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the square ball week: leeds united, old times at all times

the square ball week: leeds united, old times at all times


There was never any doubt that Mathieu Smith was a good person, and we’ll see another example of his inherent decency when Fulham come to Elland Road on Saturday.

Smith’s story has not been like that of most footballers. His education is what always come up; the guy whose football career came second to a course in business studies, reaping the rewards now that football comes first. The other aspect of his student life seems to have been just as influential, though. “A lot of young footballers come into the game very naive and think everyone finishes work at one in the afternoon and everyone gets paid thousands of pounds a week,” he once told The Guardian. “It’s not like that. I’ve worked in bars, restaurants and hotels long into the early hours of the morning on minimum wage.”

His departure from Leeds was puzzling, and troubling for anyone who likes to see good people treated well. Offered a new contract, the number 9 shirt and a starting spot in the team, Smith seemed all set for a positive second season at Leeds; his delusion did at least last a little longer than Dom Poleon’s, offered a new contract then shipped out to Oldham before the deal could be agreed.

Smith will bear no grudge, but he does bear a great deal of class, and it’s somehow fitting that on Saturday afternoon he’ll be with Bristol City, preparing to face Crawley, taking the words ‘respectful distance’ to an excessively polite conclusion. If only there were more people with the good grace to leave the Leeds United scene so quietly.

Not that there’s a lot Ross McCormack can do about his return on Saturday. I know full well that Smith would rather be at Elland Road than Ashton Gate, but while neither player has really seen their move to London work the way they’d hoped, McCormack is the man more likely to stay at Craven Cottage and fight – not least because you don’t loan an £11m striker to Bristol City. McCormack has done his best this week, declining attention in the build up; not normally a shrinking violet, it’s obviously his own way of trying to keep some distance from our history.

That might not be enough to secure Ross a good reception from the home crowd, because although he put the record straight on his departure at some length, to too many fans of all clubs these days and ex-player is the enemy. You Do Not Leave. If you leave and it doesn’t work out, it Serves You Right. If you come back and play well for your new team, you are a Double Down Traitor.

Massimo Cellino won the Ross McCormack battle, but he won it under false pretences, and its overall influence on the course of the war will be negligible. The club, basically, told lies about McCormack as he headed for the exit; and Cellino admitted it was done to teach McCormack a lesson. There was no refusal from McCormack to travel to pre-season training in Italy; he’d been told to travel to Fulham for a medical. Nevertheless, thousands of people believed the version that has McCormack turning his back on the club and leaving us to our Hockafate; people preferred to believe new president Massimo Cellino over top-scorer and player of the year Ross McCormack. When the sympathies are with the board ahead of the players, that says there’s something messed up about people’s priorities at our football club.

It would be interesting to see who people would believe were that scenario to be played out again this winter, but having bested a footballer, Cellino has bigger dragons bearing down upon him. And it’s all starting to look too familiar. The situation Leeds United are in this week is new, at least to us, but the cast is still the same. This is act three; where it turns out that everybody survived act two, after all.

While Mathieu Smith has retired to a respectful distance and Ross McCormack will only be back once a year, the characters of our long-running boardroom farce are back for another series. If you wondered how Last of The Summer Wine managed to stay on TV so long, wait until the 31st year of Ken Bates gurning at Nora Cellino’s wrinkled tights and see how you feel then.

Artwork by Joe Gamble -

It’s commonly accepted that there’s much less room for loyalty in football these days, which is what scuppers players like Ross McCormack, who actually do want to stay loyal to a football club if they can: nobody believes them. The belief is that footballers are mercenaries, moving from club to club and payday to payday like vultures.

What, then, of the likes of Ken Bates, Shaun Harvey and Gulf Finance House, who don’t move on, who hang around picking relentlessly at our bones? Who move away when night falls, only to return at the first glimmer of dawn to pick over it all again? In the past couple of weeks we have heard either directly or from representatives of Bates, Harvey, Hisham Alrayes, GFH and David Haigh; in that company, it would have been a blessed relief to hear what Ross McCormack had to say.

We’re not only seeing the same cast gathering again, but the same conditions and the same plot. The details leaked about the club’s accounts aren’t fresh; they tell the story only as far as the handover from GFH to Cellino; in the circumstances I’m not sure we can call it a takeover anymore. The headline figures are also only surprising in their scale. We pretty much knew there would be debt, just not quite so much; there were suspicions that Cellino would have put his buyout on the club’s books, but it’s different to see it in black and white.

Just how badly Leeds United was being run is quite an eye-opener too. Staff numbers were reduced across the board, and yet wages increased by £2.4m; gate receipts, commercial income and merchandising income all dropped, cutting turnover by £3.2m. Rising costs and reducing income does not a happy club make, and this in an era when GFH were ‘building a sustainable club for the medium to long term.’ Or so their advertising said.

In the background of that slow-moving car crash is that other throwback sign of financial winter; the surprise holding company nobody knew about and the mystification of the ownership structure. Step forward, Trust Sporting 2006, an Italian trust who at the time of the accounts owned 88.3% of some part of Leeds United, but it’s not clear which.

Benign as this may be – it has been suggested that these accounts were prepared in the midst of a share issue, and capture a club undergoing a complicated and painful transition from Bahrain to Italy – it’s also the final ingredient required to turn our boardroom fully retro and present us with the possibility that we have got absolutely nowhere. Sometimes, if I think back to the days of Ken Bates’ ownership, it’s not the Ken Bates part that bothers me, so much as the fact that we never worked out who Halton Sports Ltd were. They owned 5.15% of Leeds City Holdings, but who or why or how was never accounted for. They were just a name then and they’re just a name now, but at LUFC, there are too many names like theirs that don’t carry a title or a purpose.

Shaun Harvey might be trying to keep a Matt Smith-style distance from the club, leaving the room whenever Leeds United are discussed at Football League HQ, but it could end up being his authority that opens the door to the the Leeds board’s 2012/13 reunion episode. The Football League say they are committed to ensuring their regulations are complied with, a distinctly Harveyesque inflexibility to circumstances. Compliance with the rules and regulations is only going to create a leadership vacuum at Leeds, at a time when what we thought were buried pasts have returned for more air.

Cellino has said he will step down from the board if he has to, if that’s what the Football League say will be best for the club; the actual mechanics of that can only be guessed at until they happen (as with so much at Leeds) but one possibility is that the newly friendly GFH run things until the Football League deem it fit for Massimo to return. That, given the set of GFH-inspired accounts that have just been submitted to the league, would be absurd. But if absurd happens anywhere, it happens at Leeds.

What won’t happen, it seems, is anything new. Even the takeover names being bandied around don’t feel like promises of deliverance, when so many of them are the same names we’ve seen before; in Red Bull’s case, they promise oblivion, but oblivion won’t go away. The one thing I hoped for from Massimo Cellino, above all else, was a line under the Bates/GFH era, an end to it all; and when he rambled tired and emotional down the phone back in March about how much he hated everyone and everything he had to deal with it felt like drawing that line was the only way he could possibly do the deal. Nine months later and he’s dining with Ken Bates and shaking hands with GFH, while Shaun Harvey looks on and David Haigh waits to make his big return to the limelight. Here’s the old gang, back together, everybody you ever hated all on one stage! Roll up, roll up!

Oh, for more people in the world like Mathieu Smith. Back when he joined from Oldham we used to joke that his business studies qualification would be more useful in the boardroom than his goals would be on the pitch. It’s funny how serious the jokes are at Leeds.

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