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the square ball week: go tell it

the square ball week: go tell it


I began my report on the win over Derby County last weekend with a simple sentence that felt good to write:

“At last, a game we can enjoy.”

I wrote that sentence within an hour of the full-time whistle. I don’t normally post match reports from weekend games until Monday morning, because by that time everyone knows what actually happened in the game and I’ve got time, with a bit of reflection, to do something other than just tell you who scored and how. You can find that sort of stuff out anywhere now anyway.

But recently I’ve begun trying to write the report as soon as possible after the match, because I feel a different kind of pressure while writing it. I felt that pressure in particular after the Derby game, and it had become almost unbearable in the time it took to get from the first sentence to the last and snap the laptop closed.

“Reality is for another day,” I wrote near the end, “because this is, at last, a game we should enjoy. Not the weirdness of the guests in the stands; or the speculation about Cellino’s £20m capital injection…”

The weirdness had actually begun during the game itself. It was halftime when blatant Photoshops of Verne Troyer posing in the East Stand with two-thirds of the junior Cellino clan, plus Terry George, began to circulate on Twitter; it was shortly after half-time that it came back round again, only now with confirmation that this was no Photoshop, and he was really there.

The news about the “£20m capital injection” came at exactly 5.28pm from Adam Pope of BBC Leeds, by which point I was mid-praise about Lewis Cook’s mature midfield play, but I just had to put it out of my mind and plough on with writing about just how good he and Mowatt had been against the division’s top side.

This happens a lot when you’re trying to write about Leeds United. You get a clear idea of what you want to say about the game, you start typing, and then news breaks. Dave Hockaday sacked. Dave Hockaday not sacked. Dave Hockaday sacked for reals. Nora Cellino underdressed. Darko Milanic sacked. Massimo Cellino putting £20m into the club. It could be anything.

The walls start to close in as you type. “United’s young midfield instead concentrated on the sweetness of their football…” you type, while over on Twitter, the debate is raging about what the new investment means, no but what does it actually mean, here are all the different scenarios for what it might actually mean; and like a forest fire it burns and it burns and it edges ever closer to your precious and well-tended garden.

All you can do is write the report as quickly as possible and hope that a Verne Troyer takeover doesn’t cause a complete rewrite before you post it on Monday morning.

The hurricane damage of the Cellino news cycle was particularly galling in this case, because Leeds were brilliant against Derby County, and the performance deserved to be praised and enjoyed long into the week. This club, though. By Monday lunchtime the news of Cellino’s investment was itself secondary to the news that the Football League had re-banned him from owning Leeds United; by Monday afternoon Cook and Mowatt’s fine performances were secondary to the outrageous (and hilarious) play-acting from Tavares. And nobody was talking much about the game anymore.

From a personal point of view, The Football League’s timing on Monday was even worse than Massimo Cellino’s on Saturday evening. When the announcement was made, me and several other representatives of the big group of people who have brought The Square Ball fanzine into existence ten times a season for the last twenty-five years were about to board a train for London and the Football Supporters’ Federation awards. We were nominated for Fanzine of the Year for the fourth consecutive year, and hopeful that we were going down there to win it for a second time.

I think it was Dan who pointed it out: “Tonight’s going to be awful now.” Obviously the potential ramifications of disbarring Cellino are hugely significant for Leeds United, but all it meant for us on Monday afternoon was that we would that night be entering a room of people from across the length and breadth of football who would all be looking to us for an answer to the one question we can’t help with: ‘So what’s going on at Leeds, then?’

And so it proved. We actually won the award; you might have seen us mention that on Twitter… and in the YEP… and on Radio Leeds… but two things happened in that moment of gratitude and glory. First, I fell off the back of the stage and almost got lost forever in a forest of footlights and ankles. Second, the evening’s host James Richardson, got the congratulations out of the way and asked seven drunk Leeds fans the question: “So, there’s been some big news concerning your club today…”

It was either Dan or Michael who gave an answer, and I was too busy dragging myself off the floor to pay much attention to what they said. It was probably for the best that I wasn’t asked, because I don’t think, “Yes, there was big news, and my response was to start drinking on the train and try to ignore it all as much as possible and have a nice day” was the answer anyone was looking for.

I think at some point James Richardson added, “At least with this guy you always have something to write about,” and if he didn’t, plenty of other people certainly did. And that is true. We’ve built part of the reputation of The Square Ball over the five years that the current bunch have run it on our coverage of the ownership problems, and I stand behind that work on matters that have been and continue to be very important to our football club.

But it’s not like we’d have nothing to write about if it wasn’t for Massimo Cellino, or that we’re somehow grateful to him for filling our pages every issue. TSB was around a long time before MC, and I’m sure it’ll be around in some form a long time after, and it has never lacked subjects, because it’s subject is Leeds United Football Club, and part of the whole idea of a football club is that it’s a place where something interesting, exciting or frustrating happens on a patch of grass as often as twice weekly.

