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the square ball week: static

the square ball week: static


Some people think being hated is a badge of honour. They’re wrong. It’s just a badge that says people hate you.

The people that claim to thrive on being hated will often be the same people who will tell you that they don’t care what people think about them, that people can say what they like. Roy Keane is one of those people. He’s indifferent to your opinion – he just doesn’t care what you think.

That’s why he’s just released a second autobiography, to tell everybody again that they were all wrong about everything they’ve ever said about him – and that he doesn’t care what any of them said anyway, even if he will spend several hundred pages correcting them all.

Among the things Roy Keane doesn’t care what you think about is his infamous tackle on Alfie Haaland; so, naturally, he opens the new book by telling the story again, to correct the wrong impression apparently given in his first book, while emphasising that he doesn’t care what impression you got because your opinion doesn’t matter.

The story now goes that Keane did not, he says, set out to permanently injure Haaland in a revenge attack over a perceived injustice dating back several seasons; rather, Alfie was on a list of players – “Like Rob Lee was, like David Batty was, like Alan Shearer was, like Patrick Vieira was” – that Keane would “f—ing hit” if he got the chance. So that’s alright then.

Well, in a skewed way, it is alright. Jack Charlton is known for his little black book of players he wanted to bring a little justice to on the pitch; and he was hardly unique in that. People remember, and footballers remember, and wrongs get righted all the time.

There are some differences, though, that quite firmly separate someone from Roy Keane from someone like Jack Charlton. For one thing, nobody knows who was in Jackie’s book, because he didn’t talk about, and because nobody ever saw him taking public, violent revenge on an opponent the way Keane took his on Haaland. There’s footage out there of Charlton punching a few players, sure, but it’s generally within that ninety minute window of acceptable retribution for something happening then and there; often the window would be open and shut in less than ninety seconds.

But revenge didn’t always mean a crack round the head, or a boot to the knee; football offers other paths to revenge, like winning games, leagues, cups. That sort of thing. Who knows how many check marks Charlton was able to put next to names in his book after a certain result, or by winning a certain trophy? If they needed showing, he could show them – without raising so much as a fist in anger. If they needed kicking, he could kick them, without writing a book about.

The other important thing that separates Charlton from Keane is that Jack Charlton is a nice guy and people like him. That’s a curious thing about Roy Keane’s little list. I can’t account for Lee, Shearer or Vieira, but I’m lucky enough to have met both Alfie Haaland and David Batty, and they’re both really nice guys.

As Leeds fans we obviously have our own special relationship with Batts, but Alfie is one of those players who has been popular with the fans everywhere he’s played. There are videos on YouTube of Manchester City fans chairing Alfie aloft at an away game; when I interviewed him and Gunnar Halle for The Square Ball a couple of years ago, we were constantly interrupted by Leeds fans wanting to come up and say hello. Alfie made time for all of them, while gently dismissing Roy Keane when we raised the subject.

“It’s one thing that you can take revenge on the pitch if you don’t like me or whatever, but just do it and don’t mention it,” Alfie said. “But when you brag about that and show you have been thinking about revenge for two of three years…”

Of course Roy Keane, who doesn’t care what you think, couldn’t help bragging about it; and our conversation with Alfie was back in more innocent times, when Keane had only bragged about it the once. Keane, however, has a reputation to keep up: the man they love to hate, the man who thrives on that very hate, the man for whom every insult is a notch on the butt of his gun of self-worth.

Keane would probably argue that he needed that hatred to spur him on; he played better when he had to prove something – to people to whom he claimed to have nothing to prove. Even to a lay psychologicist, it’s a mess of conflicting needs, wants and affirmations that could probably all be solved if only Roy Keane was a nicer guy, like Alfie. Alfie Haaland genuinely doesn’t have care what people think about him because he’s a nice enough guy not to have to worry about it. Out of the two, I’m sure only one lies awake thinking about the other; only one has written two books about it.

Keane, of course, is some other club’s problem; he scowls on the bench at Villa Park and in the stands at Old Trafford, and it’s up to those clubs how they use those vibes. At Leeds United we have a different problem – again.

Artwork by The Beaten Generation

Ken Bates comes from a different psychological angle to Roy Keane. While Keane takes hate as affirmation that he, and he alone, is right, Bates takes all the hate that comes his way as confirmation that he is, in fact, loved.

