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the square ball week

the square ball week

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Football. Glorious victories; heroism and valour, conducted with feet and balls (and heads, if you’re up front and Warnock’s your manager). Sweat as a symbol of pride; life distilled to moments of unfiltered joy as a ball hits a net or a keeper makes a save. It’s the glory of the cup; it’s why the sponsors reckon you deserve a refreshing beer just for watching it. For a while, football is magic, and you are breathless: football is the weekend and the weekend is forever.

Before you know it, though, it’s Thursday, and not just any old Thursday. Contract negotiations; offers and bids, conducted with fax machines and fountain pens (and a bit of telly, if you’re Neil Warnock). Sweat as a signal for fresh socks; life broken up into meaningless moments of tedium as a newsflash brings no news or an update brings no update. It’s the dregs from a mug; alcohol offers no refreshment, it just dulls the senses. For hours, the transfer deadline is tragic, and you can’t breathe: football is deadlines and the lines are dead forever.

The win over Spurs was fantastic. A big crowd at Elland Road helped shake the cobwebs of winter away, and for the first time in a long time Leeds United actually raised their game to meet, and beat, their opponents. The difference was most noticeable in Luke Varney; targeted by the fans, for one day at least his goal meant the chants – ‘Varney Army!’ – were sung with good humour rather than dark irony. Michael Brown, another less than popular figure lately, also lifted his game to something like a Leeds United level. McCormack’s class returned with his cool finish, and at the back White, Lees, Peltier and Byram gave as assured a performance as a back four have shown all season at Leeds. The only slight downer was referee Kevin ‘I Hate Fun’ Friend’s decision to blow the final whistle before Austin made it 3-1, denying one gambler £500k in the process; on a smaller scale I had a pound on a Brentford-Leeds-Oldham treble that was worth £950, so despite our win I really do hate a) football b) the F.A. Cup and, most of all, c) Chelsea with a fervent passion at the moment.

“This was just the performance Leeds needed,” wrote Andrew Butterwick at Travels of a Leeds Fan. “If only we could play like this every week. Even a fixed penalty notice stuck on the car couldn’t dampen our spirits.” For Adam Jubb at Fear and Loathing in LS11, “it was a day for the maligned to be celebrated, where for a precious ninety minutes the underdogs bit back, and the fans were reminded just why they continue to pay for the privilege of turning up to Elland Road week in, week out”; while Jennifer Berry at Three Colours White sounded a note of caution: “this belief, this togetherness and glints of quality need to be translated into league form. Our bread and butter. Cup runs won’t attract good new players and they certainly won’t hold our best ones either.”

That was a view also taken up at Spoughts, where Amitai Winehouse’s open letter to GFH Capital before the Spurs match soon had its briefer follow up afterwards: See the Spurs match? Do that again, and do it often! “Without a continuation, there’ll be no long run benefits,” wrote Amitai. “Sunday was a success. Today plans need to be afoot to sustain the success. We need our Leeds back.”

This is, now, a new Leeds United all right. Patrick Kisnorbo’s loan and Luciano Becchio’s departure to Norwich broke the last links with the last team that really achieved anything at Elland Road – the League One promotion side are all gone now, and with new players, a new manager and new owners, that era is firmly behind us now. It’s a moment for reflection, and for many, many jokes about Norwich City; and a moment to ask, if that’s all gone now, what have we got instead?

I can’t personally buy into the attempts to rationalise the Becchio – Morison swap as a move that has strengthened our team. One player is moving up a league, one is coming down, and that says it all to me: question marks remain over Luciano’s ability to cut it in the Premier League, but he’s there – with Johnson, Howson and Snodgrass – and we aren’t, so who are we to judge? “Becchio is one of the best players we’ve had in the last five years,” I wrote near the end of last season, “We should treasure him.” And I still feel that way. Nobody in recent years has given such long-lasting and unswerving service to Leeds, and rarely has a player seemed like such a good guy; he was easy to like, even down to the manner of his departure. He wanted to go, so after scoring eighteen goals, he put in a transfer request, and he went. That’s okay. See you, Luci.

The main question on transfer deadline day became what we would get for Becchio, and in the end we got a replacement striker plus the cash for his first year’s wages; Morison always looked good against us for Millwall, and we have to hope our new no.9 doesn’t take after the last no.9 who looked good against us. We also took a random punt on an unpronouncable African striker from Belgium: step forward, Mouhamadou Habib Habibou, and people, look after your ducks, because the man they call Mr Lover Lover doesn’t have much love for waterfowl. Joining those two today was experienced (i.e. just too young to be ‘veteran’) Stephen ‘No Relation’ Warnock from Aston Villa, ready to join David Robertson, Fedde Bessone and the rest in the couldn’t follow Dorigo left back hall of shame; they’ve come on top of the Tonge and Hall transfers we knew about, Ross Barkley’s loan, and perhaps most positive of all, Sam Byram’s new contract: “There is no down side to this!” as The Square Ball put it on Twitter.

Out have gone Luciano, obviously, and Robbie Rogers, who is doing fine; Honduran wizard and latter-day crock Ramon Nunez has also gone for good, while Kisnorbo, Connolly, Rachubka and Danny Pugh have taken the loan bungee trip away, Pugh’s contributions movingly remembered here at Fear and Loathing.

So where does that leave the new post-everything Leeds United? Ken Bates told us he and GFH were planning for the January transfer window back in September, and reports when the takeover was confirmed in November reckoned Warnock would have around £8m to spend this month, and there was pretty much no doubt we needed some new players in this window; what seems to have happened is that we’ve cleared out some dead wood and our best player, and brought in a tolerable replacement, a doomed left back, and a bloke who chucks ducks about for fun. As statements of intent go, this is a late birthday card from grandma, and she even forgot to tape 50p inside. Maybe the ‘war-chest’ is being saved for when battle resumes in summer, but even just one winger would have made me look forward with more cheer to the next four months.

Where this leaves us, I think, is pretty much where we were before the Spurs game, only Lucianoless and more hopeful than certain of the future. It would have been nice to carry that good Hotspur-beating mood on for a while longer, but selling your talisman and never actually buying the winger you hoped for can kill the mood. What can bring the mood back, though, is if Neil Warnock can get this team, with its new Mozzdogs-Haribo strikeforce and Premier League-beating momentum, playing like it did against Spurs against Cardiff, Wolves, Middlesbrough and the rest. Warnock asked to be judged after Thursday’s deadline, and he is on his own with this squad now that Shaun Harvey’s socks have well and truely been worked off, so it’s time to see what he can bring to his last months of the Leeds job. Until, that is, the emergency loan window opens, when it will all stir up again. A new Leeds, or the same Leeds but different?


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