Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1
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the square ball week: nervous laughter

the square ball week: nervous laughter

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There’s nothing really scandalous about a footballer with a packed lunch.

But it is funny. Luke Murphy made it funnier, by telling Chris Dawkes of ITV that, because the Thorp Arch kitchens are closed, he had to bring his own lunch – and Mathieu Smith had to make it for him.

It’s a sweet image. Smith is already regarded as the ‘sensible’ one, because of his business degree, but we can add that he’s the mumsy one: dishing up the pasta for Smurf because the poor lad can’t cope without a canteen.

To be fair to Luke, he’s probably not the only one. I’m sure Paddy Kenny can feed himself – and by the looks of things, he has been – but did Smith have to snatch the crisps from young Alex Mowatt’s hands, and tell them he couldn’t have them back until he’d finished his salad? Did he have to make an extra portion because Tom Lees dropped his on the floor? Was Chris Dawson going hungry, until kindly old Granny Smith noticed the waif peeking shyly around the kitchen door – “Please sir, can I have some more?”

If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. And the mental image of Sam Byram burning his penne pasta for the third time, bursting into tears, and running to hide his face in Matt Smith’s apron is a funny one. But the tears, in this case, are real, if you’re inclined to make them so. Can there really be another football club in the top divisions that doesn’t provide lunch for its players?

Of course this is the point that laughter and tears are replaced by a really fierce argument on the internet. Already I can sense the gears grinding in some readers, the rising anger: They’re spoiled… overpaid… bastard… prima donna… footballers… why shouldn’t they make their own lunch on the money they make?

Which is perfectly true – and the reasoning is sound, if a little worrying. The side-effect of closing Thorp Arch for the summer is that all its facilities closed, kitchens included, and with the team jetting off to Italy for a training camp on Monday, it has not been deemed worthwhile reopening the canteen just for a couple of days. As a cost-cutting measure, that’s fine.

There is another side to that though, in that any savings on keeping the kitchens closed for two days will probably be dwarfed by the cost of the flights taking the squad out to Sardinia and back; the savings will largely be made by not having to pay the kitchen staff’s wages, meaning we’ve effectively traded some local workers’ hours for a shindig in Cellino’s back yard.

But if making Matt Smith do the cooking has taught Luke Murphy a lesson in humility, well, no doubt it was worth it.

It probably won’t be his last. “Hard graft,” is becoming Dave Hockaday’s first catchphrase, and if he had his way, perhaps Thorp Arch wouldn’t have been reopened at all.

“It (the main building) is like a warren,” he told the YEP yesterday. "I don’t know how many rooms are in there, we even joke we don’t know how many doors are in there – we are into the hundreds!

"It will take me time to get used to the office, but out there on the pitch, I am fully au fait with what is out there.

“It’s a very impressive facility. But what we need at the end of the day is changing rooms, showers and grass. All the other stuff is brilliant and the criteria that the academy needs, but for me, it’s changing rooms, showers, grass and goalposts.”

And jumpers for goalposts, presumably. That airy dismissal of Thorp Arch’s facilities as stuff the academy needs for its criteria gives us some clues about Hockaday’s coaching style: no fancy stuff, none of yer “rooms” and yer “facilities,” just grass and a ball, and lots of word beginning with H.

“The culture here will be one of hard work. We will be honest and have humility, but work hard with hunger with a capital H.”

I wonder, over the years at Forest Green Rovers, how many non-league footballers sat through that little speech in the changing rooms. I wonder, too, how many of them managed to stifle their laughter. Not just hunger – hunger with a capital H! You can’t spell Hockaday without Honest Hard Humble Hunger, with a capital H!

Footballers are often idiots, as was confirmed when I read in the serialisation of Jimmy Bullard’s autobiography that David Bentley would yell ‘Black and White Cat!’ in Fabio Capello’s face on England duty, because Capello looks like Postman Pat innit. And even the most humble, hungry and honest footballer is only going to be able to take small doses of the sort of management speak Hockaday has been dishing out so far, before he jumps up and yells ‘David Brent!’ in his face.

“The king is dead, long live the king,” Dave told the YEP on his first day in training, "and now the players have a new head coach to work for and impress because now the fight is on to get the jersey.

"The time for talking is over, it’s the time for doing.

"I have been in the last four days and met some of the players who have come in and had a bit of head tennis and a feel of the ball and I am breathing it in, getting into the vibe.

