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the square ball week: cross

the square ball week: cross

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This is not the team Ross McCormack signed for. I think that’s the starting point when you try to work out why the advertising hoardings took as much punishment as the nets last weekend.

Both McCormack’s goals against Yeovil were fierce beauties. Rudy Austin’s power and invention had a lot to do with it; by charging away from some opposition players, he panicked the others, and that made things happen. But McCormack still had to apply a striker’s finish, and he did, twice. Wayne Hennessey, who can be a damn fine keeper, didn’t stand a chance, either with the shot into the roof of the net that nearly knocked his head off, or with the low drive that went around his dive and inside the post.

After the first, McCormack ran to an advertising hoarding to the right of the goal, delivered it a solid kick, and then glared up into the Kop as if selecting an adversary. After the second, when instead of nestling in the net the ball bounced back out into his path, Ross booted it on the volley into the back of the stand, where it hit the TV camera gantry before landing back in the fans below. Rather than look pleased to score two good goals, Ross looked cross.

But as I said, this isn’t the team he joined. The team Ross McCormack joined was, in retrospect, probably the best Leeds team since relegation from the Premier League, certainly going forward. Beckford had gone, but a team led into attack by Becchio, Somma, Gradel, Snodgrass, Howson, Johnson and Kilkenny scored 81 league goals that season; only Norwich scored more. McCormack wasn’t integral to the 7th place finish, but he fought his way into the side and finished the season strongly, staking a claim for more involvement when the post-promotion momentum continued the next season.

The departure of Aidy White on loan means that, from that season, only Ross McCormack and Tom Lees are left; and Leesenbauer played that whole year at Bury anyway. McCormack was much more involved the next season – 42 starts, and top scorer with 18 goals – but the momentum was gone, and so were several of the club’s best players. Eventually, that became all of the club’s best players, bar one. Ross was left at Leeds like someone who didn’t get the letter from the council about demolishing the street, and came out of his house one day to find all his neighbours gone. 

The team McCormack joined was, without doubt, ready for the Premier League. The defence needed work, but the Norwich Contingent are all there now, with various degrees of success; Gradel went to the top league in France. You can imagine Simon Grayson listing the quality at the club when convincing McCormack to move from Cardiff, and it was when he played a full season with Snodgrass that McCormack finished top scorer. But Snodgrass will stay in the Premier League now for the best years of his career, while McCormack has stayed here. Even Cardiff, or at least a maniac’s facsimile of the once blue Bluebirds, are in the Premier League now. And McCormack’s still here.

It’s not a simple tale of a career not going to plan; that happens to loads of players – they can’t all win the league. Instead it’s a story of a player who has had to become something completely different to what he wanted to be. When he signed for Leeds, McCormack must have been dreaming of becoming a 30 goal a season striker in the Premier League. Instead he’s now a senior pro in a Championship side that is trying to rebuild itself, picked on the wing or in midfield or wherever the manager thinks best for the team, taking responsibility from the likes of Byram and Mowatt and trying to score as many goals as possible in the process. Throw in the speculation that comes because Ross is one of the few players we have that other clubs will always want, and he has a very full plate.

That doesn’t necessarily mean frustration, although it must be odd for Ross to watch his mates on Match of the Day on a Saturday night, and be tweeted the occasional video of Max Gradel on a throne, wearing a gilded crown as he observes a dance in his honour. But it is all a long way from the original idea, which was to score loads of goals all the way to the top.  

Until Saturday. McCormack’s first goal against Yeovil reminded me of the goal he scored against Sheffield Wednesday earlier in the season. A driving run from midfield, a pass that took the defence out of the equation, and a proper striker’s finish to score. Except on that occasion, the driving run was by McCormack, the pass was by McCormack, and the striker’s finish was also McCormack’s. He did the same against Ipswich not long afterwards. The change to 3-5-2 has brought many benefits to Leeds, but a major one might be that Ross McCormack only has to do the last bit now.

Finding goals in this squad has been the problem of the season so far; Dexter Blackstock has arrived to help find a solution, but he’s a 1-in-5 man; Smith and Poleon are untried, Hunt and Varney aren’t really strikers. Diouf is Diouf. And, meanwhile, Ross McCormack has been in midfield since last season, the lone survivor of the great Bates sale, the one player who remembers what we were trying to do back in 2010, trying to pull strings that aren’t his to pull.

McCormack has seen one good team dismantled around him at Leeds. After a nothing season under Neil Warnock, Ross is still here, ready to see another one built. He’s 27 years old, and he’s just signed a new contract. Usually when McCormack does something after a goal like kick a hoarding, or gesture at the bench, it’s because he feels he is proving something, and what he’s proving at the moment is that he’s capable of doing what he came here to do. What frustrates him must be that it’s taken so long to do it. From watching McCormack these three and a half season I’ve learned that what frustrates him, drives him. That might mean more broken hoardings. It will also mean goals. 

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The City Talking’s new film issue is out now, celebrating Leeds’ historic contribution to cinema, and the people who keep the city at the forefront of film today.


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