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the square ball week: leaving for good

the square ball week: leaving for good

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On this cold, late November morning, after the emergency loan window has closed upon the misty streets, I would like to say a sincere thank you to Noel Hunt, Nicky Ajose and Scott Wootton.

I’d like to say thanks, lads, and goodbye; although I know, in this case, it’s au revoir. We’ll see you again, but perhaps not for long.

But thanks, sincerely, for leaving. If you could have taken a few more with you, from the back of the dressing room and from under the boardroom table, that would have been even better.

Sometimes that’s just the best thing. Things don’t work out, and that’s natural. It’s normal in football to fail. Far more teams don’t win leagues each season than do; far more players don’t score goals each Saturday than do. Much of the battle of winning is about how you respond to defeat.

I don’t doubt that is what Hunt, Wootton and Ajose all intend to show at their new clubs in the coming weeks. By not making it at Leeds United, they’re in company with the vast majority of footballers out there who also haven’t made it at Leeds United. These three at least had the opportunities to try, and that’s something.

Whether they should have had those opportunities is another matter, but that was never really up to them. It’s hard to say what conspired against Noel Hunt at Leeds, but it’s only by wearing hindsight specs that you can argue he was never worth a chance.

The sticks that are used to beat Noel Hunt as he leaves Leeds are the very planks that should have propped up two successful years at our club. That he had experience of winning this division with Reading, that he had played in the Premier League, that he didn’t just know Brian McDermott’s managerial style but was his friend and ally: all of that should have been foundations for playing a crucial part in McDermott’s two-season plan for promotion. Twenty games and no goals later, his experience means he’s washed up, it’s remembered that his Premier League spell ended in relegation, and that closeness to McDermott means it was just another job for the boys; but it didn’t look that way last summer, when Hunt had ‘sensible signing’ written all over him.

Scott Wootton was arguably more of a gamble, because unlike Hunt he had no track record and no prior relationships. His handful of cup appearances for his previous club hadn’t brought him on to the radar of anybody at Elland Road, but he had the pedigree of starting his career at Liverpool, despite subsequent moves; he had the benefit of youth on his side; he was also, presumably, relatively cheap, despite newspaper claims. As McDermott looked to restock a central defence that had been stripped to just Pearce and Lees, Wootton’s promise and versatility made him a good option.

Unfortunately the fact that he wasn’t any good soon made him a bad option. While Marius Zaliukas was the pantomime villain of Sheffield Wednesday away, it gets forgotten that after his part in the Rochdale fiasco, Wootton didn’t even make the bench at Hillsborough. That’s the gamble of signing young players on their way out of other club’s youth systems; they might work, they might not, but you don’t find out until they’re wearing your shirt and floundering at Spotland.

Nicky Ajose seems like the most bizarre of the lot, but in a way he fits the recent mould of signings at Leeds United. We are the club, after all, who broke up Swindon’s successful Austin-Paynter partnership by signing Billy Paynter; he’s at Carlisle now, with a single Johnstone’s Paint Trophy goal to his name this season, while Charlie Austin has six in eleven for QPR in the Premier League after his £4m move. It’s only natural, then, that while Nottingham Forest enjoy watching Britt Assombalonga repay the £5m they paid to sign him from Peterborough with eleven goals in eighteen matches, Leeds should have signed his strike partner from last season, Nicky Ajose, for £150,000. And then immediately tried to find a way to get rid of him again.

It’s no attack on Ajose to suggest that Dave Hockaday must have entirely out of his mind to have been talking about beginning the club’s journey to the Champions League while handing Ajose a three year contract and giving trials to Nile Ranger and Andre Blackman; The Hock can only have fooled both himself and Massimo Cellino with his confident claims about being able to make players better when he decided Nicky Ajose was the future of this club for the next three seasons. Perhaps Hockaday thought that, if he could get the Leeds job, then anything might be possible. Fair play to Swindon Supermarine if they benefit from that sort of self-confidence now.

It doesn’t do to dwell on Ajose too much, because to be fair to him in his brief appearances he actually looked decent. But decent won’t do, and he won’t do for Leeds, and so the decent thing to do is to go. Nicky Ajose didn’t sign for Leeds so that he could play in the development squad, and so he won’t; he’s taken the first opportunity available to go and play in front of a crowd somewhere else, and that’s fair enough – no troublemaking, no come-and-get-me pleas, just a move to Crewe to play. It might have taken Hunt and Wootton longer, but they had better chances of making it here; but now that it’s clear that Redders has established his first team squad without them, it’s with some gratitude that we can wave them a swift cheerio and hope they enjoy their new, if only temporary clubs.

Meanwhile, as they disappear into the distance, we turn back to Thorp Arch and see there, trying to sidle inconspiciously back into the first team group, David bloody Norris.

It might seem odd to spend so long thanking three players who have made so little impact for Leeds for leaving on loan, but it’s when you think of Norris still – presumably – turning up for training every day with no hope whatsoever of turning out for the first team that you remember how much of a problem slow decay has been at this club over the last ten years, and you’re thankful that every now and then we can make a clean cut. The streets around Elland Road are a tangle of frayed apron strings that still attach the unwanted to our club, no matter how loosely.

