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the square ball week

the square ball week


May 1993, and after a hard slog which had almost seen the English champions relegated in the first season of the Premier League, 31,037 fans packed into Elland Road on a Thursday night to see the boys in white take on Manchester United. Leeds’ home form had been good enough for a strong title defence, as they were beaten only once in LS11; but a return of zero, zilch, nada, no wins away had tarnished the image of title winning heroes like Chapman, Whyte, Strachan and the rest. One year earlier, at Bramall Lane, a dream had come true when the First Division was won; now, after a nightmare year that saw a star player sold, European hopes falter in Glasgow, and the enemy over the Pennines take the title away, Leeds fans wanted a new dream. Then Noel Whelan flicked on to Jamie Forrester, and with his overhead kick, Leeds had their dream again.

This week’s FA Youth Cup 5th Round tie at Anfield may not have had the same result, or attracted Leeds fans in the same numbers, but the passionate noise of the fans who made the trip to Liverpool to support our Under 18s this week reminded me of that night in 1993. What we were looking for in 1993 we are looking for now: soul, passion, good football and hope for the future. Those things were in short supply at the end of the title hangover season twenty years ago, and it’s fair to say they’re in short supply now; and when times are hard, fans’ thoughts always turn to the next generation.

The class of ’93 didn’t ever quite match the achievement of their FA Youth Cup win, although Noel Whelan played most of his football at the top level, and players like Jamie Forrester, Kevin Sharp and Mark Tinkler notched hundreds of games each as professional players. But their generation was one in a series of youthful groups who have taken their turns to carry the hopes of Leeds United Football Club. They were vying at the time with Gary Speed and David Batty for a place in the side, players who had come through the ranks after Eddie Gray’s young team – John Sheridan, Scott Sellars, Tommy Wright, Neil Aspin – had themselves moved on. Eddie had been part of arguably the greatest youth to first team transition there has ever been, as Don Revie brought Gray, Bremner, Lorimer, Hunter and the rest through together and made them into the best in the world; and Gray was there for the group that followed Forrester and co who so nearly emulated the greatest we ever had: Smith, Woodgate, Harte and Kewell coming so close to European glory.

With big-money big-name signings almost always a rarity – or a complete failure, as with Barnes or Brolin – Leeds more than most clubs has always been defined by its own players, players who have grown up at the club and with whom the fans form a protective bond that a new signing is rarely afforded. That’s why we travel in numbers to a Youth Cup match and turn an almost empty Anfield into Elland Road for the evening: because while the Leeds career of a Steve Morison or a Luke Varney is only ever likely to mean a temporary association, the hope is that in Chris Dawson or Alex Mowatt we are seeing players who will have a permanent place on our side.

Our youngsters, on a twelve match winning streak under boss Richard Naylor, couldn’t overcome Liverpool in the end, despite a dominating second half performance in which Amitai Winehouse’s pre-match pick at Spoughts, Chris Dawson, caught the eye: comfortable on the ball anywhere in midfield but loving life just behind the strikers, you could see why he’s pushing to join Byram, Lees, White and Poleon (before he got loaned out) in the first team. The difference, however, was Liverpool winger Jordan Ibe, by far the most dangerous player on the pitch, and a sobering reminder of what the new EPPP regulations might spell for youth development, as the best players are hoarded by the biggest clubs. The new tiered Academy ratings system threatens the ability of any club without the required budget to bring through the likes of Byram or Dawson without losing them cheaply to Liverpool (or, yes, Norwich), and with the continued talk of new investment at Leeds it is imperative that Thorp Arch is given the full attention of our owners and their backers.

We need a successful and positive youth team to concentrate on, if only to distract us from the dourly middling football on offer from the first eleven. The win over Blackpool was a good sign, but the nil-nil at Ewood Park was more Colin of the Colliery than Roy of the Rovers. As at Middlesbrough the focus, in the boss’s eyes at least, was on Ross McCormack for missing a chance, but in the stands enquiring minds wanted to know why our manager seemed so determined not to make a substitution. “Mr Warnock thought the lads had done ever so well as usual, and couldn’t understand how they hadn’t scored a single goal,” wrote Andrew Butterwick at Travels of a Leeds Fan, “I couldn’t understand why Mr Warnock hadn’t let one of his substitutes do ever so well for the last fifteen minutes.” With Diouf, Hall and Habibou on the bench, Leeds could choose from guile, pace or an unknown quantity to ruffle the Rovers back line, but no changes were made and the gap to the play-offs remains as Warn-chasmic as ever.

With nothing changing on the pitch, Adam Jubb at Fear and Loathing in LS11 focused his energies on the bits around the match: “Waiting for the arrival of a late running, carriage-light train is never the recipe for a peaceful evening, especially when the acoustics of Blackburn station lend themselves so well to singing,” as he waited for the performances of the Leeds team to catch up with those of the Leeds fans.

Millwall and Leicester await us this week, and with every passing game the chance of the team achieving something this season edges that bit further away. But the chance that some individual players could make their mark remains. Tom Lees has had another solid season, seeing off Jason Pearce and Alan Tate to become first choice centre back. Aidy White, shuffled from position to position, still looks like he could blossom with a settled run in the side. Sam Byram, unheard of before the summer, has become a Gary Kelly-style ever present in his freshman year. Dom Poleon has offered glimpses of talent, and his loan means we’re in the awkward spot of wanting Sheffield United to do well for a bit. Even more awkward, though, is the thought that if this pointless charade that is the play-off ‘push’ could just be declared over, we might, before the season is out, get to see a bit of Ryan Hall, perhaps a cameo from Habibou, or, whisper it quietly, a debut from Chris Dawson, and a chance to cheer and get excited about one of our own.

We’ve had one takeover already this season and survived, with possibly another looming, and a revolving door policy on players for years; Leeds fans have nothing to fear any more from change. We just need the guys on the touchline to be as brave as we are.