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leeds united 0 – 1 charlton athletic – promises promises

leeds united 0 – 1 charlton athletic – promises promises

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The big question every Leeds fan was asking before this game was, Do we have to? The even bigger question afterwards was, Why do we bother?

The players seemed to have been having the same debate. Brian McDermott said after the match that David Haigh had spoken to the players before it, explaining why they didn’t get the other half of their wages today as promised, and giving “assurances” that they will get their money. Although he didn’t say when.

Broken promises lead to more broken promises, but two breaks fix nothing. Whatever is happening off the field, and whatever assurances to the players are not being met, doesn’t justify the players breaking the unspoken promise that exists between them and the fans.

That was a promise that Andy Hughes, who didn’t make Charlton’s bench last night, always kept while he was at Leeds; whatever your ability, whatever the circumstances, you kept your promise to the fans to always give your best. In Hughes’s case, he stretched his best beyond anything it had ever been before.

Leeds United’s current players just aren’t doing that. We know that this isn’t the best they can do, because at Christmas this squad was sixth in the league. Even if that wasn’t their true level – even if 15th and plummeting is a more accurate reflection of their capabilities – they were sixth nonetheless. They can do it. They can do this.

They could beat Doncaster, and they could beat Charlton. I don’t want to add, “If they tried,” but it’s hard to find another viable conclusion. At The Valley in November this team overcame a delayed kick off, a swamp-like pitch and a determined opponent to win 4–2. At the Keepmoat in December a bit of huff and puff was required to beat Doncaster, but what was required was found and the scoreline was a comfortable 3–0.

The question that needs answering is why that team has become this team. And let’s not pretend that this team are anything other than awful. After his second half cameo changed the game against Doncaster on Saturday – or at least slightly improved Leeds’ part of it – Michael Tonge kept his place but couldn’t repeat the trick against a more mobile and combative midfield, including Gus Poyet’s son Diego.

Tonge was far from the worst out there, but picking one out of the other nine outfield players isn’t easy – all I saw last night was an indistinct bunch of random blokes in mostly-white shirts, without a clue, without an idea, and without the ability to act on them if clues and ideas had suddenly appeared. Even Jack Butland dropped a long range shot, suggesting he’s well on the way to being dragged down to the others’ level. Ross McCormack, who even when he’s not playing well doesn’t let us down, let us down by missing a last minute penalty.

What made this game worse was that Charlton weren’t any better. The same stray passes into touch, the same aimless balls to nobody, the same pointless passes to the goalkeeper; they looked like Leeds in a red kit. I began have a bizarre longing for the Reading team that hammered us three weeks ago; at least there was one watchable team on the pitch that night.

To watch two equally terrible teams go through the motions of a football match, with the result that the terrible team you don’t support wins, is arguably worse than watching the terrible team you support being beaten by a quality side. At least that way there’s some hope – that one day we could be as good as them – but that doesn’t apply when your opponents are as bad as you and you lose anyway.

The YEP’s headline this morning says, ‘McDermott laughs off suggestions he should resign’; but there was no more laughter in Brian’s voice after the game than there was in the stands during it. “This is horrible. This is horrible for me. If anyone thinks that I’m having a good time here stood on that line they’re wrong,” he said. “This is horrible, it’s not a nice situation, and I’ve never been in a situation like this. But most people fail, and the reason that they fail is they give up, and I’m not planning to give up.”

It’s hard to continue to admire that determination when it’s compared to the performances on the pitch, but while some people are finding McDermott’s consistent public face aggravating, it is impressive in its way. “We go to Wigan, and we try and get a result at Wigan,” he said last night, repeating the game by game approach that has been his mantra for months, and repeating what is probably the only sensible approach at the moment – draw a line, and try again.

But what Brian actually said was, “We’ll find out what happens this week, then we go to Wigan, and we try and get a result at Wigan,” which if you’re looking for the point of breakdown in Leeds United’s fortunes is the quote to look at. The line under the Charlton game can’t be drawn, and the focus can’t move to the Wigan game, until we’ve found out what happens this week.

That’s only this week. Every week at Leeds United we’ve been finding out lots of things, and none of them have been conclusive; most of them only lead to more questions. We’ll find out what we find out this week, but we won’t go to Wigan with anything answered, and I can already write McDermott’s post-Wigan comments: ‘We’ll find out what happens on Monday, then we’ll go to Watford…’

It’s not a nice situation, to use Brian’s phrase, and it’s not a situation Brian can do anything about; and that situation, and that lack of power over it, is clearly grinding him down. It’s worth remembering too that, while he stands there after every game taking the flack for everybody from the chairman down, the last reports were that the players got half their money but Brian and the coaching staff got none.

What needs to happen at Leeds is for the chain of broken promises to be broken, at whatever level. When GFH promise to do what’s right for the club and the fans, and to keep us informed, sorry, ‘engaged’, they should keep that promise. When David Haigh promises the players they will be paid, he should keep that promise. Will they keep their promises? It’s doubtful.

But Brian McDermott has shown himself to have the integrity that our boardroom lacks; Ross McCormack and the “senior players” Brian says are important right now have shown they’re capable of stepping up when they have to. If anyone can keep a promise at Leeds United, it’s them, but at the moment they’re taking their cues from the wrong side.

The board isn’t keeping its promises to the players, and in their turn the players aren’t keeping their promise to the fans; the promise to keep turning up, to keep trying, to keep playing like Leeds United players if for no other reason than, half-paid and battered from every angle, they’re still fortunate enough to play for Leeds United.

That’s what needs to change, however that change comes about. The one promise that is still just about being kept is from the fans to the players; the attendance was down to 17,000 last night, which was about 16,000 more than recent performances deserve, but the fans turned out anyway. If the players and manager are sick of promises being broken and want somebody to trust, then they should look to the fans. We’re still there.

At the end of the game, just moments after his penalty miss, Ross McCormack stood for a long time in the centre circle with his hands on his hips, staring at the upper half of the South Stand, where the SS5 movement have been selling out every game with flags and banners. He might have been wondering why they bother; he might have been wondering why he bothers. But I hope he got it.

Everywhere at Elland Road promises are not being kept and people are being let down, and things are being broken that will be beyond repair. There’s one part of the club that doesn’t have to be broken though, and it’s the part that’s between us and the eleven on the pitch. It’s up to the eleven now, though. Whatever is going on behind the scenes, the players need to remember their end of their bargain with us, and show the fans that there are still some people at Elland Road we can trust.

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