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the square ball week: sparks

the square ball week: sparks

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It was club captain versus club president, and that might have been the origin of the problem.

I don’t mean it was the origin of the transfer; for that part, Massimo Cellino was more like the grain shipment that broke the cargo vessel’s hull for Ross McCormack.

But it was the clash of personalities and statuses that meant that McCormack’s transfer, and the biggest moment of Cellino’s time at Leeds so far, was not a smooth switch, even while it seemed to suit everybody.

That McCormack wanted to go should come as no surprise. While “McContract,” as he was quickly and bitterly renamed, was rewritten as a badge-kissing hypocrite turning his back on the club he pretended to love, if you go back through his interviews to the end of Warnock’s time in charge, he has been consistent. Leeds United deserves better than it’s been getting. We can’t just keep talking about getting better but have to actually have to do something about it. And for his own part he’s not getting any younger and has to think of his own career. He’s never hidden any of that.

And none of it has been inconsistent with the role of a club captain, or with someone who loves playing for Leeds United. If McCormack was guilty of anything when he talked about the future of the club, it was of talking too much like a fan: We need new signings, now; the owners don’t know what they’re doing; I’m never going to see a league title win in my lifetime.

Almost every Leeds fan talks that way about the club they love, the team they watch every week; especially in the last two seasons. Countless times as I milled around during half-times over the last couple of years I’ve heard people say the same. “I’ve had enough of this, I’m off. Season ticket renewal? It’s on the table by the bin. I’m thinking about it.”

We also often talk as fans about wanting to see eleven fans on the pitch, eleven people who feel the way we feel about Leeds United AFC, but we say that while forgetting what we really feel ourselves about the club; that we hate it as much as we love it, that it’s torture as much as it is pleasure – or at least it’s been that way for too many years.

One of the jobs of a captain is to be a link between the fans and the players, and communicate the thoughts of one to the other. One reason Rudy Austin never worked as captain was because he was impenetrable: fans didn’t know what he was thinking, and players probably didn’t either, but everyone assumed that it was probably more to do with wrestling a grizzly bear than the future of Leeds United.

And one reason why taking the captaincy has, in the end, backfired on Ross McCormack is that he reflected the fans’ thoughts too much; watching him play, sometimes, was like watching a mirror image of ourselves. And we, as we continue that love-hate relationship that binds football fans to their club, can be pretty awful to look at.

We can also be pretty great, and McCormack reflected that, too. Huddersfield Town at home was either his nadir as a badge-kissing faker, or the high point of his leadership of an ailing club, depending on your point of view. I remember the night before, when I sat in the office all night, unable to leave in case another snippet of madness emerged from Massimo’s first night at Elland Road, and hearing that Ross was on Sky Sports News. He sounded as bewildered as any of us, and as angry as any of us, and as confused as any one about what team – and what kind of club – would be kicking off against Huddersfield the next day. But it’s what a fan would have done – it’s what a fan does after every game, phoning up a radio station to sound off.

The team that did kick off, in the end, thrashed Huddersfield 5–1 while the fans sang Brian McDermott’s name, yelled at Cellino to go home and keep his hands off our club, and took extra joy in kicking sand in the eyes of the upstart puppies from down the road; “He don’t want to play,” sang the Town fans at us, about McCormack, and when he scored his first goal, all the Leeds fans turned to that corner of the ground to see them swallow their words. But McCormack was already there, doing exactly the same and celebrating like a fan.

I wonder if that was the moment Massimo Cellino decided there would be no future for Ross McCormack at his Leeds United. If it wasn’t, there have been plenty of times since when Massimo might have looked at the club’s star player, its captain, and thought – he’s got to go.

“At Cagliari he decides everything on his own,” fans of Cellino’s old club told the YEP back in February. “Working together at Cagliari is an unknown concept. Everything was decided by his unquestionable will.”

It was Cellino’s will that McDermott be sacked on January 31st; it was Ross McCormack who took to the TV to defend McDermott, and then scored a hat trick in front of a stadium of supporters who were all, that day, on McCormack and McDermott’s side against Cellino. It was Cellino’s will that he should be judged on whether the team is promoted by the end of 2015/16; it was McCormack who said that’s not good enough.

“You can’t say oh, we’ll wait for another season, because what happens at the end of next season if we’re not challenging?” said McCormack. "Then oh, we’ll wait for another season? It can’t be like that.

“Leeds United deserve to be in the Premier League, and the only people that can affect that are the players and the owner. So I think he’s got to do everything in his power to get us challenging this season.”

Those weren’t the words of a want-away player; that was a gauntlet thrown down to a new owner. One lesson we should quickly learn from the subsequent arguments, and McCormack’s sale, is that you don’t tell Massimo Cellino what to do.

