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the square ball week: first dibs

the square ball week: first dibs

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I keep coming back to Ross McCormack’s comment that last season was a “Waste of time”: it’s a sentiment that could be stretched and applied to most of the three seasons since coming out of League One, as pouring concrete took precedence over flowing football at Elland Road. If Brian McDermott has a mission, it’s to bring some direction back to Leeds United, some momentum, hopefully in an upward direction, rather than more of this standing still. What, we all wonder, do those piercing eyes see, when they stare through the designer specs out on to the pitch? What does our thoughtful new manager have in store for us? When will we see our first glimpses of the new Leeds United? 

This week, we stared the new Leeds United right in the chest, craned our necks to look up a bit, and saw with a shock that the future of LUFC is some nerdy beanpole freak from the bottom of the Third Division. And he’s a student. And he’s secretly French. And he’s got the same name as the most recent Doctor Who star. Here he is, scoring against Everton in the cup. We were promised elegance! What the hell is Mathieu ‘Matt’ Smith?

He’s League One’s answer to Peter Crouch according to The Scratching Shed, a 6ft 6in striker who has made his way from university football and non-league to Oldham Athletic, where he had a slightly underwhelming record of nine goals in sixty-two games. Last season’s performances in the cup against Liverpool and Everton earned him a lot of attention, however, and with competition for his signature this summer he could truthfully be described as a hot property. At 24 years and one week old, it’s nice too to sign a player on the way up rather than on the way down, and judging by the various interviews during the cup run he seems like a level headed chap. He also uses ampersands in his tweets, going more than halfway to winning me over already.

The surprise was that what seems to be a gangly battering ram of a striker should be Brian McDermott’s first signing – the truth is, if he was over thirty and had played for Sheffield United, Smith would be a Neil Warnock wet dream. Those first few matches under McDermott, like against Burnley when suddenly the ball was on the floor, being passed around, raised expectations for a return of good ball-on-grass action next season, the death of hoof, and the first signing was supposed to reflect that: a Xavi, an Iniesta, a Neil Kilkenny. Put a marker down, set out a stall.

It’s not such a strange idea, not by the irrational standards of the world of football, anyway. Managerial changes are all about getting a new man with new ideas, who wants to set about making changes straight away, and so we expect the first signing to reflect that philosophy. Yet it rarely happens that way. Howard Wilkinson’s transformation of Leeds from candidates for relegation from Division Two to Champions of England is remembered as beginning with the signings of Gordon Strachan and Chris Fairclough, two massive coups for the ailing United as big name players dropped a division just as the transfer deadline closed. They were the line in the sand that said United are back, that Leeds once again has the pulling power to convince top players to drop a division, and a manager who can convince them to believe in promotion. They were not Wilko’s first signings, however. Months earlier the formidable duo of Mike Whitlow and Neil Parsley – pictured above sporting car-coats and ‘tashes – had arrived from non-league Witton Albion for a combined £30k, swiftly followed by Rotherham’s Andy Williams for £175k. Whitlow eventually proved an aspect of the Wilko philosophy – that hard work and dedication can take you a long way – but it wasn’t the part of the philosophy any Leeds fan wanted to know about in the winter of 1988. Strachan came from the red side of Manchester, Fairclough from Spurs – a bold statement about the new Leeds United. Two Witton Albion players didn’t hold the same promise for rebuilding.

For Don Revie, too, Bobby Collins persists in the popular imagination as the early signing who revitalised the club, the original Strachan, an experienced Scot who provided nous and consistency as the team developed around him. Leeds fans had to wait until March 1962 to see Collins in a new-style white shirt, however: a full year into Revie’s reign. Derek Mayers, Billy McAdams and Tommy Younger had all arrived before the March splurge that brought Cliff Mason, Ian Lawson and Collins to the club. Collins made 167 appearances in his inspirational Leeds career; the five who arrived before him made 165 between them.

The truth is, few managers ever have the luxury of using the transfer market to express some fundamental tenet of their footballing beliefs. Restricted finances, player availability, and all the nonsense Ken Bates used to spill about agents being on holiday and nobody doing business on a day ending in Y all combine to make signing the player you want a matter of persistance, luck and good timing, as much as it is good judgement. Just because Mathieu J. Smith has come first through the door this summer, doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be first on the teamsheet come August. Who knows what McDermott wants him for? Perhaps he had something he needed stuck on a very high shelf?

Then again, there just might be more to Smith’s game than his frame and record suggest. “We’d go out at 7.30 for another hour,” Matt told The Guardian, explaining how as a child he would train mornings and evenings with his dad, “Crossing and finishing, crossing and finishing. Constantly.” Nothing there about waiting for the ball to descend from the clouds, to send it spinning out of play off his back. Crossing and finishing, crossing and finishing – if Smith is the finisher, who at the club will be the crosser?

Perhaps Matt Smith’s place in the transfer pecking order shouldn’t be taken as an emblem of Brian McDermott’s football belief system. But maybe it’s a clue.


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