the square ball week: leeds united must be missing an angelBack
It’s not only success that hasn’t come easy to Leeds United in recent years.
It depends on your perspective, I suppose; Ken Bates will always tell you that his chairmanship of the club was incredibly successful, especially now that, post-GFH, he can point to the mess we became after he’d gone and claim it all fell apart without him.
The tone and tenor of his video blog is all about how we never had it so good as when he took us down to the bottom of Division Three for the first time in our history, and will never have it so good again – unless he comes back.
Gulf Finance House themselves have probably reported a success or two to their shareholders, while even David Haigh, tweeting from prison, would probably look on the bright side of his year at Leeds. He might have ended up in jail, but he did meet some lovely down to earth northern folk.
But success doesn’t always equal fun, and if success has been largely absent for the ordinary fans at Elland Road, fun has been totally missing for a large part of the last decade. That game at Old Trafford reared its head again last week, as the BBC included our goal at the Beckford End among the fifty best ever FA Cup goals; but that’s getting on for five years ago now, and there’s not been much to rival it since.
Promotion against Bristol Rovers followed quickly; soon after that was the 2–0 home win over Neil Warnock’s QPR, a winter’s day when WACCOE rang out from every packed stand and it felt, for one afternoon, like Leeds really could win back-to-back promotions; and next season came the game away at West Ham – everybody always loves a late equaliser, although a late winner might have been even better.
Since then? Er, Luke Murphy against Brighton, that 5–1 against Huddersfield was alright, but…
The lack of big games and big wins to remember doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Football isn’t really about those moments; they come along so rarely, that to build a reliance on glory, or even happiness, into your support of any football team is a bad idea. Twenty-four teams started this season’s Championship. Three will be promoted. The rest will fail – some will fail harder than others, but they’ll fail all the same. It’s the game’s default setting.
What we have to ensure, then, is some way of having fun while failing, and that’s the one element United don’t seem to have fully cottoned on to as the team gets rebuilt this season. Which is a bit unexpected.
Eleven goals in eleven games… and six of them were against Bournemouth and Huddersfield. Leeds United do like to subvert cliches and confound expectations, and I suppose in those terms signing a clutch of “exciting Italian names” – and yes, I am including Brian the Paraguayan in this – and becoming a bit, well, boring, is a very Leeds United thing to do.
And it’s the very opposite of what we thought Massimo Cellino and Nicola Salerno were doing in the summer. “Not all of them are strikers,” I said of our new players towards the end of the transfer window, “but it sort of feels that way”; back then we still had Smith and Poleon, too, but even with them gone it looked like United were going to be thrillingly attack-heavy and attack-minded for this campaign.
You’d imagine that would be mentioned by Massimo in his relaxed football chats/furious maniacal rants with his head coaches, too, but if at any point during the four-hour conversation that earned Hockaday the job at Leeds Cellino gripped a salt pot in one hand, a pepper pot in the other, and yelled ‘And score some bloody goals!’, then Dave must have been distracted and missed it; you’d think that while whispering in the corridors with Milanic about what twisted plan they can concoct at left back to destroy Stephen Warnock just a bit more (“Thees Dillan Keeerrr, we sign ’im up, we play heem”) he might think to drop in a suggestion like, “And just play Adryan already, I’m bored.”
But no. Instead we, and Massimo, must take our heros where we find them, and so instead of cheering scintillating attacking play from exotically-named new hot-shot signings, we’ve adopted a perpetual offside machine in Antennuci, a new romantic goalkeeper in Silvestri, and an institutionally unstable defender in Bellusci – who has himself provided most of the hottest shots of the season.
Which is fine, but it isn’t necessarily fun. Fun in a player, and in our team’s play, is something that has diminished season on season since Max Gradel left, not long after that game at Upton Park. Gradel was someone who, even if Leeds didn’t play well and even if we didn’t win, could be relied upon to do something extraordinary – whether with his feet or with his flappy, slappy hands – something that would make you gasp. And back then, if Max didn’t do it Snodgrass would. And after they’d both gone it was half a season of Becchi-gols and a year of Ross Resplendent. And now?
Adyran; or as I like to think of him, Adryan Oliveira Tavares. Brian Montenegro, quietly rated more highly than Tavares by those in the know. Chris Dawson, if not the new Messi then at least the new Peter Beardsley. Billy Sharp, sat on the bench, sharply tapping a copy of the Laws of the Game every time Antenucci is caught offside. They’re all here. They’re all – if you believe the hype – exciting attacking players. They’re not, however, playing.
At this point there is room for in-depth tactical analysis, of piles of stats to prove that the defensive solidity that comes with playing Liam Cooper at left-back far outweighs any advantage from playing Tavares behind Doukara and Antenucci… and Sharp… and hell, why not Nicky Ajose too? That we risk unbalancing a carefully calibrated diamond if Chris Dawson takes over from Casper Sloth; that Michael Tonge will always be a better option from the bench than Brian Montenegro, because it’s better to ‘see games out’ than ‘break all-time scoring records’; and those statistical proofs may well be proved right.
But I don’t care.
Massimo Cellino is all about flamboyance and good times, about bandanas and guitars, nightclubs and beach parties, and that’s one of the arguments for keeping a wide, champagne-filled moat between him and the Football League. But it’s no fun for me if he has all the fun.
Cellino has talked about wanting to move the training ground closer to his house so he can be more in touch with things, but that sounds suspiciously like Neil Warnock having trees chopped down at Thorp Arch so he could watch training from the comfort of his office chair. It might be nice for Massimo to turn up to training (the later sessions, anyway) and enjoy watching Silvestri, Bellusci, Tavares, Dawson and Montenegro in Europe’s most flamboyant five-a-side team, but it strikes me that he’s being a touch selfish by not involving the fans in the fun.
We’re not going to get promoted this season; it’s our destiny in 2014/15 to be one of the 21 teams that fail, yet again. How hard we fail is yet to be seen; my £10 insurance bet on relegation looked more useful when Hockaday was here, but I haven’t yet got the confidence in Darko Milanic to say I won’t be using that payout to get miserably drunk in May. Whether it comes to that or not, I’d like to think I’ll be able to look back at this season and remember something more than solid defensive performances and opposition own goals; I’d like, when Tavares returns to Flamengo at the end of his loan, to have seen something of what he can do, something to warm my memory in the league dog-fights ahead.
Although I’m not walking with them – because while I might be stupid, I’m not reckless – a hardy band of Leeds fans are doing a very special thing today which, like watching Leeds United, promises to be no fun whatsoever.
Led by The Square Ball, a group of determined/utterly mad fans have set out on foot from Billy’s Statue this morning, with the aim of arriving at Rotherham in time for kick off tonight. Thirty miles, twelves hours: no biggie. Well, actually it’s a massive-y, if there is such a thing.
It’s all for charity, thankfully, otherwise it might be a police matter. They’re raising money for Leeds Children’s Hospital, and the Luey Jacob Sharp Foundation, which was created by United’s new number 8, Billy Sharp, in memory of his son. All money raised will be split equally between these two charities.
Keep an eye on The Square Ball on Twitter too, for updates on progress / rescue missions / cries for help etc.