The “silent majority” were Ken’s friends all throughout his time as chairman of United, but they were a myth. Leeds fans, despairing of his ownership and of being called “sickpots”, “morons” and “dissidents” and being subjected to weekly tirades in the programme and on DAB radio, turned away from the club in droves during the Bates era, but if you asked Ken, none of that was his fault. Instead it was the fault of the haters; the ordinary, decent folk who loved Ken Bates were kept away by the rabid hordes who seethed against every hair on his chin.

That’s not what the evidence shows, though. 10,000 more than usual joined the crowd for the first game after Bates sold up to GFH Capital, and one thing was different that day and one thing was the same. What was the same was that the people who hated Ken Bates were still there. What was different was that Ken Bates wasn’t; and that had brought the crowds rushing back.

Bates had actually so misjudged his “silent majority” that he’d failed to realise that even the stayaways hated him – people were so disgusted with him, as an owner and as a person, that they would rather not be in the same stadium as him. People love it when Ken Bates leaves, it’s that simple; in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, the local people erected a statue to Noel Lloyd, the man who led the fight to rid their island of Ken Bates. Nobody was about to erect a statue to GFH-C at Elland Road, but taking the club out of Bates’ hands and abruptly ending his presidency certainly did their credit column no harm.

Ultimately, as seems to be the case with everything GFH-C did, their boldness looks to have done the club harm in the long term: because Bates is back. If Ken’s three-year presidency had run its course without interruption from private jets and expense bills, we’d be 15 months into by now, with just 21 months to go: it would have been 36 months too many of president Ken, but at least it would have been over soon.

Instead we’re lumbered with him again for an indeterminate period starting from now – it hasn’t been confirmed, but some people are putting the length of the commentary deal and associated executive box at five years. So at the point when we would have been rid of him under the presidency agreement, we’ll still have another 39 months to go. Thanks, guys.

If you believe Ken, it was David Haigh who agreed this deal as part of the courts mediation process; Hisham Alrayes then refused to honour it. But, Ken says, the first time he met Cellino, Cellino waved the deal in the air and said, “Of course this is agreed, it’s done, no worry, everything is okay.”

Yeah. Thanks, guys.

After the initial anger over Ken’s return, we’ve reached a sort of uneasy in-between period, waiting to see exactly what happens next. Bates claims his radio station can be “perhaps more inventive, exciting and creative than the BBC”; he said this in an interview his radio station put on YouTube, an interview which also includes such inventive, exciting and creative audio as Ken, around a minute in, whispering to his wife that he’s on the radio and saying “Let’s start again.” That’s the kind of quality broadcasting that must have BBC Leeds shaking when they hear it.

It’s hard to know who would choose to listen to something like that – a radio station that is essentially a bedroom vanity project fuelled by hate – when the BBC’s coverage is so good. At a guess, nobody will, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. Yorkshire Radio lost money in every year that it was part of Leeds United Football Club, despite the accounts showing it had no staff and no overheads; a loss-making DAB radio station didn’t concern Ken then and I don’t see why it would concern Ken now.

If nobody listens, however, that only makes the executive box more valuable – because if Ken can’t be heard, he’ll demand to be seen. And as soon as he’s seen in Elland Road, the cries of Bates Out! will rise, the atmosphere will turn ugly, and Ken will be affirmed again – he’ll have a stadium full of people here who hate him, which in his mind means there’s a world out there who love him.

That’s what this is to Ken, much as it is for Keane. Bates isn’t stupid enough to think that he can wave to adoring crowds from a box at Elland Road – he knows what most of us think of him. But it’s a power play. Ken Bates cares deeply that we care about him, because the more visible the hatred in front of him, the more credence he can give to the imaginary silent majority he thinks are behind him.

I enjoyed one of the best football atmospheres I’ve ever known at Josh Warrington’s European title fight at Leeds Arena on Saturday night. Thousands of people were united in support of one of their own, and it was brilliant to be a part of that. As a boxer, Josh is out there to be disliked; you can’t be seen as a totally nice guy while you’re knocking somebody out in a boxing ring.

But Josh gets the crowds he does, and the support he does, because people like him; and he isn’t someone who thrives on hatred or does what he does to prove people wrong. Josh Warrington goes in the ring to do something good for the people who have come to support him – to prove them right for giving him their backing. It’s an essay in being united for the right reasons, and it creates a special atmosphere that people can’t wait to happen again.

I could have waited a long, long time before ever again being part of the atmosphere that comes with Ken Bates. Ken, apparently, could not.

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