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the square ball week: nothing to play for

the square ball week: nothing to play for

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Artwork by Joe Gamble - joegamble.co.uk

Although both looked possible at different times, Leeds United won’t be going up this season, and won’t be going down.

The sum total of the interest in Saturday’s game against Derby is about whether we can overhaul Bolton to finish 14th, or hold off Sheffield Wednesday to stay in 15th, and to see if Ross McCormack can score a thirtieth goal and emulate John Charles and Jermaine Beckford.

Derby, meanwhile, are stuck firmly in third place, with play-offs matches to plan for.

Essentially, this game doesn’t matter at all. Win, lose or draw and Leeds United’s season won’t change; we won’t be able to strike Rochdale, Wednesday, Bolton, Bournemouth or any of the others from the record, we won’t erase the memory of eight defeats from nine games in March and April, Jimmy Kebe won’t be magically erased from photos and videos of the time.

But Jimmy Kebe really has gone now. Not that he was really ever to blame for anything, but Kebe definitely became a symbol for everything that has gone wrong at the club this season. He was the answer to a big question in the team, with all the attributes required to solve the problem, but instead he just added to them. At the same time, he became yet another boulder heaped on McDermott’s shoulders.

Kebe’s gone, GFH are but 10% of what they were, Salah Nooruddin just 15%; just how gone Brian McDermott is can’t be calculated, because Massimo Cellino, who despite splitting his time with Cagliari and his ownership of Leeds with GFH and Envest, seems to be 110% here, isn’t revealing those kinds of numbers, least of all to McDermott. Nine players are 99% gone, unless by some mysterious method their contracts are renewed; others are on the brink, as Cellino gets ready for his summer game of Serie B Fantasy Football with Leeds this summer.

In short, all the weight that has pressed down on the club this season has been lifted. Even where there’s uncertainty, around the manager and the players and the staff, the one thing that is certain is that the answers will be coming soon, and there’ll be coming from Cellino. Compared to what went before – McCormack says in the YEP today that, “The channels you had to go through under GFH to get an answer about anything were ridiculous. Everything had to filter up so many levels and then down again” – just knowing there will be an answer and who the answer will come from is a big step forward for a confused club.

Even Brian McDermott – whose job is on the line – can afford to be calm about the situation now, and not just pretend to be. Cellino might sack him on Sunday, but Cellino actually represents a better chance of success for Brian that GFH ever did, or at least a more honest one: he’ll either be here to do the job for Cellino or he won’t. It’s a clean 50/50 scenario, owner to manager – when owner gets round to speaking to manager, that is – the kind of binary switch that wasn’t an option when you had to speak to Dave who had to speak to Salem who had to speak to Salah who had to speak to Hisham.

Repeat that scenario across every aspect of the club, from McDermott’s job to McCormack’s contract to how many mucky yellow away kits Macron should make, and you can appreciate why the off-the-field problems, which by rights shouldn’t affect the players, have affected the players. It just sounds tiring.

I wonder whether, as I think back to how Rudy Austin has been running slower and slower all season, he’s been trapped in some sort of Kafka story because he made the mistake of asking David Haigh something in October. “Mr Haigh, where should I send this travel expenses form?” “I’m not totally sure Randolph – I shall ask Salem,” and with that Austin’s season was over, as he fought through months of phone calls from Bahrain in the dead of night, unknown voices bellowing “Travel expense forms should be completed in triplicate!” done the line at him the night before a game.

All that’s gone now, but it has left a mark. For yet another season, ownership and takeovers have been a bigger story than anything on the pitch, which either gives the players a convenient place to hide – nobody outside of S6 will ever watch the DVD of our game at Hillsborough again, so perhaps Zaliukas’ performance that day will fade from memory – or explains why this season has been so uniformly terrible. Either way, that’s the tale that will be told of 2013/14 in the future – of GFH’s ownership, Cellino’s takeover, and the extent of the effect on the team.

We don’t know yet if this tale of woe will have a happy ending, but it’s worth remembering when I’m chucking phrases around like “uniformly terrible” that this season did have a happy start. Brighton and Hove Albion at home, Saturday August 3rd 2013, the last minute of the game and the highlight of the season. Nobody would have believed you then that it would end like this; Elland Road that day was a carefree place, dappled with sunshine and thoroughly de-Batesed, with a new striker and a million pound midfielder combining to bring the house down with a goal of pure pleasure.

Carefree isn’t a word you could have used about Elland Road since, but it was definitely appropriate to that day. Leeds United, the club, the players, the management, the fans, didn’t have a care in the world. And the win that resulted from that carefree atmosphere still resonates now after all that has happened since: it’s been a uniformly terrible season. Except Brighton.

It’s not too late to add a coda. How about if we could wake up on Sunday morning, unscramble our memories of the day before, and think – it’s been a uniformly terrible season. Except Brighton and Derby. If carefree is what it takes for Leeds to deliver one of those few moments that make football worth watching, they won’t get a better chance at carefree than against Derby tomorrow.

Our future is decided, their future is decided, our league position doesn’t matter much anymore, and there are pretty much only two things to play for: Ross McCormack’s thirtieth goal, and for pleasure. It’s a rare ninety minutes that can truly be played purely for the fun of it – when a manager says his players will be ‘going out there to enjoy themselves’ he normally means they’ll ‘get hammered and try not to cry’ – but there is literally nothing at stake in tomorrow’s game but joy.

We’ve seen how this Leeds United team performs under pressure – basically it doesn’t. But we’ve also seen, fleetingly, how it performs when the pressure is off, and it was brilliant, but it was a long time ago. At Elland Road tomorrow Brian McDermott and the players can be, for ninety minutes, masters of their own destiny. How much pressure they play under is up to them. And how much joy they can give the fans is up to them, too.

While it might be a good idea to leave this season behind, The Square Ball can’t quite let it go, and are insistent on one last issue before the summer. Issue ten is a bumper 64 page issue too, at the same old price of £1.50 for the paper version and just a quid to read it on your phone or tablet. Unfortunately it does include a comprehensive review of the season, player by player, owner by owner, and buttock by buttock in Eleonora’s case, but it’s sure to be a valuable memento and reminder of a season that, try as you might, you’ll never ever forget. There’s loads of other stuff in there too, including an interview with a certain Mr V Jones – it’s 64 pages for a reason, you know. It’ll be on sale from outside Elland Road before the game tomorrow, and online here soon.

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