“My journey has not just involved Forest Green. I’ve got myself back in the groove, and I’m raring to go.”

This is the head coach of Leeds United, the manager at least as far as Cellino will let him be, and honestly, and humbly, and hardly and hungrily, I’m trying not to laugh.

I shouldn’t; I know that. Now is the time for giving Hockaday a chance, for getting behind him and the lads, supporting the players who are going to pull on that white shirt – a fine looking new one, too: well played Macron, at last. And I don’t, I really don’t, want to be negative.

So I laugh. And I laugh because I’m terrified. I’m terrified because within a week of taking over Hockaday has used up any ‘Maybe he’ll be good…?’ credit in my eyes by dealing out more meaningless platitudes than a Sunday league coach with a copy of Alex Ferguson’s book on his bedstand. (And before anyone says, ‘What about McDermott?’, try this from Dave yesterday: “You look at Leicester and Burnley, that’s what they did…” Hi Brian!)

Meanwhile he has breezily dismissed the facilities that hold the key to the future of the football club as just ‘stuff’ and ‘criteria’, a box-ticking exercise – which I suppose is all Benito’s problem anyway, or Richard Naylor’s, whoever – while implying that he’s going to enforce some kind of boot camp mentality mixed with amateur psychology: “It’s not just about what they do on the field, it’s getting to know them what makes them tick off the field as well as finding the key to each individual.” Tell me, Pearcedogg. What’s your earliest memory of your father?

And that’s just the coach. There’s nothing mysterious about the club being under a transfer embargo at the moment either, because it’s a fairly clear thing in the Football League rules: if you can’t pay the players you’ve got, or meet payments to clubs for players you’ve signed, you can’t have any more. With United struggling to pay wages even before the bank accounts were frozen while losing the fight over the winding-up petition, and no requirements to make such embargoes public, it’s likely there have been more embargoes imposed on Leeds in the last year than we could even guess at.

More worrying than the transfer embargo, though, are the players we’re being linked with for when it ends. At the moment the rumours fall into three categories: 1) Superstars playing in Italy we haven’t got a hope of signing. As soon as I saw Cagliari’s Victor Ibarbo touch the ball for Colombia in the World Cup, I knew there wasn’t a chance in hell that we’ll sign him; 2) Italians we’ve never heard of, but who sound like they might be good, because Italian: Viviani, Del Fabro, Sforzini, etc etc etc; 3) lower league and non-league players who had decent seasons last year: Sam Winnall at Scunthorpe, Scott Hogan at Rochdale, Andre Blackman at Maidenhead.

Each tier of rumour has a basis: the first rank, that Cellino is cash-rich from selling Cagliari; the second, that Cellino’s scouting connections can unearth some diamonds in the rough of Serie B; the third, that we’re skint and shopping in the basement.

Any of those could be the case, but the same could be said of the coach, when according to rumours we could have picked from three tiers of the likes of 1) Ranieri; 2) Carbone; 3) Hockaday. We got Hockaday.

You buy non-league, you get non-league, and this is the harsh truth you’ll find if you stop laughing and delve too deep. Leeds United might have a millionaire owner, but it has a cheap coach, it’s running its training ground on the cheap, and when players start arriving – and they must arrive soon, because we don’t have many and we’ve seen what they can do – they’re probably going to be cheap too.

It could work. It really could. Jermaine Beckford came from Wealdstone, from repairing car windscreens, and became one of best players of the last ten years. But it’s a risky strategy. Tresor Kandol came from Barnet and became Tresor Kandol.

“We are going to have to get rid of all the excess baggage; there’s too much excess baggage at Leeds – in every department,” Hockaday says. “We need to pare things back, get it right back to the bones and start fleshing it out as we want.”

With an emptied squad, a half-closed training ground and two non-league coaches in charge, I’m not sure how much more skeletal Leeds United can get. I guess this summer we’ll find out. But skeletons are funny, right? Remember Funnybones? In a dark, dark town, with a dark, dark street…

If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry, and this isn’t negativity – it’s nerves. These giggles aren’t moans – the moans are from the skeletal ghosts of Thorp Arch, awoohooo – and honestly, humbly, hungrily, Mr Hockaday, I was just thinking of this joke I know when you said that. I’m honestly, hungrily, humbly not laughing at you. I can’t. With a capital H.

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