The reshuffling of the boardroom this Thursday, or at least of the version of the boardroom registered at Companies House, was like suddenly spotting David Norris at the back of a photo from Thorp Arch; Salah Nooruddin! Was he still here? Well, apparently not; he and David Haigh, who also had the end of his directorship confirmed, both stepped down in the spring. And yet, in some quasi-official way, their names lived on at Leeds United, still linked to our club at Companies House, and in Nooruddin’s case, on the official club website’s list of directors at least as recently as October.

David Haigh, Leeds United

Haigh’s absence has been a more visible one, imprisoned in plain sight in Dubai for six months, and if ever there was a reminder of how difficult it is to cut cords at Leeds United, it’s David Haigh. Even if it took until now to update Companies House, Haigh stepped down/was pushed from the Leeds board sometime around April. Then in May he was jailed after flying to Dubai to discuss what was first said to be a new job but is now being called “a business deal” with GFH.

It’s not only six months since Haigh was imprisoned, it’s more than six months since Haigh left the Leeds board, and yet his lengthy tit-for-tat jabs at GFH and their legal team still end with thanks to Leeds fans for their fervent support and the hashtag #MOT. It’s an interesting tactic that I might try next time I have to send an official letter: “In conclusion I dispute the parking ticket issued against me Thursday last. I’d also like to thank the amazing supporters of Leeds United for backing me #MOT #WeParkWhereWeWant.”

The connecting points between our club and their problems are that much of the fraud David Haigh is accused of is alleged to have taken place while he was managing director of Leeds United; and that GFH and associated entities still own 25% of our club. Apart from that, the legal battle is strictly personal, and often very personal indeed. It’s GFH vs David Haigh, and Leeds fans are only being involved because we’re good PR.

Haigh doesn’t have any other audience. His idealised version of his life story would have you believe he was born in Beeston and then became managing director of Leeds and that nothing happened in between, because he’d rather not talk about a lot of what happened in between, and he has in fact sent cease and desist letters to people who tried to. But for all he has to show for it, those years in between might as well not have happened after all. When David Haigh speaks, who else listens, apart from Leeds fans?

To keep us listening, we’re being thrown occasional attention-grabbing nuggets. “Something else IT-related that has come to mind that I believe is relevant is my recollection of a midnight raid (before I became MD) on the offices of Leeds United FC at Elland Road and Thorpe Arch instructed by GFH CEO Hisham Alrayes…” reads part of Haigh’s statement; for one thing, it’s Thorp Arch, you dolt; for another, while the story that follows is a shocker – private investigators removing hard drives under cover of darkness – presented here, in the midst of an eff-you-right-back statement to GFH, it’s nothing more than gossip to get the Leeds fans on his side.

“As to the ever amazing Leeds fans you really do deserve to know the truth about GFH and I promise I will do my utmost to bring it to you as I aimed to do shortly before I was lured to Dubai by Deceit,” reads Haigh’s statement, and David is absolutely right: Leeds fans do deserve to know the truth about GFH. But we deserve to know all of it, not just the parts that suit David Haigh’s defence. But one suspects that the whole truth might batter Haigh’s defences as much as it batters GFH’s, which is why we may never get it. “I can only apologise to [Leeds fans] as I feel at least in part at fault for the shambles [GFH] created and the mess they left behind – I did my best to control them, I wasn’t always successful,” says Haigh, getting his excuses in again; but given how long Haigh says he worked in Middle Eastern finance and how long he worked for GFH, ‘I didn’t know what they were really like and I tried to stop them’ sounds pretty weak.

“I promise to do my utmost” to tell the truth also sounds pretty damn weak coming from Haigh. No matter how much his PR might try to change the narrative and present Haigh as a fighter for freedom and the truth, too many of us remember his past promises, too many of us remember what his relationship to the truth was like when he was here. This week Haigh’s Twitter account used the hashtag #Shamefull (one L, guys) when protesting that GFH had sent cease and desist letters over a blog post by Simon O’Rourke: “Human rights and freedom of speech. Now they are trying to scare and silence fans and journos,” it said. That line of attack kinda floundered when people began to produce the cease and desist letters they’d received from legal firms operating on behalf of Haigh while he was MD of Leeds.

You can’t rewrite history that easily, but that has never stopped David Haigh from trying, or from contradicting himself, dissembling, and then going back under cover of his latest PR firm until he hopes everyone has forgotten. David Haigh ought to be released from his imprisonment without charge in Dubai on a purely human level – the situation is absurd – and then he can mount his defence against GFH’s accusations properly. But he shouldn’t be released on the basis of a promise to Leeds fans about revealing the truth about GFH because, based on past experiences, the chances of us ever getting the truth about their period of ownership from either David Haigh or GFH are next to non-existent. And even if either of them did tell us the truth, I’m not sure how we’d be able to tell.

David Haigh says he couldn’t control GFH, Luke Varney says he doesn’t dive, Ken Bates says whatever nonsense is on his video blog this week, and the only people listening are Leeds United fans – to an ex-director, an ex-player and an ex-chairman. The clamour for our attention grows and grows, but it grows from without, not within; our past relationships seem to have longer half-lives than nuclear waste. Noel Hunt, at least, seems like a guy who knows a few good jokes. Maybe now he’s left the club we’ll get to hear some, if he can hear him through the din.

Some things are worth remembering, some past characters are worth saluting, some anniversaries are worth marking. But it’s for Leeds United fans to decide what matters to us about our past.

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