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the square ball week: renewal

the square ball week: renewal


Another day, another chalk mark on the wall in Bur Dubai Police Station. David Haigh has now been in there almost a month, without charge, and apparently without even being interviewed. Time, for Dave, must be passing slowly.

Time in Leeds is passing quickly. The World Cup always seems like a distant, far-off thing until one night you’re sat in front of the TV watching protesters throw stones at a glass box with Adrian Chiles inside and you realise you haven’t even bought a wallchart yet.

The World Cup isn’t often thought of in terms of its relation to the English Second Division schedule, but it occupies an awkward, indeterminate space between the end of one season and the start of another. Is this still technically 2013/14, or does the opening game signal the start of 2014/15? Or, with pre-season training starting halfway through, do we enter in last season and leave in the next?

A more useful watershed might be another event that can sneak up on you before you feel totally ready: the season ticket renewal deadline. It’s not like I don’t know that it’s tomorrow – I’ve had reminder after reminder emailed from the club, and no doubt I’ll get another today. But I can’t help feeling that, like the World Cup, it’s come round a bit too soon – couldn’t we wait another couple of weeks, and see what happens?

It should be an easy decision – it’s a ticket to watch Leeds United play all season, and what could be better? The problem is that recent seasons have flipped the question around. It’s a ticket to watch Leeds United play all season – what could be worse?

We don’t have to let anybody outside West Yorkshire know this, but the football at Elland Road has been pretty damn miserable for the last two seasons. We can’t really keep it a secret from the rest of the world, either, because so much of it was broadcast live on Sky; but the watching public were spared the game that barely happened against Bolton on New Year’s Day 2013 – a game we even won – or the 1–0 home defeat to Charlton on April Fool’s Day. That might feel like a long time ago now, but the reminder might make you shudder as it does me, and move filling in the renewal forms a bit further down the to-do list.

Charlton at home was a long time ago now, and was one week before Massimo Cellino’s takeover of the club was officially completed, which means that was also quite a long time ago now. Cellino has been in charge for 66 days – just over two months – implementing his new regime of improvements and setting course, as he first said, for the Premier League in two seasons. “I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep,” he said, “and I admit it will be difficult to get promotion next season. But in 2015–16 we will earn our way back to the Premier League, which is where Leeds belong.”

That bold statement didn’t even rule out going for promotion this season, just allowed it will be “difficult”; the underlying hint was that we could give a go this season, if we wanted. “A lot of work needs to be done on the squad,” Massimo added. “We need new players. In the summer, we will buy some players. I want to focus on English and international players.”

66 days later, you’d think renewing the season ticket would be a no-brainer. New players, English and international players at that – hopefully good ones – and building towards a target of promotion within two season; I would regret not having a ticket for that ride if it looped-the-loop right by without me, even if the success doesn’t naturally follow: it’s football, so nothing is assured, but at least it sounded like we’d be having a damn good go at it.

There’s still time for it all to come together, of course, and while April 1st and the defeat to Charlton might seem like a long time ago, in the dizzy world of football club ownership, April 8th when the takeover was completed is really only yesterday. Cellino needs time, and Leeds United needs time, and Leeds United also needs lots of attention which, given that the sale of Cagliari Calcio was only confirmed this week, it hasn’t had from its owner so far.

But Leeds United also needs a plan and right now, with less than 48 hours before the season ticket renewal deadline, I’m not seeing one. With Cagliari sold, Cellino says he will now return to Leeds to “pick a coach and finish the team for next season” – well, not now exactly, but next week. He’s still in Italy at the moment.

The appointment of a new coach might not seem all that important, given that it seems pretty likely that Cellino will be managing the team himself, but unless he’s planning on taking training every day, he’s going to have to appoint somebody. But events since Brian McDermott was sacked are a worrying indicator of the kind of planning Cellino has been doing for the future of Leeds United – i.e., none.

Gary McAllister entered the race apparently on the strength of meeting Cellino at York Races and again in London; Massimo at least will have seen Macca play on TV over the years. It’s doubtful that he ever watched Dave Hockaday bombing on from right back for Swindon or Shrewsbury, but he became a clear favourite for the job until Massimo found out he was the favourite for the job and got annoyed about a) his name being leaked and b) there being a betting market around it.

Attention then turned to Eamonn Dolan, Reading’s academy manager, until Massimo hit another stumbling block: Reading won’t let him go without compensation, with the asking price believed to be somewhere between £400k – £750k.

“You expect that a first-team coach will be under contract but I didn’t expect that an under–21 coach would cost a lot of money to take,” says Massimo. “In Italy things are different. I’m learning about the English game still.”

