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the square ball week: the rubaiyat of connor wickham

the square ball week: the rubaiyat of connor wickham


Photo via Matlock-Photo CC2.0

If Leeds United have lacked one thing this season – and they haven’t, they’ve lacked loads of stuff – but if Leeds United have lacked one thing, it’s poetry.

Connor Wickham doesn’t solve that all by himself. But his arrival, and that of Jack Butland, has made me wonder if something approximate to these lines from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam are relevant to Brian McDermott about now:

Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire, Would not we shatter it to bits–and then Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

It probably applies beyond just Brian McDermott. Who hasn’t, as they’ve watched Leeds United this season, wished they could just rip it all up and start again? No mercy, not even for Ross; get rid of the lot of them and have a fresh beginning.

Few of us could express that longing as movingly as in the lines above by Omar Khayyam; assuming that is how he expressed it at all, that is. Khayyam wrote his 1,000 poems in Persia around the tenth century, and that quote is from a 19th century translation by Edward FitzGerald, which played fast and loose with the Persian originals and, in parts, was just completely made up.

There have been dozens of other translations, additions, subtractions and myths joined to the original poems that Khayyam wrote, to the point where you can never be certain that what you understand in a few lines of Khayyam is really what he meant, or even something he really wrote.

Which brings us back to Connor Wickham and Jack Butland. These, at last, are the players that have been in Brian McDermott’s thoughts all along – that’s one interpretation. Another interpretation is that blessed Brian has finally woken up to what has been obvious to Leeds fans all season: that we need promising young players, not donkey hasbeens all the time.

Then there’s the finance, without which there can be romance, let alone poetry. Are Wickham and Butland signs of the riches Massimo Cellino intends to shower upon Leeds United – is this the first sign of the corn-cash that will take our team up a league? Or is the funding of these signings just driving another wedge of debt into our impending financial meltdown, that will all need to be repaid come the Football League’s judgement day? Or are Stoke and Sunderland paying for 90% of it and this is just Varney and Green reloaded?

So much for the practicalities – what about the reason? Why have we suddenly signed two quality – we hope – players? Has Brian McDermott decided to go all out for the play-offs, despite the odds against it? Or has Cellino decided that McDermott should go all out for the play-offs, despite the odds against him? If these players are Cellino’s idea, paid for with Cellino’s money, what happens if we don’t get promoted and we could have stuck with Cairns and Hunt for the same outcome without making him pay? Are Butland and Wickham going to have a long lasting, permanent signing sort of impact on our team, or is this just a brief dalliance with the fringes of the England squad before we revert to the run of the mill in the summer transfer window?

Like a resonant poem, we should be able to just enjoy it when our football club makes a couple of exciting signings, but Elland Road is the home of joyless over-analysis these days. Should it matter that nobody can identify the true author of those lines from the Rubaiyat that I love so much, or should I just enjoy them as they stand? And should it matter that there are so many questions and angles to do with the simple signings of Butland and Wickham, when I could just enjoy their performances on the pitch?

It’s fear, I suppose. I will enjoy watching Wickham and Butland against QPR, and my fingers are crossed that Wickham is everything we want him to be – not least because we need to find some way of reasserting ourselves above Sheffield Wednesday, and their heartbreak at losing him, and at hearing him say things like, “There was interest in me but Leeds were the big club that came in,” is something we really need to revel in. But nothing in Leeds is ever as it seems these days. When was the simple explanation last the true one at Elland Road? When could we last be sure of where we stood?

Seven days after Mad Friday, just as things were beginnning to calm down and thoughts were turning to Yeovil, Google Translate gave us the tweet of the week from Italy, pronouncing the sale of Cagliari to Qatar’s Al Thani family to be “a cosmic hoax.” This was a day after Massimo had sent an emotional text message to a Sardinian newspaper announcing that he had sold the club. Right now, 21 says later, Cellino still owns Cagliari, their assistant manager has been sacked, nobody is sure whether that club’s sale has a bearing on our club’s purchase and an Italian reporter has confirmation from the Al Thani’s lawyer and ‘custodian of the strategies of Qatar in Europe’ that “Qatar is not interested in Cagliari and Italian football.”

One good word for the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is cosmic, as it is a poem about how we deal with something like a universe – a “sorry Scheme of Things entire” – that won’t do what we want it to; we deal with that universe, according to Omar Khayyam, or his many translators and fakers, by drinking as much wine as we require until our wilderness resembles the paradise we want.

Connor Wickham is that jug of wine that can turn wilderness into paradise, that can turn a lousy team of cloggers into poetry in motion and beat QPR. But the Rubaiyat of Connor Wickham might also be a cosmic hoax, an idea that, analysed too deeply, bumps you up hard against some sober, disappointing truth. Omar Khayyam, though, has lasted for a thousand years, and we only need to believe in Connor Wickham until the end of the season. So I reckon it’s going to be okay if we just drink the wine this weekend; the cosmos will still be there on Monday morning.

A new podcast from The Square Ball is out now; number 75, Hear The Drummer Get Wicked, features the YEP’s Chief Football Writer, Phil Hay, about Cellino’s as-yet-unapproved takeover; which isn’t stopping Massimo, mind, as he’s apparently brought in Connor Wickham and England keeper Jack Butland. The lads also reminisce about our finest ever custodian, Nigel Martyn. There’s also talk of good old ‘Arry, about hiring Elland Road, and the all-important role of percussion in football stadia. Listen in the player on this page, or go to

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