forza varadi, forza white: lufc experiments abroadBack
If there’s been a big story from Leeds United’s pre-season, it hasn’t been the fifty pound note, it hasn’t been the Ferencvaros crew fighting among themselves, it hasn’t even been intra-squad Twitter japery. No, the biggest news is Aidy White playing in the hole.
Aidan has had a tough career at Leeds so far, hailed as the next big thing when he was just 16, and shoved around from position to position, and even on loan to Oldham, ever since. The search for a natural position in which he can fulfil his potential has taken him from left back, to left wing, to right wing, and always back to the reserves again. But I would have expected to see him in goal before he turned up in the 10/false 9/fake Messi position. Yet there he was at Farsley and in Slovenia. “I feel Aidy can play in an attacking off-the-striker role and I’ve talked to him about that,” said Brian McDermott on the official site. Well, maybe.
If you’re going to do this stuff, Slovenia in pre-season is the place to do it. The only win out there was against a Slovenian third division select, but that’s no disaster in friendlies. Get too avant garde with your friendlies and your formations, though, and it can blow up in your face.
The New Year’s Cup in Florence in January 1993 was one such occasion, only this didn’t even have the luxury of being pre-season. Leeds were the Champions of England but performing like relegation candidates away from home – only a brilliant record at Elland Road kept them clear of relegation. Howard Wilkinson saw the winter trip to Italy as a way of snapping his team out of their malaise. “It will enable us to have a mid-winter break from usual surroundings,” he told the YEP, “and bearing in mind the weather we have had in the last three weeks, the trip will also give us the chance to train on grass.” It was also the first appearance in a Leeds shirt for Frank Strandli, being kept out of the side by his work permit and Norwegian national service.
I don’t know what weather reports he had seen, but as he shivered underneath his beret in Fiorentini’s Stadio Artemio Franchi and looked around the at all the heavy woolen coats in the stands, Wilko may have regretted packing his summer shorts. He might have regretted taking Fat Frank, too. In fact by the end of the night I think he was regretting the whole sorry thing.
The tournament format was three games of 45 minutes each, all broadcast on Eurosport: Leeds faced off against Inter Milan and Fiorentina, who then met in the final. In those circumstances, and without an injured David Batty, we can perhaps forgive Wilkinson for getting experimental with his team. But against an Inter side featuring Ruben Sosa, Nicola Berti, Mathias Sammer, and Darko Pancev, the Leeds line up was hard to fathom:
That’s four centre backs, three midfielders and three strikers. When the game began the formation settled into something Howard appeared to have dreamt up from Championship Manager Italia: Wetherall, Fairclough and Whyte as three central defenders, Newsome and Sellars as wing-backs, Wallace and Rocastle on the wings with Strandli up front all alone, and a midfield of Steve Hodge and Imre Varadi. That’s Imre Varadi, the then 33 year old striker, wearing Batty’s shirt and trying to out-tackle German international Matthias Sammer in his pomp. He and Hodge did have some help, though, as Chris’s Fairclough and Whyte took it in turns to step into midfield, leading to the bizarre sight of Chris Whyte sending a snap shot from the edge of the penalty area just wide of the post. Well, I say just wide. This was Chris Whyte. But then Varadi did at one point send a backheel through the Inter defence for Hodge to rush on to, so all bets were off with this line up.
After quarter of an hour Sosa controlled a loose ball in the Leeds penalty area and set up Berti, who curled it into the top corner past Mervyn Day. Ten minutes later a rare touch for the stranded Strandli let Inter break from their own half and Sosa again got an assist for Pancev. The Whyte-Fairclough-Newsome defence wasn’t giving Day much time to rest, and his saves kept the score down.
Once bitten, twice shy, and for the next game against Fiorentina Wilkinson shuffled his pack: by replacing Wetherall in the centre with Newsome. Wilko’s face, as he waited outside the dressing rooms for the call to the second game, said all that needed to be said about how his night was going. Tap, tap, tap goes the former schoolteacher’s finger on his watch. Then a gesture, perhaps while mentally running through some Italian from Mick Hennigan’s phrase book. “Bastardo,” and “Puttana. Varadi.”
Finally the call came, and the players trooped down the spiral staircase to the tunnel: the night taking another surreal turn: Newsome descending a staircase. Dorigo and Sterland were wing-backs, Dorigo bombing on while Sterland, soon to retire of an injured ankle, limped to the half way line and back again on the right; Speed, McAllister and Strachan were a three man midfield and the old reliables of Chapman and Shutt played up front – until the last fifteen minutes, when Shutt was sent out to the left wing. By that time, Leeds were 2-0 down – Fiorentina did have Stefan Effenberg, Brian Laudrup, Gabriel Batistuta after all, and Francesco Baiano, who scored both in between some play acting after a tussle with Whyte. "That hand didn’t get anywhere near his face,” said Archie MacPherson on Eurosport, “And he’s acting as if he needs plastic surgery or a jaw transplant."
Fiorentina also had the ref. Marcello Nicchi is now head of the Italian Referees’ Association, but back in 1993 he was mainly absorbed in hating Gordon Strachan. After a foul on McAllister, the Eurosport cameras cut to an enigmatic shot of a Leeds pennant (established 1920!) on the ground at the side of the pitch, returning to the action and Strachan going toe to toe with the ref. A minute later Sterland took a free kick against the legs of a Fiorentina player standing a yard away, and the Nicchi allowed play to continue, Strachan ending the subsequent Fiorentina break by tripping Laudrup and getting booked. A minute later Strachan was tripped by Effenberg as retribution and gesticulated wildly at the ref, before another bizarre cutaway to Inter keeper Walter Zenga watching on TV and chuckling to himself. That was it for Strachan: ordered off, espulso, as Speed followed the ref around applauding sarcastically. The final humilation for Gordon came when the linesman refused to let him sit on the bench. Gordon and Howard skulked off down the touchline to the dressing room, their Italian holiday ruined.
‘Ban Fear For Strachan,’ splashed Mike Casey in the Evening Post, pointing out that wee Gordon had recently been awarded an OBE, as if Marcello Nicchi should have shown a bit more respect. Nobody was sure whether a sending off in a 45 minute friendly in Italy organised by one of Silvio Berlusconi’s organisations would lead to a ban in proper football, which would be all Leeds needed with a Premier League relegation battle on their hands. Luckily for Leeds, if Nicchi did send in the paperwork to have Strachan’s honours stripped and a ban slapped, it got lost somewhere between Nigel Pleasants’ fax machine and the bin. As did the idea of using Imre Varadi as a sub for Batty, which didn’t make it to the league. What happens in Italy, stays in Italy.
And what happens in Slovenia might have to stay in Slovenia, depending on how impressed McDermott is by the attacking Aidy White. Pre-season is about more than just results, but results bring momentum, and two wins against Domzale and Ferencvaros would have been better than two defeats; just as Wilko will have hoped winning a couple of friendly halves in Italy would have bucked Leeds’ terrible away form in 92/93. “Four goals conceded on the night, and a man sent off,” said Archie MacPherson, wrapping up the TV coverage after a Batistuta penalty took the trophy to Fiorentina. “But having said that, Leeds leave here £200,000 richer, and it is all about money these days.”