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the square ball week

the square ball week


Last Friday I ended this column by linking to this animated gif of craggy mid-nineties centre half Paul Beesley attempting to head the ball into Port Vale’s goal. People like to be awed by haplessness as much as by brilliance – an ‘awesome miss’ video will swoop across the internet just as fast, if not faster, than Messi’s latest bit of brilliance. Haplessness has its place, though, and its place is in small computer files of players from days gone by. Haplessness’s place is not the Leeds United first team in 2013.

When he signed him from – where else – Sheffield United – Howard Wilkinson said that with Beesley in his squad, he would sleep better at night. Wilko was canny enough not to pretend that his new defender was something he wasn’t; he didn’t try and claim that this was a man to build a team around, or the player to bring trophies to Leeds. Howard had an eye for the fans and he knew when he couldn’t pull the wool over their eyes. He knew that Leeds fans wanted more than a tough no-nonsense defender from Sheffield, but he wasn’t buying one of them, so he was honest about what he did buy instead. ‘I want him here,’ was the subtext of Wilko’s message, ‘and you don’t have to like him.’ He could be more than infuriating at times, could Wilkinson, but you never got the impression he was kidding you on.

All of which brings us to Barnsley 2 − 0 Leeds United last Saturday. Performances since Forest – even the win against Bolton – have been poor, but this was the pits. We’ve had the excuses – tough opposition, viruses, tiredness – but Oakwell was the point where the excuses stopped and the anger started. Barnsley were managerless, they were bottom of the league, and they were Barnsley – and they played Leeds United Association Football Club off the park. Again.

“At the end, the boos rained down on Warnock and his men as they trudged off into the corner,” wrote Jennifer Berry at Three Colours White, “a clearly angry Becchio was first down the tunnel while the others followed meekly.” “With a reluctance to play any sort of system that involves passing the ball as a strategy, Leeds are a ship heading for the rocks at breakneck speed,” said Andrew Butterwick at Travels of a Leeds Fan, “the style of play is awful with any sequence of more than three passes being greeted with ironic cheers from frustrated fans.” “I left this match feeling like I’ve never felt at any Leeds United game I’ve ever been to in my life,” said Rachel Stanton at Girl in the Gelderd, “like I’d just been kicked in the stomach.” At Fear and Loathing in LS11 Adam Jubb noted: “Over six hours of football have been played since any Leeds player other than Luciano has tested the goalkeeper – a truly damning statistic.”

So what’s Neil Warnock’s view on all this? I have no idea. “One or two people have been going on about the style of football over the past few weeks,” Neil Warnock told the Yorkshire Evening Post after the midweek win at Birmingham, “but that’s rubbish.” There you go Jen, Andrew, Rachel, Adam and all: you’re all talking rubbish. And yet: “There’s no excuses,” said Neil to the official site on Monday, “I don’t blame the fans for being frustrated … I’d have joined in with them at half-time.” Then again, loanee Ross Barkley got told, “we’re not always like that.” So… which is it? Have the fans been talking rubbish about the way we’ve been playing for the last month? Or has Neil been fighting back the urge to join in the boos? And did Ross Barkley – a very welcome and encouraging signing – really need counselling after his first game?

Then there were the utterly confusing comments about Luciano Becchio. Only Glen Murray and Charlie Austin have scored more in this division this season, and they’ve had service; yet after Barnsley Warnock saw fit to pick the fan’s favourite out, claiming “head wasn’t in the game.” Then there were the bizarre quotes from a LUTV interview: “I have told Luciano that he has to put the effort in because we have supported him. He has scored 17 goals this season, so I think we have done our share so he must repay that” – which no matter how many ways you try to break them down make no sense whatsoever, and led immediately to speculation that our top scorer will soon be sold and a memorial thread on the Waccoe forum remembering the good times with our Argentinian number ten.

By comparison, in the later years of Howard Wilkinson you pretty much knew where you were. As the distance since the Championship win grew, the football often wasn’t pretty and the performances were often dire, but Howard wouldn’t deny it: he would respect the fans enough to explain it. It was one of the reasons why it took so long for the fans to turn on Sergeant Wilko and why, when they did, so many did it somewhat sheepishly and without any pleasure. You knew what Wilko was trying to do, and you knew he knew it wasn’t good enough. You knew he was never going to come out after an abject defeat against a bottom of the table team and tell you, “I think I’m doing a great job if I’m in honest.”

Quite apart from the performance on the pitch at Oakwell, that line after the match was the moment when Neil Warnock guaranteed a week of pressure and of articles like The Stats That Damn Warnock and Warnock, Time to Go at RITGKs; Warnock, What’s The Score? at Girl in the Gelderd; and another Warnock, It’s Time to Go at Becchio Well Placed. Summing it all up, The Scratching Shed reposted Waccoe member Lebowski’s open letter to Warnock and GFH, which didn’t hold back:

The performance today was unacceptable. Just like last season at Barnsley, at least Simon Grayson had the good grace to admit it. When you were walking off the pitch today, no, you didn’t imagine it, those boos were for you. It takes a spectacular failure to turn these fans against you and you have achieved it.

The thing with Leeds fans, as Lebowksi hints there, is that we’ll take the beatings if you don’t treat us like we’re daft. Paul Beesley may not have been what we wanted as a footballer, but nobody ever doubted that his was honest effort. Wilko might not have been giving us the stylish football we craved in 1995, but he never tried to sugar coat it. Even as recently as Billy Paynter – the sarcastic songs about inability to do his job and put the ball in the net never obscured the fact that he was working his balls off trying, and when he eventually scored at Preston, the result was pandemonium. Honest effort rewarded, and rewarded with full backing from fans who appreciate honest effort above almost everything else.

“We played good football at Birmingham,” said Warnock – we did win in the cup, after all – “and we thoroughly deserved the win, especially in the second half.” But one decent half doesn’t erase the dross of the last month, or the bitter feeling that developed after Saturday. What needs to happen is for the quality of the football to change, permanently; and for that change to happen, we’ve got to stop pretending everything is fine. Nobody in the stands is pretending after Oakwell.

Other things: it’s been a relatively busy week for transfers and contracts: bright prospect Ross Barkley is here on a month’s loan from Everton, and our own youngster Dom Poleon has signed a new contract. Most of the moves have been through the out door, though, with Paul Connolly and Zac Thompson going on loan to Preston and Burnley and, most movingly, terminating his contract and heading for the sunset. Howson Is Now have told the Rogers story movingly in a tear-jerking three act video; we may never know what we lost in football terms – since he never bloody played – but a young footballer who could dominate a pack of wine gums before cycling down the canal on his way to a fashion pub quiz will surely be missed. If nothing else, Laynes Espresso will need your support now their best customer is gone.

Upwards and onwards to Bristol City on Saturday, and if it’s anything like recent games, you’ll need some quality reading material in the second half; may I humbly suggest that the new issue of The Square Ball would be just the thing? Issue six will be on sale outside the ground before the game for just £1.50; or you can have one posted to you or grab a digital version for a quid from The cover features fantastic artwork from Joe Gamble, and inside Jon Howe writes on Fabian Delph, Adam Jubb on pots made from tin, Gary Grieve and Richard Lindley on the state of our support, while Andy Peterson interviews the man behind the upcoming Wish You Were Here book and exhibition which looks at our support in years gone by. Plus Eamonn Dalton on Ellie The Elephant; me on Diouf, fame and LUFC; and all sorts of other great things guaranteed to distract you from the football.