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the square ball week: stay behind

the square ball week: stay behind

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There was little happiness to take from Leeds United’s defeat in Brighton on Tuesday night. Brian McDermott sounded particularly disappointed in his post-match interview.

Or rather than disappointed, he sounded relieved; and if there was anything to be happy about after Brighton, it was that the game was over. A long journey home awaited, and there were the inevitable questions about Massimo Cellino and the Football League to negotiate first, but at least the final whistle had been blown.

And three cheers for Charlton, for persisting in the FA Cup long after Leeds decided not to waste time on it – that is what happened at Rochdale, right? – and giving Leeds some more time off from playing football. It doesn’t seem all that long from the last time we had some time off, but it seems like the more time off the better for Leeds United at the moment.

“The players need a bit of a rest,” said McDermott at the Amex. “We’ll get them away from each other after everything’s that’s been going on.”

That was an interesting choice of words, and perhaps a revealing one. Luke Varney headed over the hills to Blackburn this week, speaking of his relief to be leaving “a week of turmoil” behind him in West Yorkshire – “I can put all that behind me now,” he said, “and use that negative – it’s not anger – but there’s a lot inside that I need to get out and I’m hoping to do that on the pitch for Blackburn” – and while it would be easy to argue that Varney is a player who could be distressed by his own shadow, there’s also a chance that his happiness at leaving is only equalled by the unhappiness of the ones he leaves behind.

That’s not to suggest that there is some deep-rooted malaise in the Leeds dressing room, or that McDermott has ‘lost’ that same room, one of the most irritating phrases in the cliché book. And certainly, Ross McCormack looks made up to be captain, Alex Mowatt seems delighted just to be in the team, Sam Byram looks glad to have shaken off his old man’s injury and be back in the team again. The only player who doesn’t look happy out there is Tom Lees, but you might have seen that joke coming.

But this has become another groundhog season for Leeds United. McDermott is still talking up our chances of making the play-offs, but he’s loading that caveats: if we can get the takeover sorted soon, if we can get some new players in on loan, if we can put a run together. Deep down he knows the first is optimistic, the second is unlikely, and the third is just not going to suddenly happen to a team that hasn’t won three games in a row all season. If he could, I bet Brian would love to just skip the next sixteen matches, spend some time in the sun eating ice cream, and come back next season with everything sorted. Assuming that, next season, everything is sorted.

He’s not the first Leeds manager to feel that way. Shortly after taking over at Leeds, with not much at stake from a late season trip to Cardiff, Neil Warnock toyed with the idea of skipping the game to go scouting – yeah, right – until he realised that might be pushing absenteeism a bit too far. The idea was that he would be planning improvements to the squad for the next season, but that didn’t come to pass either; 2012/13 ended with Ross McCormack being interviewed about a season spent kicking his heels, telling Phil Hay in the YEP, “If I’m being honest it’s been a complete waste. Both personally and for the team. I could talk about luck or make excuses but I wouldn’t be kidding anybody.”

The personal angle is the key one. That football is a short career is a truism used to justify players who move from club to club to find the biggest contract they can; but what of the players who stay behind? It’s an equally short career for them, and even if the financial rewards are there – I doubt Ross would complain about the living he makes – the trophies are not. McCormack could make more money than he makes now just by moving to another club in the same division. That he keeps signing contracts at Leeds for less than that suggests there’s something else he wants to do here, something not incompatible with the aim of playing in the Premier League. Each season that ticks by, each season that is a ‘waste of time’, takes him a season nearer to financial success, but professional failure.

It’s the same feeling that leads to tetchiness in the stands, as the realisation grows that the money spent on this year’s season ticket did not buy a ticket to a promotion party. Again. It didn’t even buy a ticket to a promotion race. Of course the bookies will put Leeds in contention at the start of every season simply because of the name, and the crowds, but the truth is that we haven’t been truly involved at the top of the table since the first season after promotion from League One. That was followed by a season of transition, and then another season of transition, and now this season, which looks set to be another one of transition.

How far we’ll be transitioning is impossible to say. New ownership looks a certainty, but beyond that: new players? of what standard? signed from which leagues? to replace who? We might even get a new manager, or if Cellino lives us to his billing, we might get six. None of those questions can be answered until the ownership situation is sorted out, and nobody can be truly happy in those circumstances.

To look around a dressing room and see the same faces that failed last season, and the season before; to see new faces struggling to make their mark, or to help cut the ties that have bonded the club to mediocrity; to see the manager, and then blink and see another one, and blink again to see the first one back; to know that in a couple of months you’ll be off on holiday and chalking this up as another season wasted; that’s not an atmosphere anyone is going to enjoy.

Brian McDermott is right that a break from each other, and from The Situation which has followed Leeds like a black dog for the last decade, could be good for the players. Leeds United is something you have to handle, whether you’re a player or a fan, developing your own coping mechanisms and techniques. If you’re Luke Varney, you run away to Lancashire where none of it is your problem anymore. Other players might look around the Amex after a 1–0 defeat they know isn’t good enough, relieved that they can take a short break but determined to come back and do better. The test for Leeds United for the rest of the season is how many we have in the squad like the latter. And the secret ingredient for success in future seasons might be to make sure we have more like them than we have like Luke Varney.

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