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the square ball week: 15 chances

the square ball week: 15 chances


Photo by May Sports Images

Dexter Blackstock now has 15 chances. It’s an odd element of loan deals that while they’re often talked about as ‘an opportunity’, they actually define that opportunity and limit it from the start. 

We know Blackstock will be leaving on January 25th; it was announced as part of his arrival. The end of his career at Leeds is already there, in its beginning. Leeds will play 15 games while Blackstock is here; it’s like buying 15 tickets to a sideshow at the fair. 15 goes for a goldfish.

You can cut that down straight away to 14 and a half at most. Brian McDermott seems to set a great deal by being fair to his players, and it would be uncharacteristic – and a mistake – if Mathieu Smith didn’t start against Huddersfield tomorrow. He was a key part of an excellent all-round performance against Birmingham, and his two goals – almost three – showed once and for all that he ain’t gonna be no Billy Paynter II at Leeds United. As Eamo said on Twitter, if this is an emergency loan, “What was the emergency?”

It was a different story this time last week. Brian McDermott had spoken about the importance of getting the right players in, and then not got any; instead he lined up with an unproven striker and brought Brown and Pugh back to the bench. It worked, and perhaps it was fate as much as judgement – would Blackstock have played like Smith against Birmingham, if he’d been here in time?

It’s probably in Matt Smith’s mind, too. He seems a pragmatic and intelligent sort – as a footballer with a degree, he’s already regarded as some sort of tweedy, pipe-smoking academic – but he can’t be pleased that Blackstock has arrived. He’ll smile and talk about competition for places, sure. But he’ll want to win that competition. Dexter Blackstock will tell the press he’s looking forward to working with all the strikers. But he’ll be watching from the bench on Saturday, willing that Bambi-legged bastard to screw it up so he can get a go. They’re both hungry, and that’s healthy. But if they both get angry, that’s not.

In Marc Bracha’s book, Bairdy’s Gonna Get Ya!, the tale is told of how Ian Baird reacted when Lee Chapman arrived halfway through the second division title season. The goals weren’t flowing for Baird, but he told Marc, “The highest compliment I received was that Howard Wilkinson continued to play me every week, unless I was injured.” Then Wilkinson bought Chapman. 

“I immediately thought, ‘I’m not having that.’ I was furious … Wilkinson called me in for a chat, and he explained that he wanted me to stay and fight for my place. I told him I wasn’t playing second fiddle and I wanted to go.”

In hindsight Baird knows that the subsequent move to Middlesbrough was a mistake – injuries to Davison and Shutt would have kept him in contention, and a championship medal could have been his. But his reaction was completely natural. 

I can’t imagine Matt Smith hammering on his manager’s door – it would be more of a tap-tap-tap as if fearful of disturbing a tutor – but we know from Warnock’s book that McCormack probably spent more time in the manager’s office last season than Warnock did, while Ryan Hall’s position on whatever is further away than something that is further away than the sidelines – Sheffield, say – has landed him in trouble.

The Yorkshire Post reckon that it probably wasn’t the dull-headed tweets about ‘getting payed’ that got Hall suspended, but retweeting a fan’s comment after he got an assist for Sheffield United: “Ryan Hall comes on and sets up a goal from a decent cross. Something we’ve been missing all season so wake up McDermott.” A suspension might be an extreme reaction, but having his players suggest in public that he should ‘wake up’ is not likely to go down well with McDermott. 

Ryan’s not the only one who can’t get in the side, and the YEP’s interview with Noel Hunt – “It’s not the first time he’s dropped me in his career or mine and I’ve never once felt that he was treating me unfairly” – and McDermott’s own comments about Brown and Pugh – “The way they’ve conducted themselves has been excellent … It all comes down to having the right attitude and that has to be the way. There’s no negotiation on that” – could both be read as pointed messages to Hall about where he’s going wrong. A clearer message might be to tell him to stop being such a baby, but that might be why I’ve never liked Football Manager as much since the player interaction stuff came in. 

There’s a ‘modern football’ aspect to all this, in that football demands that you, first, assemble a massive squad, then, second, give that squad the means to moan on the internet. You never would have got this back in the days when Leeds United’s team every week was the ten fittest players plus Madeley, and the extent to which some clubs push their squads is ridiculous; Chelsea have 16 players out on season long loans right now, while Parma have kicked things up a notch: they have a core squad of 30, and an overall  squad of more than 200 players, with 100 out on loan, 50 playing elsewhere on co-ownership deals, and others biding their time at feeder clubs. You might want to remind Howard Wilkinson of the time he had a furious Baird in his office, and see how he feels about multiplying that by 200.

Ian Baird’s story shows that unhappy players are nothing new, though. Wilko signed a lot of players to get Leeds up that season, but shipped a lot out to kept the squad as a fairly tight unit – and he still couldn’t keep Baird happy. The squad was even leaner when we won the whole damn league in 1992, but to this day Steve Hodge still seems a bit disappointed that he didn’t get more time in the team. On the other hand, John McClelland will tell you he was delighted to play in a title winning team at all, and that his medal is his prized possession. It’s not about modern football; it’s about temperament, and management. 

Matt Smith looks to have a good temperament, and Brian McDermott is a good manager; we’ll have to wait and see how Dexter Blackstock gets on. The origin of the enmity between Leeds fans and Andros Townsend was that he didn’t like how his loan was going and buggered moodily away, and the loan element is an added pressure. Matt Smith has a permanent contract with Leeds, so he knows where his future lies. Blackstock only has the 15 games between now and the end of January to make an impression, and from a bit of maths with his career ratios, 15 games normally produces about four goals and two assists. 

Would that be enough to impress, and to get a permanent deal? If not, then Blackstock will have to perform better than he ever has before in the next 15 games if this move is to pay off. And every minute that ticks by before he gets on the pitch against Huddersfield will make his job harder. It seems unlikely that Matt Smith will ‘do a Baird.’ The question is, can Dexter Blackstock do a Chapman?

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