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the square ball week

the square ball week


Reputations are a big deal in football. One act can see you branded for life in the eyes of the supporting public – whether for good or bad. And if you constantly do the same thing over and over, the football world will notice, and it’ll mark you out. Ashley Young dives, so Ashley Young is a diver. John Charles never gave in to provocation, so John will always be The Gentle Giant. Once your reputation is established in football, that becomes your trademark, and everything you do from then on is seen in the shadow of that thing that defines you. Just look at events at Leeds United over the last seven days.

If I had one concern about Neil Warnock when he became manager at Leeds – and to be honest, I had several – it was that his reputation threatened to eclipse our club. It’s been so long since Leeds had a ‘famous’ manager – Venables was probably the last – that I feared Warnock and his long track record would become a bigger story than United. In the first few weeks, my fears were proven. ‘Warnock, Warnock, what’s the score?’ sang Nottingham Forest’s fans when they beat us 7-3, when before Colin arrived they would have been goading us, not our big-name-off-the-telly manager; it didn’t sit right with me that teams would beat Leeds United, but see beating our manager as the bigger scalp.

The flipside with Neil Warnock, of course, is that with Warnock you get a Warnock team, a template well known throughout football: hard-working, up for a scrap, cynical when required, never-saying-die. In a world where Pep Guardiola exists, it’s not the reputation many modern coaches would wish to have, but when it works, my god, it works. First Forest, then Everton: two tough matches, two hard battles, two great victories. I came away from the Forest game thinking I’d just seen the archetypal Neil Warnock performance, the game they’ll show on coaching courses ten years from now as a nod back to classic management techniques. Watching Rodolph Austin charge, demented with the ball, straight to the corner flag to wind the clock down, left me in no doubt that we were getting the full Warnock. And much as I love watching Barcelona and slick attacking football, I cheered Austin all the way there, clapped with the rest at every delayed throw-in, every hoof away from goal.

Fear and Loathing in LS11 highlighted another plus point in Dom Poleon’s “Look what I’ve done, boss!” moment, preserved in gif format by Howson is Now here. While we’re about it, you might as well get your desktop or iPhone Rodolph Austin wallpaper from HiN, too.

A repeat against Everton seemed too much to hope for, but it’s exactly what we got: “a performance straight out of Neil Warnock’s top drawer,” according to Travels of a Leeds Fan. If the Forest win was Warnock like, this took Warnock-like, removed a few first teamers, raised the standard of opposition, chucked in a monsoon for good measure and left eleven sodden Leeds players to make themselves heroes. As Amitai Winehouse at Spoughts wrote, ‘man of mystery’ Aidy White doesn’t have a reputation for goalscoring, and yet he came up with this; while the rest of the game only reinforced everything that makes Leeds Leeds: most of all, unwavering commitment against the odds. I joked the other week about the prospect of a Brown Pughy Tonge in midfield, as much because I’m really, really childish as anything else, but on Tuesday the three of them earned their right to wear the shirt. With Pearce taking eight stitches to keep his eyebrow together, and Lees having his own Terry Butcher moment, it became harder and harder to find someone who wasn’t giving their all. The crowd was small, the night was cold and wet, the game by-and-large didn’t matter (remind of that remark if we end up winning the cup, by the way), and yet this was a game that exactly fitted people’s expectations of a Leeds side, that conformed to the reputation formed in the top flight and in Europe.

The performance of El Hadji Diouf, meanwhile, went completely against his reputation, although the Everton fans did their utmost to remind him of his past. That past remains as unsavoury as ever, but it’s hard to resist his present. Becchio Well Placed wrote about how being at a big club is helping Diouf, and there’s little doubt that having a big personality as manager is also bringing the best out of him. Against Forest and Everton Diouf’s skill and experience showed through, and while fans and opposing players still try to wind him up, he’s yet to respond with anything other than sarcastic smiles and waves. I have no doubt we’ll have some frustrating days ahead watching Diouf, and with a contract only until January, we need to ensure his thoughts don’t wander elsewhere, but at the moment it looks like Neil and El Hadji have pulled this one off. Warnock’s effect on other strikers was also looked at by Right in the Gary Kellys this week: first as Becchio becomes feared again, and secondly with the optimism that he could work his magic with Davide Somma soon.

