guiseley 0 – 2 leeds united: uneasyBack
More than any other pre-season, it feels like everything this time around is going to take a lot of getting used to.
That thought seemed to hit Marco Silvestri about two minutes before kick off. After pleasantries had been exchanged with Guiseley before kick off, and after running towards his goal in the company of Ross Killock and Tom Lees, there came a moment when the 23 year old Italian goalkeeper was alone in his penalty area, moments before the first game of football he has ever played in England.
Marco wasn’t alone, though, and that seemed to disorient him for a moment. As he walked towards the goal line he stopped, as if aware for the first time that within two metres of that goal line were several hundred Leeds United supporters, here to watch him play.
Like a stray cat offered a bit of a wool by a stranger, he seemed wary, and uncertain how to proceed past the penalty spot. The fans beckoned to him, a few clapped, as if to reassure him it was alright, that if he came a bit further they would scratch him between his ears and, if that went well, tickle his belly. Marco flexed his neck muscles, his shoulders, all the while gazing at these… these Leeds fans.
Then Marco had a flash of inspiration. He clapped. The fans clapped back louder. He did a short sprint, about two paces. Applause. Then he ran, jumping, into the goalmouth, and there were almost cheers, as if a goal had been scored. Marco’s first challenge had been overcome and he began to settle into his new goalmouth.
Now, to find a way to communicate with Tom Lees.
Of course over in the grandstand Massimo Cellino was having no such difficulty adapting to his new surroundings. Smoking on the clubhouse steps in the same tan leather jacket he wore for his TV interviews this week, he was as happy and playful as a kitten as he let the fans stand with arms around him, sing to him, shake his hand, take his photo. The away directors’ seats at Guiseley are on the back row of a small stand and Cellino was applauded to his seat, comfortable among the supporters and laughing and joking with all. No matter what happened on the pitch, the Massimo show was good value in the stands.
Dave Hockaday was in the dugout on the opposite touchline, but Cellino could have shouted advice to him through the drizzle-heavy air if he wanted; for his part, Hockaday’s voice boomed around the stadium as he instructed the team from his seat on the bench. “Hold!” Hockaday yelled when Guiseley players ran at our defenders. “Squeeze!” he shouted at our midfielders, exhorting them to press Guiseley when they had the ball. “He doesn’t beat you, he does not beat you!” he told Matt Smith, as Guiseley’s full back ghosted past him with the ball; all clearly audible from 100 yards away. Although it was a sellout, the ground wasn’t crowded; the atmosphere at Nethermoor was subdued compared to the sunny exuberance of the friendly at Farsley this time last year.
Maybe it was the muggy, overcast day that made it different; or maybe it was the uncertainty. Leeds United were a confident side at Farsley last July: Brian McDermott had ended the previous season well and won the faith of the fans, £1m had just been spent on highly-rated Luke Murphy, and United dismissed Farsley with ease ahead of a trip to eastern Europe.
That confidence isn’t there now, despite Cellino’s personal swagger. Pre-season has been characterised by arguments amount methods and techniques regarding everything from sandwiches to socks, and there were few conclusions to draw from the trip to Italy other than that the players were definitely worked hard in training, if not in the one friendly that came off. Not enough is known of the new signings to be sure how they’ll turn out; what’s known of Hockaday is best ignored if you want to stay optimistic.
The uncertainty was reflected in the performance. Lining up with a midfield diamond, Leeds had obviously been instructed to hold on to the ball, and they did; but for the first ten minutes they held it in defence, passing from left to right along the back four, then from right to left again, as the Guiseley players waited and blocked the route to midfield. Occasionally new signing Tommaso Bianchi would drop deep to receive a pass from Lees or Thompson; but he seemed reluctant to turn, passing the ball backwards instead to Killock who, from the penalty spot, seemed to be having more touches than anybody. Behind Silvestri’s goal, we looked at each other and shrugged. “What are they doing?”
Although Leeds did pick the pace up, the lack of impetus and the lack of penetration proved hard to shake off. When the ball did go forward it rarely got to Souleymane Doukara; heavily right-footed and struggling to get involved, Doukara didn’t sparkle on his debut and even seemed to dive to try and win a free kick at one point, a bit unnecessary in a friendly. Steve Morison, his partner upfront, drifted aimlessly to the left wing where he wasn’t much help to anyone.
Bianchi seemed charged with taking the ball from the centre backs, but didn’t have many ideas beyond either giving it back to them or playing it square to where Charlie Taylor was advancing; Bianchi is not for turning. 17 year old Lewis Cook, who helped England U–17s win the European Championship over the summer, eventually took the job from Bianchi, but while he was more than willing to turn he ended up spinning like a top as he waited in vain for some movement ahead of him. Once, forced into a short square pass after he simply couldn’t keep the ball any longer, he threw his arms in the air in desperation and yelled at Morison, Doukara, Norris and Tonge ahead of him, demanding to know why nobody was making a run.
The same side played the first fifteen minutes of the second half but was just as lethargic; the argument between Steve Morison and a fan about his performace that got Twitter aglow after the game seems to have happened at half time, but there were some pointed accusations sent his way on the hour when, with the substitutes gathered ready on the touchline, a decent through ball finally came his way, and a Guiseley defender beat him to it with ease.
There are a growing number of metrics we can use to judge Massimo Cellino now and over the coming months – appointing Hockaday and Lewis, spending the £15m budget for new players, his promise to buy back Elland Road in November – and I’m tempted to add to his tests his support for Steve Morison. Cellino seems determined that Morison will be a good player for Leeds this season, but on the evidence of Guiseley Morison is determined to be exactly the same player he was before he went on loan back to Millwall – a disinterested, obscenely paid pariah, but one that now has the full backing of the club president. This one is Cellino’s call, but it’s hard to see what he sees in Morison.
The sixty-minute cavalry changed the game. If the first hour, with the new signings, the youngsters and the resurrected old boys, had been experimental, it doesn’t bode well for them that the tried and trusted – and failed – from last season showed so much more in the final thirty minutes. Noel Hunt was lively, Matt Smith wanted the ball, Sam Byram – his place threatened by Gaetano Berardi’s arrival – barely bothered with right back and played instead as a right wing outlet for the diamond. Rudy Austin was strong, Luke Murphy had all the time he needed, and added to them the new kid Lewis Walters was involved in attack.
There’s not a lot to be made of a goal headed in from a corner, and Guiseley’s tiredness seemed to contribute to the space Byram had to carve out the second for Smith, but if nothing else getting to see a proper team and two goals turned the volume down on any grumbles about the first hour.
Grumbles is the right word for them; Leeds were unimpressive, lacklustre, and ponderous – but they were also playing their first real pre-season friendly of the summer, a summer that has been focused on fitness and not finesse. Five or six more new players are also promised, meaning it’s still anybody’s guess what form or shape the side will have at Millwall on the opening day: the signing of Berardi has led to suggestions Byram could play right wing, but we played without wingers at Guiseley, so what should we make of that?
Perhaps not much, at least not for now. We’ve still got time to get used to things as they now are, and as they will be; just like Silvestri has time to get used to us all crowded behind his goal. Not everyone can settle comfortably in anywhere the way Cellino can, but if he wants an input into team affairs – and fan affairs – he might think about hosting some coaching sessions for us all on how to go about it. Leeds United strode confidently into pre-season last year, but soon hit a wall. This year we’re creeping timidly, uneasily – all except Massimo.