“I like to be in control of situations but it felt like he wasn’t my player,” Cellino said after Ross was sold. “I was disrespected, he was aggressive with me. He didn’t turn up for the tour and all the time he wanted to go from here. It wasn’t in my mind to sell McCormack, it wasn’t my plan, but I had no choice.”

That was Tuesday, but Cellino wasn’t done, adding for Wednesday’s papers: “All the way through, he was rude to me, difficult with me. He wanted to leave, there is no doubt. This summer it was not in my mind to sell Ross McCormack but he wanted to go so he has gone to Fulham. He’s a bloody good player and I’m not going to pretend that he isn’t but he didn’t respect me and it wasn’t possible to keep him. He said he would stay and honour his contract, he said he only wanted to go to a top Premier League club and now he’s at Fulham. I don’t understand it.”

McCormack put part of his side through Adam Pope of BBC Leeds, who tweeted: “McCormack feels he has been ‘hung out to dry’ & I believe he won’t be packing any punches when he tells his story. McCormack also tells me he has left because ‘it’s no longer the Leeds United I fell in love with.’”

We’ll probably never know the full truth of what went down between Massimo and Ross, because it will always come down to a matter of who you believe more. But the story doing the rounds is that McCormack was given permission not to go to Italy because the club had accepted a bid from Fulham, and that he then agreed terms and passed a medical at Craven Cottage; only for Cellino to try to call the deal off and threaten to fine McCormack for not travelling to the pre-season camp, in an attempt to turn the fans against McCormack on his way out of the door.

The timeline actually supports that version of events: there was no controversy over McCormack not travelling with the rest of the team when they flew out on Monday, just a lot of newspaper talk about a move to Fulham; and it stayed uncontroversial on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Suddenly, on Friday, McCormack faced “strong disciplinary action” from the club; then the club softened its stance, saying McCormack was granted time off for stress. McCormack, during this time, was saying nothing, but someone was saying a lot about him.

“He likes to be the star,” the Cagliari fans said about Cellino. “Thirty six sacked coaches are proof of this.” With McCormack gone, Massimo is certainly the star of the show now. One of the things about McCormack at Leeds was that, whether you liked him or not, he was always interesting to watch – he was a character, and he had character.

Among all the goals last season, two moments stand out: one, against Bournemouth at home, when he took another godawful penalty and missed and I knew straight away that he would score that night, whatever it took, and he did; and second, again against Bournemouth, when he scored the one in a 4–1 embarrassment and went straight to thank – and apologise to – the travelling fans.

The club doesn’t have a player like that anymore. There isn’t a player in the squad you can pick out and say, he’ll do something about this, he’ll take some responsibility here. There isn’t a star there, even in our small firmament, nobody with the charisma or quality to be a definite favourite – or even to divide opinion. Imagine yourself at six years old wanting a name on your shirt. There’s Byram, obviously, but after that?

Maybe there will be some stars among the new arrivals, but the impression I have from McCormack’s departure is that replacement stars aren’t part of Massimo’s plan. “He likes to be the star,” say the Cagliari fans, and Dave Hockaday and Junior Lewis seem tailor made to only take the limelight that Cellino allows them – the press conference to introduce themselves, which was effectively a thirty minute monologue from Massimo – illustrated that perfectly.

None of the new players so far look like they’ll take the spotlight from the president, either. Stuart Taylor is a career reserve; only one other is confirmed so far – another goalkeeper, Marco Silvestri – but even if he is followed, as rumoured, by Tomasso Bianchi, Souleymane Doukara, Jonathan Rossini and Daniele Cacia, there’s a language barrier, a culture barrier, and the risk of players being overawed by moving from smaller Italian teams to Elland Road that means they are unlikely to show much authority straight away.

Andre Blackman, if he signs, will owe his fourth or fifth chance at making it in football to “The President”. Kieran Agard, if he signs from Rotherham, will also be The President’s choice, will owe his shot at a big club to his new owner; all in contrast to Ross McCormack, who owed Cellino nothing.

“I like to be in control of situations but it felt like he wasn’t my player,” were Cellino’s words about Ross McCormack. Well, no. He was Leeds United’s player, and that was they way I – and I think he – liked it. What McCormack’s sale says to me is that being a Leeds United player isn’t going to be enough anymore.

We’re building a new team now, a team of Cellino players, not one that will reflect the fans thoughts, but one that will reflect the President’s will. We won’t have any badge-kissers any more, which for some cynics will be a relief, but for me shows a dangerous and enforced shift of allegiances.

A footballer playing up to the fans in the gallery might not be to everyone’s taste. But I’m not sure a team that bows and scrapes before its owner is any better.

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