Our most recent issue, issue four, includes some very good writing about Massimo Cellino. But it also includes some very good writing about Luke Murphy, Tomasso Bianchi, David Batty, Gary Speed, Jack Overfield, George Meek, and Mirco Antenucci’s knees. Football, in other words, and footballers, the thing we’re all in this for in the first place, something that is remarkably resistant to the forces people like Ken Bates, GFH and Massimo Cellino exert upon it. Thanks to Massimo I might have had to do a find-and-replace for ‘Darko Milanic’ and ‘Neil Redfearn’ while editing a couple of articles, but by and large Mirco Antenucci’s knees are out of Cellino’s purview. And I’m grateful to them for that.

That issue of TSB also included the latest news from Leeds Ladies FC, and all of that news was about events on the pitch. That might have been different last season, when Leeds United Ladies were nominally chaired by David Haigh and its links to Leeds United were a deadweight dragging it towards oblivion and, in mid-summer, closure; but since the club was made anew, United in all but name, it has enjoyed the advantages of a supporter-ownership model that has brought buoyancy off the pitch and success on it.

That means that when I interviewed Leeds captain Emma Bentley about this weekend’s city derby against Guiseley in the FA Cup (Sunday, 1pm, at AFC Emley), I only had to ask her about the football.

“I will do absolutely anything it takes to win that game,” she told me. "I will fight tooth and nail until my legs give out, and if my legs give out, I’ll play with my heart. That’s what the fans want to see, that’s what the manager wants to see, that’s what we as players want to achieve.

“It’s going to be great day for the fans and will produce what will no doubt be a classic game to watch. And let me tell you something – we’re ready for it.”

That’s not only what Leeds Ladies fans want to hear from their captain and see from their team this weekend; it’s what Leeds United fans want to see in Ipswich, too. Against Derby County we got something like it, and it was great. But by Tuesday the United captain was taking questions about Cellino’s new ban, a ban being much more widely reported than the way Warnock got to the byline for Antenucci’s second.

“He (Cellino) has been slowly changing things for the better,” said Pearce, “but as things were starting to move on the up it’s taken a backward step maybe. Hopefully it’ll have a positive outcome and the club will be ok.” He didn’t add, “Can we talk about the football now please?” but I bet both he and Adam Pope wanted to.

I’m looking forward to both games this weekend, but I feel happier about looking forward to the Leeds Ladies match on Sunday. Matchday for Leeds Ladies is about beating the opposition; matchday for Leeds United is about beating the opposition, and then watching as the club gets scrawled up and torn up by the news cycle off the pitch. Everyone wants to know the real story at Leeds United; nobody thinks they’ll find the real story in an Antenucci goal. The football, glorious, chaotic, anarchic, the-ball-is-round football, can feel like an unwelcome delay in further narration of the “chaos at Leeds United.”

That automatically makes me want to resist the chaos off the field, and just chew my pen in peace and try to think of new ways to describe the way Tavares moves (‘like a distraught teenage dancer failing an audition for Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,’ anyone?). But the ownership situation is important, and we do have to keep watching it and writing about it, and that might be the most frustrating thing of all.

If the football is to continue at Elland Road, we can’t afford to take our eyes off the East Stand, and we have to look there for more than Hollywood celebrities. The £20m investment from Cellino has turned into £15m from Cellino and £5m from GFH, and the investment has taken a visible form, in a photograph on the official website of Massimo Cellino and Hisham Alrayes shaking hands. They have apparently set the seal on the deal Cellino said was done in August to renegotiate their partnership and move forward, and the handshake is meant to confirm that, this time, it’s really really really happening, honest. The money from GFH might be welcome, pending conditions; the beaming smiles and handshakes with our former owners are not welcome, though, or reassuring.

The photo reminded me of the last time I saw Massimo Cellino sealing a deal with a handshake; back in June, when he confirmed the sale of Cagliari to Luca Silvestrone by releasing a photo to the press of the two of them smiling and shaking hands in Miami. Days later that deal evaporated.

“I have not seen or heard from anyone since last Wednesday’s meeting with Silvestrone and Dan Meis in Miami,” said Cellino. “No down payment of €10m has been received. From what I can gather they only can be found through ‘missing’.”

That, sadly, is what a Cellino handshake is worth; and we know very well at Leeds what the word of GFH is worth. To trust that these developments are all they appear to be would be madness. That means that when someone asks you, ‘So what’s happening at Leeds, then?’ you can only tell them what looks to be happening, and add the suffix that sums the club up: “But who knows what’s really going on?”

And then try to interest them in a conversation about football.

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