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the square ball week: grace under pressure

the square ball week: grace under pressure

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A few weeks ago I wrote that by acquiring two wingers, Leeds United had already made the defeat at Rochdale the previous weekend feel like ancient history. 

With Kébé and Stewart, I wrote, Leeds had drawn a line under that debacle, changed the squad to give Brian McDermott the options he’d been crying out for, and switched the mood around. Rochdale would soon feel like ancient history; the pain would be forgotten.

I was wrong about a lot of that, of course. Instead of fading from memory, ever since Leeds went out in what I said would be the first game of a brand new era and got beat 6-0, the Rochdale game has been conjoined with the Wednesday one that followed. ‘The debacles at Spotland and Hillsborough’ have been referenced over and over again in the last month.

The general principle of what I wrote, though, is sound; or at least I’m willing to stick by it. That is, that football, while it can be mercilessly cruel, can also be very forgiving. It’s said that managers are only ever one bad result away from the sack; but they’re often only one good result away from sainthood, too. Fans’ memories can be short, and that can be both an advantage and a disadvantage.

“Everything is retrievable. Nothing’s irretrievable,” said McDermott on Monday, at the extraordinary press conference called to prove that Leeds United did still have a manager after all. He was talking about Luke Varney, who refused to play against Ipswich last week to protect his transfer to Blackburn; a transfer that didn’t happen. He’ll be given his chance to make amends, according to Brian, and if he takes it then surely all will be forgotten, if not quite forgiven.

On Friday night, in the middle of one of the saddest and stupidest nights in Leeds United’s history, Massimo Cellino’s position looked about as irretrievable as it gets. Leeds United is not Newcastle United, and it takes a lot to get an angry mob down to Elland Road on a cold January night, but there the mob were, determined to prevent Cellino leaving the stadium until they got hold of him and – what? Perhaps it’s better that we never found out. 

Saturday brought more protests, Sunday more news than we could really process, and then Monday brought back the man himself: Brian McDermott. A Leeds United press conference broadcast live on Sky Sports always make me think of Ridsdale’s ‘Dare to Dream’ speech, given as he sold Jon Woodgate; McDermott’s press conference should also be remembered for years to come, but for different reasons.

Ernest Hemingway defined guts as “grace under pressure,” and Brian’s performance was gutsy in the extreme. When Brian was asked if he’d been angry after taking the phone call that sacked him, he replied, “No. What’s the point? No point. I was calm”; and I can’t think of a response I could have admired more. The chants at the Huddersfield game, and the rapport built in Eastern Europe and at Elland Road – where he switched dugouts to be closer to the Kop – were clearly key to keeping McDermott going, even as he was advised to walk away. “In my mind, there was no way I was ever going to be walking away from this job,” he said. “Why would you walk away from being Leeds United manager? It just doesn’t make any sense.”  If there was one good thing about Leeds United Football Club this past weekend, it was Brian McDermott, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.

That was Monday, though. And today is Friday. And after a bewildering week of sackings, reinstatements, statements, tweets, winding up petitions, consortiums, super-consortiums, negotiations and daughters with Instagram, it already feels like what we treasured on Monday has been a little bit forgotten about. It’s clear now that it’s going to take a lot to stop Cellino taking over the club. And it’s also becoming clear that it won’t take much for last Friday’s public enemy number one to become next week’s best friend forever. 

McDermott has remained typically sanguine about the prospect of trying to work for Cellino; like with Luke Varney, the situation is technically retrievable. But whenever the Italian’s name was mentioned on Monday, the temperature in the Thorp Arch media room dropped just a little; whenever he was asked about Cellino, McDermott drew his breath a bit more sharply, looked just a little sterner as he made careful reply. McDermott knows that a Cellino takeover means a war on the progress McDermott has been trying to make since March; that a steady rebuilding process will be replaced by a scorched earth policy. Even successful managers were sacked by Cellino at Cagliari; sacking McDermott was Cellino’s very first act once he was told by text that the club was his. What chance a healthy working relationship?

