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the square ball week: starting over

the square ball week: starting over

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My personal lowlight of last season was a game that Leeds actually won. Bolton at home, New Year’s Day; never before or since have I known a game of football so miserable.

I’m still not totally over it now. Trudging through the rain this January 1st, on my way to see Leeds face another bunch Lancastrians who, a brief Batty-inspired interlude apart, left their glory days one hundred years behind them; trudging through the rain, I got the Bolton shivers all over again.

I shivered with good reason. Against Blackburn Leeds were bad, the referee was terrible, and the result was worst of all. And yet, as I trudged away through the rain in the other direction, I was still cheered just a little by this thought: at least it hadn’t been as bad as Bolton. And then I remembered: but we beat Bolton. And then I thought: but that still doesn’t matter to me. 

Rochdale could have been another Bolton, looming above the Pennines to dominate my moods. In fact, it should have been. Spotlandgate was as dreadful a thing as any dreadful thing that Leeds United have done for many a year. Histon was erased by Old Trafford; but Old Trafford has now a big Rochdale shaped dent in it. (Songs sung about January 3rd from now on will ring either horrible and horrible or perversely and brilliantly defiant, depending on your point of view.) And Rochdale was worse than Histon, by a very long way.

Histon had everything a cup upset needed: a ground so non-league it had its own rain-soaked microclimate; Leeds suffering as a third division side for the first time in our history, already low and just waiting for the next insult; and the sometimes working cameras of ITV, broadcasting as best they could a blurry impressionist film of our disgrace. 

There was none of that at Rochdale. They’re ticking along nicely in the fourth division under Keith Hill, who always seemed to have the measure of Leeds when he was the boss of Barnsley; but in a way that should have made the tie easier. A team doing pretty well in the Championship against a team doing pretty well in League Two; it had a routine air about it, so much so that only some no doubt bemused Dutch and American folk received a broadcast of what looked like a routine win for the side two divisions above. Rochdale, with all due respect, should have been a small hurdle, easily overcome. 

What actually happened doesn’t need going over again in detail now, except to say that the Rochdale club shop is selling commerative mugs; and to note that it shouldn’t have happened, it was worse than Histon, and the factory’s worth of industrial language that was aimed at the players at the end of the game was all well spoken.

The other remark that ought to be made is that, while the Bolton match remains fresh in my memory, the last fiasco in Rochdale of just six days ago feels like it almost belongs to another era. It ought to have cast a shadow over this football club for months and years. But we’ve moved on.

It’s a hard one to explain. A Leeds eleven has taken to another pitch since Spotland and could have righted the wrong; they got done 3-1 by Harrogate, though. Apart from that, there hasn’t been a cliched opportunity for those lads to put that right; no chance to get back out there and get back to winning ways. United’s last result still remains a 2-0 defeat to Rochdale. Our form: won one, drawn two, lost three. Our situation, based on what we’ve been watching lately: perilous. Our outlook, though: rosy. And a Yorkshire rose, at that.

If Rochdale was the end of Brian McDermott’s honeymoon, it also seems to have been the end of a lot of other things; and in ends, in football, there are always beginnings. Rochdale feels far away now because we know that, with the signing of Cameron Stewart yesterday and (probably) Jimmy Kébé today, Leeds United will not play like that again. Even if Stewart and Kébé only make the bench at Hillsborough on Saturday, the first eleven won’t be able to get away with trundling about for long before a couple of them get hauled off so the new guys can have a try. More optimistically, both Stewart and Kébé could start, and who knows what that formation might look like? Or what a team with two genuinely pacy genuine wingers might be able to do?

It’s a get out clause of sorts for McDermott, who drew criticism at Rochdale for not freshening up the team, criticism that had been building over several same-old weeks. Blame FIFA, and their transfer windows. Freshness is what Leeds have needed, but even with the best will, freshness was not going to come from Varney, or Tonge, or Green, or Norris. Sometimes it’s as well to give in to the impulses that remain from teenage fandom and say: it doesn’t matter whether he’s any good or not any more, I’m just plain bored of Luke Varney. A team with Varney in it would just make my tongue itchy. A team with Cameron Stewart, though; and a team with Jimmy Kébé, too…

The chest-puffing announcement of Andrew Flowers as part of a consortium that “will” take over Leeds United came this week, too, but Andrew Flowers won’t skin a full back and drop a cross on Mathieu Smith’s head, and neither will David Haigh. That takeover is important, but what’s more important is that, despite Rochdale, I’m excited to see what Leeds United will do with two quick players running along the touchlines. Perhaps I’ve been seduced by the YouTube showreels, but it’s not been long since I let myself be seduced by Marius Zaliukas’s YouTube spell, and that didn’t do me any harm. Nobody can look at what Stewart and Kébé have done and can do and say that those are not things this football team has not has had and has needed. All that has to happen now is for the theory to work in practice. 

It seems strange to say it just six days after Rochdale, just six days since people were asking if McDermott’s time was running out as Leeds boss, but this almost feels like the beginning of a second honeymoon period. Perhaps David Haigh should take note for next time things get tricky, because his consortium – which is, apparently, bankrolling these signings – are repeating the ownership vows and starting a second honeymoon of their own; just keep buying the club from yourself and you’ll get all the slack you need. McDermott only has that reboot opportunity in the summer and in January – oh, for the days when you could sign players any time you needed them! – but he seems to be taking full advantage of the chance to start again. 

Stewart and Kébé aren’t just set to change United’s first eleven; they’re nutmegging the Gregorian calendar into a new form, too. 2013 began with that unforgiveable win over Bolton that has haunted me ever since; I think a line can be drawn that sends 2014 so far, with its defeats to Blackburn and Rochdale, back to that 2013 dungeon with it. We’ll rescue a few highlights, like the Brighton and Birmingham games, but otherwise this is a new start. Yes, another one, and yes, we can’t keep enjoying these new starts forever. But our last new start began without wingers, and Brian McDermott might not look on it as a start at all. This time, when we start, we start ready.

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