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the square ball week: federico viviani, and leeds united’s displacement of affection

the square ball week: federico viviani, and leeds united’s displacement of affection

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The story starts, as do so many at Leeds United, with Peter Ridsdale.

The story of Peter Ridsdale at Leeds is the story of an expansive personality, that expanded so rapidly and to such a great extent that it destroyed everything around it. Like an overheating gas tank on the deck of a cargo ship, it sent Leeds United’s crew diving overboard to take their chances in the sea, even before its volatility was visible to the public at large. The top executives at Caspian, who had taken the club over from Silver, Fotherby and Gilman but kept Ridsdale in their midst, abandoned ship once they realised that the explosion of Ridsdale’s ego, when it happened, would have repercussions they could not contain.

Within a season or two of being left to his own devices Leeds United were a stronger team than they had been for many years, and Peter made sure there was no doubt about his part in our glory. By the time the club was selling his life story on DVD in the club shop – Peter Ridsdale: My Leeds United – it was more about our part in his glory. And, ultimately, our part in his downfall.

There was no escaping the fallout, just as there had been no escaping the man when times had been good and Rio Ferdinand and Seth Johnson had stood with the chairman on the pitch to sign lavish contracts. And there has been no avoiding the boardroom since.

Silver and Fotherby might have enjoyed their share of the limelight in the early nineties, partly because they delivered success on the pitch and everyone wanted to ask them how they did it, and partly because Fotherby was an arch self-promoter off the pitch and everyone wanted to ask him how he did that. Ridsdale kicked the chairman’s profile up to another level, but rather than revert after he had left to its former low-profile standing – back to the days when anonymous men in grey suits and thick-rimmed glasses were rarely seen outside the boardroom – being a self-promoting egotist with a profile that overshadows the club became a crucial part of the job description.

Ken Bates had the profile before he ever came to Leeds, which is one of the reasons why Ken and Leeds were such a made match, to outside observers at least: we had a vacancy in the boardroom for a larger than life character with limitless self-regard, and Ken’s limitless stomach amply filled that gap.

The attention might have been what attracted GFH to the club; their name was damaged by a series of financial failures and association with the more brutal elements of Bahrain’s rulers, and Leeds United was a chance for populist success: reputation laundering, to use the technical phrase. The smart, smiling young men in suits would prove themselves to be likeable and capable by making the dreams of a band of humble football fans come true, so they had to make sure they appeared toothy and present throughout. That might have been the plan, anyway, even if all the attention brought them in the end was jail and curses.

That Massimo Cellino is continuing the trend of flamboyant, controversial and ego-driven chairmen – or in his case, presidents – is a claim that barely needs any evidence provided to back it up. Just look at him and listen to him. If you insisted, the press conference to introduce Dave Hockaday would be exhibit one: after he began by announcing he would only say a few words so that the focus could be on Dave and Junior, Massimo launched into a stream of consciousness lecture that didn’t let up for more than half an hour, then eventually ordered himself out of the room so that Hockaday could answer a question or two.

Cellino has been doing this for years in Italy, and I wouldn’t expect him to change now; his personality draws people to him, so it’s obviously good for him.

The question that bothers me, and has bothered me since Ridsdale, is whether this is good for Leeds United. You can barely have a conversation about the club without his name coming up: “What do you think about this Mario character?” non-football fans keep asking me; “What do you think of Cellino sacking Naylor?” ask those a bit closer to the club and the story. It’s always Cellino that people want an opinion on, though. “What do you think of Bianchi?” Well, he looks like a tidy enough midfielder… “ – yeah, Cellino knows the Italian market, doesn’t he?”

Which brings us to Federico Viviani. “His style of play has been compared to Andrea Pirlo and Marco Verratti,” says Wikipedia, and with that one line Leeds supporting tongues flopped out of Leeds supporting mouths and hung across Leeds supporting chins. It goes on. He was called up to Italy’s pre-World Cup training squad; he was captain of Roma’s Primavera side, which as all us Italian football experts know is the youth team; he plays as a ‘regista,’ a deep lying defensive midfielder and playmaker; he’s 22 and wanted by Serie A clubs; and he’s a freekick specialist.

The YouTube videos of this young lad’s freekick specialism don’t reduce the heart rate. With barely any run up, he marches on the spot like a children’s TV presenter pretending to be a soldier, before flicking the ball over the wall and into a corner of the net: unsaveable, and his stern celebrations show that he knows it.

He shoots from distance in regular play, too, the ball cutting thirty-five yards of daisies as its directed with precision into the bottom corner; under his captaincy Roma Primavera won the youth Coppa Italia and the video ends with Viviani grasping the trophy amid tickertape glory.