Cellino knows what to say, though. “On Thursday I am going to the bank and I will buy our stadium. I have the funds to buy Leeds and to run Leeds. A club like Leeds has big potential. I want to see Leeds United versus Manchester United like it used to be.” Of course, Ken Bates said pretty much the same things nine years ago, because they’re what people want to hear, and because they have the right effect. They’re working for Massimo.

The mood at this end of the week, as McDermott’s words get buried beneath the week’s constant stream of conflicting information, seems to be: to hell with it. It might not be so bad. A collective effort at convincing ourselves – or deluding ourselves – that at Leeds, Cellino might be a reformed character, means that far from being barricaded into the stadium while one or two things are made clear for him about Leeds United, Cellino can expect a rapturous welcome should he preside over our next game as owner of it all. 

There is perhaps as much fatalism to this, as there is giddiness about him being rich beyond our wildest dreams. If Cellino’s going to end up buying our club anyway, why not accept it, give him a warm welcome, and hope for the best? GFH are either determined or desperate to sell to Cellino, Andrew Flowers burns a bridge weekly, and while Farnan and his consortium are trying to keep themselves involved and saying the right things for the fans, they’re a largely unknown quantity and supporters don’t have enough information to know if they might be the answer. With the club said to be losing money at a rapid rate, it’s Massimo’s way or the highway. 

That it’s highly likely to happen, though, doesn’t mean we have to decide right now that it’s going to be a good thing. Much of Cellino’s background suggests it’s going to be a bad thing, and even if you take the advice from the start of the season and Let The Past Be The Past, the damage Cellino managed to do within hours of the text message from Salah Nooruddin saying the club was his is enough to suggest it’s going to be a terrible thing.

He sacks managers on the regular and he’s already sacked ours once, so wave goodbye to Brian. He signs young players cheap and if they have talent he sells them for big money, banks it and repeats; so don’t expect a proper replacement for Byram this summer, or Mowatt the next. He already tried to bring in an Italian five-a-side team on deadline day; look forward to finding out that Serie B is not a hotbed of Pirlos. His ongoing battle with the local government over Cagliari’s stadium has landed him with charges of embezzlement and had the team playing its home games 500 miles away; look forward to his discussions with our local authority and local businesses that make Ken Bates look compliant. That’s what I see in his past, what I have seen in his present, and what I expect in his future. 

There is a way to rationalise all this, and many Leeds fans seem to have found it. The way is to say, ‘Perhaps he won’t be so bad; let’s give the bloke a chance.’ There’s a second part that adds, ‘Plus we’ve heard he’s a gazillionaire,’ plus a subset of people hanging around his daughter’s Instagram account hoping that a takeover means she’ll visit. 

But why work so hard to rationalise it, why hope that the guy with the lethal track record will change his ways, when you know – and deep down, you know – that the guy you know is good, the guy who on Monday swallowed his pride and carried on with the job of Leeds United manager because he knows what the job means, and how it felt to have 31,000 of us singing his name on Saturday, will be sacked; when you know that guy will be sacked again for loving us enough to come back, then why pretend, why kid yourself, and why let Monday be forgotten so soon?

To welcome Cellino because he can’t be prevented from buying the club is not pragmatic. It’s an admission of defeat. We might not be able to win, but we’re Leeds United, and we’ll never be defeated, or so the chant goes. We’re also loyal, and this week Brian McDermott showed that loyalty to us in return. We can’t, in the long run, stop GFH, Cellino, or anybody else doing what they want with our club. But we don’t have to be happy about it; so let’s not be. 

Instead of trying to rationalise Cellino into anything other than a serious flirtation with disaster and hoping that he reforms and does no harm; don’t. Just don’t do it. Just be unhappy about it, and stay unhappy about it until such time as his actions deserve a reappraisal and a change of mind. Worry about the next step after unhappiness later, when you need to, if you need to. But for now, remember who you were backing last weekend, and don’t sell your unhappiness short.

Sometimes you can forget too soon.

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