the square ball week: pauseBack
A while ago I made an animated gif of Gary McAllister – you can see it by clicking here. It’s from a game in 1992 away at Ipswich; although it’s from 1992/93 season, rather than 1991/92, so it’s a game we lost. There was nothing unusual about Leeds losing away that season, but this was a slightly unusual game; it took place a few days after the heroic performance against Stuttgart at Elland Road in the European Cup, and a few days before the heroics in the play-off against the same opponent in the Nou Camp. It was a short Suffolk interval, a pause between two legendary games, in which we went to Portman Road and got battered.
The animation of McAllister has a pause in it, too. 1992/93 was a wretched season in many ways, as our champions finished just two points away from relegation, and finished the season without a single league away win in the new ‘Premier League era.’ There were moments to savour, though. There were those two magical nights against Stuttgart either side of the Ipswich game, for a start; and a home record that was among the best of the Premier League, with just one defeat at Elland Road. There was also the development of Gary McAllister.
Macca had been brilliant ever since his £1m move from Leicester, but with Strachan and Chapman in their pomp, and Speed and Batty’s eyecatching potential, he was not considered a star. With Strachan struggling with injury and Chapman past his best, and Speed and Batty suffering post-title fatigue, 1992/93 was the season when McAllister grew in stature, taking a stuttering side by the scruff of the neck and offering some class in the midst of all the toil. It was a prelude to the two seasons, 93/94 and 94/95, when there’s a strong argument that McAllister, awarded the captaincy of Leeds after his performances in 92/93, was the best midfielder in the league.
It’s there in that gif. You can watch extended highlights of the game, but beware, Leeds really were awful that day; but in the middle of it all is this moment of clarity from McAllister. A loose ball bounces past him; he turns and arrests it before it can go any further, flicking it back over his shoulder. Macca spins 180 degrees and lets the ball the bounce as an opponent approaches; with another flick he sends the ball on its way again, on to the destination it was heading for anyway, but now under McAllister’s full control. He spins again to follow it, completing a 360 degree turn, and with a stroke he sends the ball away to the right-back – unfortunately, in Mel Sterland’s absence, a stranded Batty.
There are only three touches, but that’s enough, even viewed through the prism of a crude animation, to make time seem to stop. There’s a moment just after McAllister has stopped the ball’s wayward motion and sent it over his shoulder, there’s one moment where nothing seems to be happening at all. The ball is in the air and in no hurry to bounce, McAllister has turned and is prepared to wait, the Ipswich players pause until the Leeds player makes his next move; and, for a fraction of a second in a poor game that will end in a bad defeat, time seems still before grace.
I’ve been thinking a lot about pauses this week because it has felt, for the first time in a long time, like Leeds United have been taking a time out. Of course, you can worry about Sam Byram being sold and/or replaced; you can mull over the implications of GFHC and IIB’s strategies, and whether they will be good for Leeds United, all discussed at LUST’s end of season meeting; you can weigh up whether Matt Mills is worth a million; or you can go nuts and buy a Ross McCormack t-shirt from Howson is Now. But compared to the last two years at Leeds, this week has been like relaxing in a bubble bath, listening to whale song and drinking Horlicks through a straw.
We didn’t really get a close season last summer. No sooner had Leicester’s last minute winner cancelled Danny Webber’s equaliser on the final day, bringing to an end a long season of building works, player sales and protests, than the storm clouds finally burst over the boardroom and months of takeover drama began. By the time GFHC’s purchase was complete we were well into the season, with the summer long gone and the winter transfer window bearing down on us. Neither the sale of the club nor the sale of Becchio brought any peace to Elland Road, as doubts have continued about what our new emperor’s are wearing, and doubts were realised about our then manager’s capability. After such relentlessness, this week feels like the first week in two years when you could look at the back pages in relative comfort. Wigan won the cup and got relegated. Manchester City sacked their manager; Brighton suspended theirs. Some Man Utd people retired; some Chelsea people won a cup. Leeds did nowt. And it was great.
Reaching this kind of plateau is often the occasion for taking stock, for some calm reflection and a look back at the journey that brought us here; but we’ve gone pretty much nowhere in two years and it wasn’t much fun at the time, so wasting this rare bit of calm by dragging it over again would be a bad idea. Better instead to relish this pause for what it is – a pause. Nothing more, nothing less; just a moment, while the ball is flicked in the air, while we wait for it to come down and our opponents wait for our next move; a moment, until it hits the ground and we take it into space and fend off the tackles; a moment. Here is that Gary McAllister move again. Enjoy it while it lasts.