While Diouf turns his reputation around, one man continues to travel in his same-old same-old groove. The breaking of the club’s silence around the takeover at the weekend should have been cause for celebration, but it turned instead to farce, as Ken Bates hid his much-hyped Yorkshire Radio and LUTV ‘update’ behind thickly smeared attacks on – well, it might be easier to say who he didn’t have a go at, but LUST and Phil Hay of the YEP bore the brunt. The Supporters’ Trust calmly rebuffed Bates the next day, but Ken wasn’t done, mentioning LUST chair Gary Cooper five times by name in his programme notes against Everton and trying to stoke animosity between LUST and the Leeds United Disabled Organisation, who quickly put out a joint statement to rubbish Bates’s claims.

If you’re looking for reputations, they don’t come much more concrete than Bates’s. Jim White in the Telegraph, in an article heralding Ken’s departure from football, runs the rule again over some of the many skeletons that aren’t so much hidden in Ken’s cupboard, as carrying him aloft on a sedan chair, while Two Hundred Percent revisit his more recent diplomatic failures. White doesn’t even touch on the saga of the Irish Trust Bank or Ken’s history of business in the illegal racist state of Rhodesia on his way to trying to build over a Caribbean island; but he does mention the twenty years of bilious programme notes he left behind at Chelsea, while David Conn in The Guardian goes on to reveal that The FA have charges pending against Bates for bringing the game into disrepute, for using the programme and Yorkshire Radio to harass Melvyn Levi. Conn’s article mentions that Gary Cooper is considering putting Ken’s recent remarks before The FA too, but after so many years and so many repeat performances, you imagine a poor FA official sighing sadly and putting them in a cabinet with all the others.

Bates’s comments, meanwhile, just roll off Gary, who continues to present to the media the very opposite of what Bates presents to the few media outlets he still tolerates: calm, measured and respectful, Cooper’s reputation for good words well spoken has grown so much this summer that with the latest takeover developments on Thursday, it was the LUST chair appearing on Radio Leeds, Radio Aire, Radio 5 Live, Look North, and Calendar, rather than the chair of LUFC.

That takeover news came in the shape of a letter to the Bahrain Bourse stock exchange, annoucing that GFH Capital have “signed an exclusive agreement to lead and arrange the acquisition of Leeds City Holdings, the parent company of LUFC.” This followed regular tweets from GFH’s David Haigh, Hisham Alrayes and Salem Patel, who were watching from the executive seats as Leeds beat Forest and Everton. Whether this statement or GFH’s presence at games actually means the takeover is any nearer completion still – still! – isn’t clear, but an announcement to the stock exchange is a big step to take, and the letter is the first time we’ve heard the words ‘acquistion of Leeds City Holdings’ from people directly involved, a more definite statement than ‘investment in the club.’

In a game where reputation is everything, however, that’s one aspect where GFH remain mysterious. We have Twitter accounts and a statement, and a brief shuffle around GFH’s website turns up some fairly underwhelming sets of accounts, but beyond that we don’t even know if GFH are ‘leading’ this deal for themselves yet, or acting for someone else. No doubt we’ll be able to delve deep once the deal, finally, is done, but whoever the new owners are, it seems they have a rare opportunity. While Diouf tries to shake off his bad boy history; while Warnock smelts his dour reputation into quality results; while Leeds live off nights like Tuesday to remind ourselves that glory can still be ours; and while Bates continues to present the caricature of himself that was chiselled in concrete at Oldham in 1965; the new owners’ reputation does not precede them, and that give us hope, and them a chance to make a bold, fresh start.