Cellino might need time to learn about the English game but I would have thought ‘quality has a price’ was a fairly universal truth. Balking at the cost, he added: “The money is something you have to think about. This coach, I enquired about him but we will see,” and then went on to praise Nigel Gibbs. “I like Nigel. If he wants to stay with us and work with us then he can. He’s a nice guy, a good coach.”

Presumably he’s also cheap, which could well be the deciding factor, as it was with Benito Carbone whose lack of coaching experience wasn’t a problem once he declared that he would work for free. Gibbs’ future role at the club may now hinge on whether Hockaday can do it even cheaper.

It might seem like a small thing, but this lesson in value harks back to the phone call WhiteLeedsRadio stung Cellino with, in which he revealed so much. “Leeds has got £18m of wages per year, on the players,” said Massimo. “For the shit team like that! You should spend £5m on wages, not £18m. With £18m on wages you can make a team that can really compete or go in Premier League.”

There were two ways of taking that, which is to be expected given that Massimo was tired, miserable and considerably disarmed when he took that random call. On the one hand, nobody would dispute that Leeds United have had poor value for their wage bill in recent seasons from the likes of Diouf, Norris, Morisson et al, and will continue to get poor value for as long as Norris, Morisson et al still linger at the club.

On the other hand, there was the idea that £5m was a high bill for players’ wages. By all means, get more bang for your buck than Peltier provides, but would cutting the wage bill by more than two-thirds really be the first step towards promotion within two seasons? This was probably just lost in translation, a figure plucked from the air to suggest £5m was more than the current lot deserved. Find some players who deserve their money and Massimo will surely happily pay up.

Nine weeks later, one day before the season ticket renewal deadline, and we haven’t signed any new players with which to test the hypothesis. That’s understandable: Luke Murphy didn’t open the transfer trickle-gates until July 1st last season, although by all accounts Brian McDermott had been getting pretty antsy about the lack of progress for a couple of weeks prior to that.

Less understandable, but more worrying, is the lack of a coach to train these un-signed players. As we all know Cellino first sacked McDermott at the end of January, and as we all saw he mentally sacked him again from the day he bought the club on April 8th. After working so hard and for so long to get rid of McDermott, you might have expected a replacement to be appointed right away, but Cellino doesn’t work like that: “Before choosing a coach I had to close the sale of Cagliari,” he said. “That is done now.”

Well, he did warn us he couldn’t run two clubs at once, and perhaps now with only Leeds on his mind he can get round to some of the little jobs, like appointing a coach, signing some players, and perhaps reading A Dummies Guide to English Football to get himself up to speed.

He needs time to adapt and that’s fine, and if we’re going to hold him to public pronouncements it’s only fair to remember that he warned us about this on the day he took over. “I don’t understand much. I don’t know English football as well as I know Italian football. They are a lot different and so although it’s still one ball and 22 players on the field, I have to learn … But I think I’ll learn it very fast.”

Let’s hope it’s fast enough, Massimo, because while you might be an English football greenhorn, your new club’s fans are pretty world weary. English footballers are overpaid? No shit. Good coaches have jobs with club that require compensation? Well, duh. English courts don’t dismiss winding-up petitions if you don’t have a case? Get some (more) new lawyers, Max, cos these ones sound as useful as David Norris. Fans don’t rush to renew season tickets at clubs with no coach, no confirmed training ground, no sign of improvement on the pitch from the last two years of dross, and no operational bank account to pay our money into anyway? I hope you weren’t counting on that money, old boy.

I’ll be renewing, of course, because I am a Total Sucker with a capital T and a capital S. Whatever I thought about Massimo coming in, though, I didn’t expect renewing to have to be a Decision with a capital D. For good or ill this is supposed to be a rockin’ and rollin’ rollercoaster of raucousness we’re riding. Sorry, ridin’. And that should be something worth watching. What’s developing so far is nothing worth watching, and nothing to make me think next season will be any different to last season, or the season before that.

There’s still plenty of time for it all to come good, of course – the season doesn’t start until August 9th. But if Massimo has a calendar hanging in his office at Elland Road that has, like lots of United fans have, the season ticket renewal date circled in bold yellow or blue, he’ll have to cross it off when he returns to work on Monday and admit to himself: missed it.

It’s lucky for him that there are a lot of Leeds fans on Monday, their wallets lightened, who won’t be saying the same. But if a good coach isn’t worth the money to Massimo, what is he going to do to make a season ticket worth the money to us?

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