We’ve been burned by YouTube before. All that has to happen now is for someone to whisper the names of Felipe da Costa or Seb Sorsa and the browser window should be closed in immediate shame. But Viviani is different. He’s not a punt from Finland; he’s come from the youth system at Roma, one of the world’s great clubs. He’s not been recommended by Gwyn Williams; he’s known to the dream team of Cellino and Nicola Salerno, and they know the Italian market. And Wikipedia says he’s like Pirlo. I want him. We all want him.

“Don’t want to build Viviani up too much but I want a ‘favourite player’,” tweeted Jon Howe this week, a Square Ball contributor and author of All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players. “Someone I love & respect. Not had one for years stamps feet”; and that sums up the clamour for Viviani. It might only be a one season loan, but even if we’re only borrowing him, and even if it’s only for his free kicks, Leeds United need a player to love; Leeds United need a star.

They’ve not been in quite such short supply as Jon suggests, but anointing a star at United has required some lowering of expectations since the days of McAllister and Speed, or Viduka and Dacourt. And they’ve all gone now. Gradel, Snodgrass, Becchio (maybe that was just me), Byram and last season McCormack all provided a reason to turn up and watch over and above the ‘It’s Leeds’ standard; players you could look to to produce a dribble, a volley, a goal, a run or a freekick that would get you out of your seat and excited by football again.

Perhaps David Norris will have a late career renaissance, and perhaps Mathieu Smith will eschew headers in favour of bicycle kicks this season, but the current squad doesn’t only lack a certain something overall – something like the ability to beat Mansfield Town, for a start – but it also lacks that bit of individuality, a player we can elevate, cheer, and be excited by. Byram is still here and if he can recapture his first season form he could be our guy; Lewis Cook has caught the imagination in pre-season, but he’s far too young and too inexperienced to shoulder the responsibility.

The new Pirlo, though, would be perfect. And if after this week of protracted negotiations it turns out we can’t have the new Pirlo it will be a disaster – not practically, because of course we can find a half decent midfielder to play at the back of the centre circle, but emotionally.

We were apparently in for Andy Delort from the French second division last week, and signing the top scorer in Ligue 2 might have given us a boost; now it looks like he’s going to Atletico Madrid, which suggests we were never seriously in with a chance at all. That’s different to Viviani. Federico Viviani is, essentially, ours. He has been in Leeds; he has watched the team play. All he has to do is sign the contract. Since watching the team play, signing the contract has proved to be a problem. Emotionally, this is a disaster.

It’s not so much the idea that while watching his possible future teammates toil against Mansfield Viviani was quietly asking for directions to Mansfield International Airport; his ‘people’ were said to be ‘unimpressed’ by the performance, but who knows if that’s the real reason. The tragedy is to be so close to having a new star only to have him melt away into nothingness. You’ve seen the Snowman, right? You’ve cried when in the morning all that’s left is a pile of dirty snow and a battered old scarf, right?

The situation at Leeds is compounded by the fact that if we lose Viviani, we’ll lose another chance to transfer our attention from the boardroom to the pitch. In fact, failing to sign Viviani will only launch us headlong into another round of debate about Cellino and why he couldn’t and why we couldn’t clinch an actual good (on YouTube) player, even for just a one year loan. No doubt Massimo, checking his job description as boss of Leeds United in the post-Ridsdale era, will have plenty to say about Federico not showing enough passion or respect or desire, then Edoardo will tweet something and Eleonora will turn up at Leeds Met in a bikini and the whole ferris wheel will turn again.

Among the many deals Leeds fans have done with various devils over the years, I wonder if we can find the paperwork that relates to this particular Faustian pact; the one that says we can have no freekick experts to enjoy post-Harte, but have to enjoy our chairman’s belligerence instead; the one that says no star on the pitch can outshine the star in the President’s Suite in the East Stand; the one that says we’re not allowed to have a player we can unreservedly love, but must throw all our efforts against a brick wall chairman or president or lord or king and arguments about his rights, wrongs, likes, dislikes.

Where Peter Ridsdale was essentially a dangerously overblown balloon, Massimo Cellino does at least bring some substance to the ego/promo side of the Leeds ownership: he’s engaging, amusing, outwardly open-hearted; he can play guitar; hell, he can even drive rally cars, or at least he did in his younger days. But one thing he has in common with Ridsdale and with Bates is that not one of them can score with an exact but still surprising freekick the way Federico Viviani can.

Even if it’s just for one season, I want to think less about the president because I’m thinking more about a player. Sign, Federico, sign.

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