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the square ball week: experiments & results

the square ball week: experiments & results


There’s no shame in an experiment that doesn’t work out. That’s why it was an experiment – if it was a sure thing, everyone would have done it already. You do it to see what happens.

If what happens isn’t what was expected or desired, you hold your hands up, you find a new plan, you learn from the experience and you move on.

That’s how Brian McDermott has dealt with his tactical snafu against Rochdale and Sheffield Wednesday, although you’d probably have a tough time convincing him that he’s got nothing to be ashamed of. After last weekend he would have bought a brown mac, wig, a false nose and glasses, but he probably couldn’t bear to face the man in the disguise shop. Nonetheless, he’s moving on, won’t be trying 3-4-3 again, and hopefully will proceed with a little more caution next time he’s tempted to play four wingers at once.

It’s also how Rodolph Austin has gone about handing the captain’s armband back. Although Rudy seemed like the obvious choice when he was given the job, it did have a risk factor. That was perhaps best illustrated by Austin’s reaction to being made captain in the first place; humble almost to the point of disbelief: “I was shocked and I told him that I needed to think about it because I am not the type of person who just jumps and makes decisions. But he insisted that I should take it so that’s what I did.”

McDermott described Austin as a “special person” who “trains every day like it’s his last,”and saw qualities the way Rudy conducts himself and his desire to win that he wanted to see in all the players. By making Austin captain McDermott was looking for some of the effect Bobby Collins had when he Revie brought him in alongside raw players like Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray, Norman Hunter and the rest, players who saw in Collins, every single day, a peerless example of how to be a professional footballer. Just the presence of Bobby Collins at Leeds United was the making of Revie’s young team.

Rodolph Austin isn’t in Bobby Collins’ class, obviously, but he was made captain for the same reasons. It didn’t work out that way, though. Rather than inspire those around him to raise their game and take responsibility for their own performances, Austin seems in recent weeks to have been carrying the burden of their troubles and misfortunes on his back. Rather than instil professional habits of hard work and excellence in his team mates, Rudy has become a sponge for all their faults, crushed by the weight of the armband that says everything going on around him is his responsibility. One of Rudy’s virtues, in McDermott’s view, is the way he takes responsibility for himself; that virtue becomes a vice when, as captain, he feels responsible for the way the whole side is playing.

That’s my interpretation, anyway. Rudy has played in recent weeks as if he was carrying an upright piano full of woe tied to his back, and with his request to be relieved of the captaincy, I think we now have the reason. It’s hard enough to play well when you’re struggling with your own form, but when you feel responsible – or, to put it another way, to blame − for the form of those around you, you freeze.

So that’s that: an experiment that didn’t work. Rudy can hold his head up for being honest enough to fess up; it can’t have been an easy admission. Ross McCormack as capain will be an experiment too. Some people are dead against strikers as captains on principle, but there is no doubt that Ross is the player of the season so far, and that – perhaps unlike Austin – he has the kind of extrovert personality that means he won’t absorb the troubles of those around him, but will take those around him to task when the situation requires it. Ross is a different character to Rudy, and he will be a different captain; the first experiment didn’t work, so we move on to another.

It’s a lesson that managing director David Haigh could do with learning. As the takeover by Sport Capital drags on, Haigh, his consortium and the current board’s (they’re mostly the same people) inability to learn from their mistakes and switch tactics becomes ever more infuriating.

After a spell of confusion around confirmation around clarification given by GFH to the stock exchange in Kuwait – which only confirmed what LUFC had announced on November 30th – and a story in the YEP about GFH blocking the purchase of Ashley Barnes, David Haigh put his name to a statement on the official website with the headline, ‘MD Moves to Reassure Fans.’

The communication from the club and its board – or ‘engagement’, if you prefer – since Bates was ousted has been refreshing, and the large crowds at Elland Road this season have proven that a more talkative and responsive football club – and the Laurel and Hardy routines between David and Salem on Twitter – helps to get the fans through the turnstiles. But this style of communication doesn’t work in every situation, and the reaction to Haigh’s ‘reassuring’ statement should be enough to lead him to a Rudy Austin-like moment of realisation.

If David Haigh can recognise that the fans need to be reassured about the current situation – and he was told exactly that by LUST chairman Gary Cooper this week – then he should by now be able to realise that the same old statement with the word ‘Reassure’ added isn’t going to work anymore. It didn’t even address the Ashley Barnes question; and while saying everyone is “working towards a successful conclusion sooner rather than later” and that “everyone involved has the best interests of the club at heart” (in Salah Nooruddin’s words) might be designed to convince everyone that all is well, the effect is to just leave people wondering why, if such hard work is being done in the club’s best interests, it isn’t finished yet.

And in the midst of it all is a line that is exactly the opposite of reassuring: “Since signing the original share acquisition documentation, we have been in continual talks with GFH Capital about the finer details of running the club.” So David Haigh has spent six weeks talking about details of running a football club he’s worked at for over a year, with a company that he worked at for even longer? A football club board buying the football club it runs from a parent company they all know inside out should be the simplest of processes, shouldn’t it? If I wasn’t worried before, I am now – so much for reassurance.

The first sad thing is that nobody expected anything else from this statement; people on Waccoe held a sweepstake on its contents. The second sad thing is that Haigh, and Flowers and Nooruddin and Patel and all, don’t seem capable of realising that weekly statements about working hard aren’t a successful tactic anymore. It’s 3-4-3 at Hillsborough; it’s Rudy Austin staring icily at the day’s young mascot. It’s a public relations experiment that, tests have proven, isn’t having the expected or desired effect.

They need a new method, and there’s only one that will do: finish what you’re doing, and fast, and tell us when it’s done. Try it. It just might work.

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