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the square ball week: fixing

the square ball week: fixing


Sam Sodje only played seven games for Leeds, but I haven’t forgotten them. And I like him for them. 

Sodje came during one the rare Whoosh spells we’ve enjoyed since relegation from the Premier League. From minus fifteen points to zero, that was a Whoosh, but there wasn’t much more along those lines until Simon Grayson arrived and tried to put right what Gary McAllister had never been able to get right.

Or perhaps, as was often claimed, it was more about what Steve Staunton had got massively wrong. Wherever the fault lay, United’s defence at the end of McAllister’s time was a shambles. It has often been a shambles since, but it was the first and most obvious problem for Grayson to sort out when he arrived from Blackpool. 

Richard Naylor was the first big change. A Leeds fan; a captain; and a big, hard bastard. Wayne Rooney didn’t even bother to complain when Naylor hacked him down one January afternoon; he knew it was what Naylor was put on this earth to do, and what Simon Grayson put him in our defence to do. Naylor was steady, reliable, and trustworthy. He made mistakes, but he owned them; he didn’t hide when he did wrong. It’s no surprise, and it’s only to the club’s advantage, that he’s still here, working with the academy players.

Sam Sodje, when he joined Naylor at the heart of the defence, looked to be made of similar, if slightly more hectic, stuff. Sodje would go flying in from impossible angles, defend impossible positions, a ‘wow’ defender who would take a run and a jump and clatter an opponent on the goal line and leave you thinking, ‘Wow, how did he get away with that?’ He was committed to defending to an almost dangerous degree; in the play-off semi final first leg, at Millwall, he dislocated his shoulder but shoved it back into place himself, carrying on as if nothing had happened. 

Sodje’s brief stay didn’t end in success, but nor was it a failure; his dodgy knees meant he wasn’t offered a contract – we took on the supposedly more robust Kisnorbo instead – but he left with everyone’s good wishes, welcome back any time.

Well, maybe not now. This week’s match-fixing revelations have Sam Sodje at their centre, on video. Nothing is proven – and as such, we all have to be careful what we say – but the footage that shows him claiming to be paid by fixers for getting booked and sent off is, to choose a careful term, disappointing. I had liked Sam Sodje, the crazy defensive footnote to a season that came close to being glorious, even though seven games was short time in which to make an impression. But now, I don’t know what to make of his performances in those seven games anymore. Was returning his wandering shoulder to its socket a sign of his brave commitment to getting Leeds promoted, or did he just want to stay on the pitch to try and get booked?

There has been a strangely muted reaction so far to much of what is, by any measure, a scandal. I don’t know if it’s that the games involved were played in the lower leagues, despite press attempts to sex it up with reference to ‘Premier League Star DJ Campball’ and  and ‘Ex-Leeds Player Sam Sodje.’ Or maybe it’s because of the player-specific nature of the accusations – match results haven’t been at issue, just individual bookings and sendings off. Sodje is alleged to have weighed a big payment from a fixer against a relatively minor fine for a sending off, cracked a guy in the balls a couple of times until the referee noticed, and walked; and there the transaction ends. 

It doesn’t quite work that way in practice, though. I read the thoughts this week of a Brentford fan, who was bemused back in 2006 by an inexplicable Sodje sending off but who had put it down to Sam being Sam; now, in the shadow of the allegations, he’s looking again at the effect that red card had. Brentford lost that game, and missed out on promotion by three points; they ended up losing in the play-offs. Does the kind of spot betting fixes that Sodje and co are accused of really start and end with the player?

Football is a team sport, but it’s a team sport where individual actions can be massive; just look at the weight Ross McCormack has pulled this season. It’s also a sport where trust is of paramount importance. Trenches metaphors can sometimes seem hyperbolic, but there’s no denying that a lot of Sodje’s former team mates will be gutted by the thought that a player, who was supposed to be on their side, wasn’t.

Trust is also important between players and fans. It’s often trust that’s at the root of the groans that can meet an unpopular name on the team sheet. It’s not that a player is hated, or not rated; he just simply isn’t trusted with the responsibility of representing our team. This has been Michael Brown’s problem at Leeds; the trust in him broke down early when he failed to live up to his role, and to the shirt, and was damaged further by the perception that his loyalty was to a disastrous manager, and the manager’s to Brown, rather than to the football club.

With Brown the lack of trust became extreme, when fans seized on a photo, taken just as Charlton scored an injury time winner last season at The Valley, that seemed to show him smiling, as if he was enjoying it. That was clearly a ridiculous suggestion, but it showed how broken the relationship had become; Michael Brown was not laughing as Leeds lost to a last minute goal in south London, but the important point was that the fans didn’t trust him not to be.

It’s a long way from Michael Brown to match fixing. Or at least, I hope it is. It’s not a long enough way from Leeds United to Sam Sodje, and with the worry of more revelations ahead, everybody and everything feels up for grabs. You could start with tapes of Sodje’s seven Leeds games, and start looking for things that might be there that shouldn’t be, and you could go on looking forever.

No good lies that way, though. One of the new stresses that the match fixing allegations have placed on football fans, among the many we have to deal with these days, is that not only do we have to be vigilant for corrupt chairman, mysterious offshore banks and absurb branding schemes, but now we have to be ever-watchful for cheating players, too. 

It’s a situation that’s filled with shame. Last night I watched fans queuing around the block at the Made in Leeds store in Trinity Leeds to get autographs from McCormack, Kenny, Poleon and Varney; and I watched them, young and old, come out throught the doors with their signed 2014 annuals and calendars and t-shirts, glowing with happiness from meeting their heroes. One, who was perhaps old enough to know better, kissed the signed McCormack page of his calendar and punched the air. Old enough to know better, perhaps, but not to know to feel better; that pleasure in a fleeting moment with a star player is a pleasure worth preserving. 

The trust of the fans in the players is one of the few bonds that, but for odd exceptions, hasn’t snapped in the tension of football circa 2013/14. We may have lost Sodje, and we may have lost those seven games, but let’s hope that’s where the losses stop.

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