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the square ball week: summer breeze

the square ball week: summer breeze

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Artwork by Joe Gamble - joegamble.co.uk

Did anybody notice that the season ended last week?

A period of relief, reflection and rebuilding was supposed to start last weekend; and a banging lads’ holiday for Kenny, Varney, Norris and Green, who were Instagramming the Jagerbombs from Portugal within hours of the league programme being finished.

They might have had the right idea. Not so much the holiday, but the drinking.

This week has shown that we’re not likely to find much calm between now and pre-season training, except perhaps for David Haigh, who has changed his Twitter biography to read “Enjoying the peace and quiet,” and this morning has been tweeting about losing 6kg thanks to “No more Toblerones and stress” and something called Juicemaster, that seems to have replaced Red Bull in his affections.

But even the new zen Haigh spent yesterday afternoon under caution being interviewed by police.

The police interview, that has now bloomed into accusations of Class A drugs being taken in the boardroom, has already obscured the news of Haigh’s concurrent winding up petition and attempts to convert £150k of money he has in the club into shares for “the fans”, who haven’t been asked if they want them; that news itself obscured Tuesday’s controversies about Ross McCormack’s future, as his weekend interview was recycled through the press with either a ‘Ross Wants Out’ or ‘Ross Wants Promotion’ spin on it, depending on how charitable each paper – and each fan reading it – felt prepared to be.

It’s only been a four day week, but that story seems an age ago now. It was what I was going to write this column about, and in particular about how McCormack’s comments – whatever his future – are the end result of a snowball that I wrote about back in January 2012, as Howson was bundled through the door by Shaun Harvey, who told a reluctant Simon Grayson not to worry, because he’d be getting the money for his warchest.

I saw that sale as a tipping point, the moment when Leeds United under Ken Bates finally took its players too much for granted one too many times, and Ken faced the prospect of a revolt not just from the fans, but from the players, too.

“In the wake of Howson’s departure,” I wrote, “Should sensible offers come in, can you really imagine either McCormack, Clayton, Snodgrass, Becchio or White choosing not to move? Indeed, I can foresee this window ending with Leeds United actually rejecting offers, while the players demand to be allowed to leave. Is it possible, then, that the anti-Ken Bates protest that actually, finally works will be one carried out by the players?”

Looking back I’m not quite sure Aidy White belonged on that list, but then those were the heady days when he was being linked to Celtic and the Bundesliga. But while the departures of Clayton and Becchio had their own circumstances, the words of Robert Snodgrass four months later showed there was some truth in it: “How can you say you’re aiming for promotion and then sell your captain?”

I wrote this in that old Howson article as well: “Like Canute, King Ken is left bellowing at the modern footballer as the tide of modern footballers rushes past him on their way to a proper football club, and his corporate facilities cling worthlessly to an increasingly dire and failing team.”

Well, we still have Aidy White. And we still have Ross McCormack, of course, who remains clinging to the wreckage of our sunken club, buoyed by new contracts but looking for dry land all the same. We don’t have Ken Bates any more either, thankfully, so all this now is Massimo Cellino’s problem, but the signs at the start of this week were that Massimo Cellino is a new problem that could have the same result.

McCormack’s wants are, at least, clear. And they’re not a million miles away from what the fans want, either. He wants Leeds to challenge for promotion now, not later. He wants to captain Leeds United to promotion on the last day of the season – the dreamer in all of us showing through. He wants Brian McDermott to be given a chance; well, we might not all follow him there. And he wants Massimo Cellino to make his intentions clear, so that he can decide whether he wants to be part of it.

That last one is the crucial difference between fans and players that I highlighted back in the days of the Howson sale. As fans, we don’t get much choice about whether we’re part of things or not; if it’s Leeds United, we’re involved. Players do have a choice – if they don’t like the way a club is going, they can withdraw their labour and take themselves elsewhere, to a club that is going the way they like.

One common factor in the departures of Johnson, Gradel, Howson, Snodgrass and Becchio is that the club couldn’t match the personal ambitions they held for their careers. In most cases, like McCormack, they wanted to fulfil those ambitions at United; especially Snodgrass, who at the time of departure had the same chance as captain that Ross is dreaming about now. But as Neil Warnock made his presence felt, the prospect of Leeds United fulfilling Snoddy’s dreams looked ever more remote, and when the bid came from Norwich, that was that.

Leeds are still a long way from fulfilling our dreams, too, but we’re still here. And rather than regard Ross McCormack as some sort of traitor-in-waiting for voicing his concerns about our future direction, it might be better to look to him as a canary in Cellino’s mineshaft. He has his own reasons for asking his questions of the owner, but they’re the same questions we’re asking: who’s staying? Who’s going? Is McDermott going to be managing? Who are we going to sign? Will the team be better next season?

If McCormack doesn’t like the answers he’ll be off; if we don’t like the answers we’ll have to stay, but at least we’ll have the answers. And what is lacking most of all at Leeds United right now is answers. A month ago Brian McDermott said he was due to have a meeting with Massimo Cellino to plan for the future; week by week that situation has grown more awkward, as McDermott has had to keep answering the press’s questions by saying no, that meeting hasn’t happened yet, but he’s sure it will soon.

Awkward has become embarrassing for Brian as Cellino first rehearsed with the Pigeon Detectives (captured here by photographer Justin Slee) then performed with them at the awards dinner on Saturday night, as McDermott watched from the side of the stage; he then turned up on Sunday afternoon at the Courtyard Party at Fibre, and you can infer what you like about the hours in between by observing that Massimo appears to still be wearing the same shirt from the night before.

There’s nothing wrong with having fun, and it is still relatively early days in Cellino’s ownership. But even as a courtesy, if he can find two hours to rehearse with the Pigeons, he should be able to find two hours to sit down with Brian McDermott and discuss what he plans to do, or listen to what McDermott would like to do, or even just say, “I’m not ready to talk about the future yet. Do you know where I can find a party tonight?”

There’s more to it than courtesy, though. There’s a chain of dependency that begins with what Cellino does next. It extends further than Ross McCormack, but that’s the major game of Russian roulette that Massimo is playing right now. Manager, players and fans are all waiting to find out what is going to happen at Leeds United this summer: the manager so he knows if he needs to find a new job, the players so they know if they need to find a new club, and the fans so they know if there’s going to be a team worth the season ticket money next season.

Whether Massimo likes it or not, this summer is time for action, not limbo, and until he swaps guitar solos for talk limbo is where we are. And the longer we go without being told what’s happening, and the longer things keep happening around us – Benito Carbone, drug allegations, this morning’s news that Thorp Arch will close for the summer for the first time ever – the more it looks like Cellino has something to hide.

We all want the summer off to relax and forget about football, but we won’t get that until Massimo Cellino stops treating his ownership of Leeds United like a holiday of his own and gets down to answering some questions and proving his worth. Does the season start soon?

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