrapped win in context against our stalled, takeover-less season so far: “It’s that little bit further, edging back up the scale, a message to send that we’ll get there; that under Warnock more is possible than it has been for a long time.”
That takeover continues to wander in its own weird hinterland between nearly done and never being done. This week continued to be all about publicity from GFH Capital: the interview Hisham Al Rayes gave to CNBC television last week was followed by a conversation between David Haigh and the Telegraph, and a slightly less in-depth spot of coverage in The Sun. This last – in which Haigh was reported to have compared Leeds United to a young Pamela Anderson, with “superb assets and a great future” – was probably the least welcome soundbite I’ve heard around our club since Ken Bates’s own “plenty of foreplay” analogy from last season, the kind of crap I hoped we’d be leaving behind. More positive, though, were the comments in the Telegraph – “It is about getting the focus back on the football and ensuring Premier League promotion with engaged, happy fans. We are long-term investors: there is no two- or three-year exit plan” – which nicely echoed what a GFHC representative had told Leeds United Supporters’ Trust for their pre-AGM statement.
The LUST statement contained one crucial line about GFHC: “they will be judged by Leeds fans on actions, not words,” and it is difficult to form any positive judgements about their actions on Wednesday evening. In a joint statement with LUFC, GFH claimed not to have spoken to LUST and that LUST’s statement was wholly inaccurate. The LUFC/GFH statement is worded so bizarrely that in the end it doesn’t contradict LUST at all, and Shaun Harvey’s closing line: “As with all speculation not all of it’s correct. And we are pleased that both are able to clarify the situation,” is so garbled as to be meaningless. Which leaves one wondering what the point was of such a statement, which contained no useful comments and wound up the 8,300 members of a key Leeds United supporters’ group.
Those events add to a number of questions about the suitability of GFHC as new owners of Leeds United. Right In The Gary Kellys put their tongue in their cheek when comparing David Haigh’s public persona to Jeremy Kyle, but The Scratching Shed bring some of the weightier concerns in their round up of the various reports that have appeared and raised questions about GFH’s track record and previous dealings. Ken Bates began to murmur recently about his legacy, and it was always assumed that Leeds post-Bates would need a certain amount of work: whether David Haigh and co can be the people to buy the club and do that job remains to be seen.
A man with a more assured legacy at Leeds is Howard Wilkinson, whose influence not just on Leeds but on English football as a whole was back in focus this week. The FA’s new facility at St George’s Park is finally completed, and Wilko told the Yorkshire Post how its opening concludes a job he started fourteen years ago. Howard’s vision, of course, dates back much further than that, to when he dragged Leeds United away from the rough facilities of Fullerton Park for the purpose-built, state of the art academy at Thorp Arch. “In many respects, Thorp Arch was the baby of St George’s Park,” said Wilkinson, and if St George’s Park can produce on a national scale what Thorp Arch produced for Leeds at the end of the nineties, we could eventually have a national team to be proud of. Travels of a Leeds Fan has a different idea in mind for Howard: “What about Sgt Wilko returning to the Theatre of Hope to knock some sense into the boardroom at Elland Road? … it’s time Leeds planned for the future and not just the next twelve months. Is Wilko the man for the job? Well, paraphrasing Brian Clough, ‘He’s in the top one.’”
It’s not a bad idea at all. And Howard, always one willing to ponder at length the meaning of our place in life and the universe, would find a case-study waiting for him in the shape of Luciano Becchio.