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the square ball week: make believe

the square ball week: make believe


Darko Milanic insists he is not a loser. That might be true. He’ll never be a winner in the eyes of Leeds United fans, though. Somehow it never seemed like he would, not in your wildest dreams.

Brought in with the usual vague endorsements by Massimo Cellino – “He’s cool, watermelons, good looking guy, that do? Right, see you all later” – Darko was like a kid starting his first job, who everyone assumes has done all this before.

“We heard you were something of an accounting expert back in, where was it, Hungary?”

“It was Austria, and actually I – ”

“Yes you simply must tell us all about it sometime. But first, this is your office, and these are last ten years of accounts. I expect you’ll want to get started!”

Although his sacking sent sterotypical shockwaves through the world of football, and had everyone weighing in with their opinion on crisis club Leeds United and its madcap owner, I can not think of anything short of divine intervention that would have altered the arc of Milanic’s career at Leeds. It just never felt real; his month in Yorkshire had a dreamlike quality, like one of those dreams that you know, throughout it all, is just a dream, that will disappear into the mist when you wake up.

Darko Milanic, Leeds United

Dave Hockaday felt real. He looked real. Dave Hockaday’s head looked so real that it almost invited you to reach out and run your fingers across every wrinkle and pit, to learn through touch the story of his life – forty years in pro soccer, man and boy. And he was determinedly and avowedly different, too; nobody comes back from being sacked at Forest Green Rovers to take over at Leeds United, but Dave Hockaday did, and for a while he lived his life like a piece of conceptual art: a walking, talking manifestation of something that ought not to have been possible. Hockaday was so real that he became a protest against the accepted order of reality.

I’m still not convinced, on the other hand, that Darko Milanic wasn’t just a cardboard cut out of a middle-aged middle-European with Edoardo Cellino crouched behind it, fooling us all. Did anyone actually touch him, actually shake his hand? Steve Morison got a lot of stick for leaving Darko hanging on a high ten when Leeds scored against Sheffield Wednesday, but I wonder if he just genuinely didn’t notice him standing there, two feet in front of him, palms upraised; a wisp of grey smoke in a grey v-neck pullover.

Hockaday could have pulled it off. Well, he couldn’t, because he was grossly underqualified for the Leeds job and several mineshafts out of his depth. But the story of his life at least had the potential to become a superhero comic, rather than a funny comic comic, a comic you laugh at. I reckon stranger things happened in old issues of Roy of the Rovers than a non-league manager being given a big job and suddenly becoming a great success and winning the European Cup. If you imagined the Hock as a fairytale, then all hope was not lost – it could happen, it could happen, it could it could it could happen.

Now, look at Darko Milanic at any given press conference or during any of the six games he managed at Leeds United, and make up a fairytale that somehow involves that man; tell me about a world where a moderately able manager from an average European league takes charge of an average bunch of players and leads them to mid-table safety in the second division, and anybody cares a dime. There’s no such story, no such world, no possibility of that coming true in comics. I believe in fairies, but I never believed in Darko Milanic.

The question, then, is do I believe in Neil Redfearn? The answer is, do I have any choice? Massimo Cellino has no choice: imagine, for a moment, another unknown being announced as Leeds United’s Head Coach this week: bedlam in Beeston. Redfearn’s wage was apparently a matter of some discussion this week, and I’m not surprised if it took Cellino a while to come up with the right figure to secure Redfearn’s services – the calculation was, basically, what price does the president put on not having Leeds fans using his guts for garters?

I can believe in Neil Redfearn, though, or at least, I can believe in a fairytale ending. Lucy Ward even provided the necessary photo of young Redders in a classic Admiral Leeds kit as a boy, just to balance the narrative and give it a beginning, and a middle, and a fantastic-to-imagine end.

Neil Redfearn photo via Lucy Ward on Twitter

Neil Redfearn, the childhood Leeds fan, becomes a footballer and plays over 1,000 games in a career characterised by hard-work; it earns him respect, but not glory. His destiny as Cinderella – Cinders – is apparently confirmed when Redders becomes a youth coach and academy director, training up talented kids in the hopes that they’ll reach the heights of fame and fortune, at the club he loves, that eluded Neil himself.

A chance to grab management glory comes along, but Neil fumbles it, and the repercussions are great: with Redders cast back to Thorp Arch, Warnock The Wicked Witch rules over the land, and unhappiness falls upon the land. At the academy, though, Neil keeps a small flame burning, a flame that warms Byram, Mowatt, Cook and Dawson, a light they can return to safely after the Witch has dragged them all the way to Ipswich to sit on the bench and do nothing. Keeping this fire burning becomes Neil’s obsession, his singular task.

Until another shot at glory comes his way, and this time, Redders makes no mistakes. He’s older than before, he’s wiser, he’s readier; he arguably has a worse squad to deal with than the one Simon Grayson left him, but he gets better results. Neil is making people happy again, but soon has to learn another harsh lesson; that making people happy and not making mistakes isn’t always enough.

Massimo the Magic Dragon has always thought that you can still make people happy no matter how many mistakes you make, but after one mistake too many too soon, he decides to try making people happy a different way. If Neil made people happy before, perhaps he can make people happy again. Massimo summons Neil to see him, but there ain’t no sunshine now he’s back; instead Massimo is being yelled at about guts and garters and he doesn’t understand any of it or what Neil wants and he looks at Buttons George in despair but he just shrugs and neither of them are any the wiser and they have to rehire that secretary they put on gardening leave or ring Graham Bean or get Edoardo the Idiot Prince to ask someone on the street to come and sort it out, but however it happens, they sort it out, and they give Neil what he wanted. They give Redders his chance to come back to the ball, and stay after midnight.

And they give the people what they wanted, too, because what the people wanted was at least someone they recognised or, failing that, had heard of; and what the people wanted was someone they could believe in. Somebody who came with a photo of themselves as a child in a Leeds kit that had you imagining an ending to that story, an ending where that child grows big and strong and becomes Head Coach at Leeds United, and…

And the truth is that nobody, right now, has actually got what they want. Not for Neil Redfearn, or for Massimo Cellino, or most importantly for the fans, is appointing Neil Redfearn as Head Coach of Leeds United going to be enough. What is wanted is for Leeds United to be a successful football team, and we haven’t got that. Not yet.

We’ve got a fairy story we can believe in and a happy ending that exists in our imaginations, but right now, like Darko Milanic, none of it is real. Dave Hockaday still dominates what’s real. It’s now up to Neil Redfearn to wrest reality from him. The belle of the ball, the wearer of the glass slippers; nobody wants to see Redders sweeping floors again.

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