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the square ball week: too happy to care

the square ball week: too happy to care

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The World Cup has been an absolute delight this summer.

It’s hard to remember sometimes, when you’re a Leeds fan, what brilliant football looks like. Ah, we’ve had our moments, most of them last season from Ross McCormack, but Alex Mowatt’s cross against Birmingham was another sweet moment. Rudy Austin’s last minute volley against QPR was close enough, too; an inch away. Just an inch.

But this summer has been a reminder of how good it can be to watch 22 footballers chasing a ball around a field, and doing things with the ball and with their bodies that you, in a million years, could never do.

Sixteen times against Belgium, Tim Howard did things I can’t, things I can’t even imagine learning how to do. Every time he touches the ball Lionel Messi does something with it I couldn’t ever hope to replicate down the park.

Football is difficult, and part of the pleasure of watching someone like Messi is the moments when he makes it look easy; when, without any apparent effort, he twists away from six players in the last minute of a vital match and curls the ball precisely behind the goalkeeper and inside the post. There. Now they’ve won the game. I couldn’t have done that.

Moments like that are one of the true joys of football; sure, a lot of people wanted the Boy’s Own ending of Iran getting a result, but Messi scoring a winning goal that only he could score was the real Roy of the Rovers storyline. Roy Race was the best player in the world, and beating other teams single handed in the last minute was the sort of thing he did, and it’s what people read the comics for. What great thing will he pull off next?

Footballers, from the great ones like Messi and Race to more humanlike ones, like Ross McCormack, are worshipped and praised for stuff like that; for what that they can do on the football pitch. We might flinch slightly at bringing McCormack’s name into this, but it’s a fact.

Nobody gets McCormack 44 put on the back of their shirt because they appreciate his waste management advice. It’s because, as he did against Sheffield Wednesday at home last season, he can push the ball past a defender, run past him, and reach it at the perfect point between the approaching defenders and goalkeeper with a head cool enough to still be able to calculate how to push the ball away from them all and score a goal that saves the game for Leeds United. That was a real Roy of the Rovers goal, and I could never have done it.

Would I pay £25 for a ticket to watch somebody do something I could do myself, and better? Perhaps not. But I’ll pay £25 to be delighted by watching somebody like McCormack do something I can’t, or more precisely, in the hope of seeing somebody do something I can’t; and I’ll cheer and be amazed and talk for days and make animated gifs in appreciation of seeing those things that I can’t do and don’t understand how to do.

The mystery for a lot of us who stand and watch footballers play is, how do they do it? How come they’re so much better at this than we are, how come they can do things that we can’t? And the answer is, well, it’s a mystery. They just can. And sometimes, when it’s good, it’s just a joy to be able to enjoy the fact that they can do it.

Which is why I don’t have it in me to begrudge Sam Byram his socks. Last week it was packed lunches because the canteen was closed; this week it was socks and pants, because the club are not supplying players with socks and pants for training. Byram and Jason Pearce were discussing the situation on Twitter:

There’s something kind of touching about the senior pro making sure the younger player has bought his socks; and about the younger player checking it’s plain ones he should be getting. “You got plain ones? Right, I’ll get some plain ones too.” There speaks a young man not used to buying his own socks.

Or his own pants (Sam’s got some Lonsdale ones by the sound of things). You could argue that that’s a disgrace. A 20 year old lad can’t buy his own pants and socks for training without checking with the club’s captain-elect? A professional footballer doesn’t even supply his own underwear? Last week they couldn’t feed themselves and now they can’t dress themselves. What goes on with these overgrown children in training?

Well, Thorp Arch is a different country: they do things differently there. I can’t pretend it had ever occurred to me that footballers might have their pants and socks supplied for them, but when you think it through, it kind of makes sense: Macron are the club’s supplier of “Technical Sportswear,” and there’s no real reason why technical should end with the outerwear. Sam Byram’s groin is a precious and valuable place, and if Macron pants can preserve it in its hallowed and unspoiled state, I’m all for it. Who knows what havoc shop-bought Lonsdales might wreak upon those smooth, unsullied loins?

Or to put it another way, if I’m denied the opportunity to watch Sam Byram play brilliant football at Elland Road next season because his long-standing hip injury is aggravated by the lack of adequate equipment at Thorp Arch, I’ll be livid.

Yes, footballers are spoiled, yes they’re overpaid, yes they live in a bubble where pants are bought for them and reality rarely reaches. But it’s a situation I buy into, as a fan, to still get what I want out of football. The deal is this. I give the club some money for a ticket. The club spends that money buying, making and training the best footballers it possibly can. I watch those footballers play and hope that they can win and give me joy.

Resenting that middle stage – the socks, the pants, the canteen lunches – seems counter productive to me. I can’t say for certain how much impact Sam Byram’s underwear has on his game, but if it’s normal at top class professional football clubs for players to have their underwear supplied, I’m happy for him to have the things other footballers have. Nobody is going to give me free pants and socks to go to work in, but then my underwear isn’t vital to my job. I might get a free keyboard from time to time, though.

The counter argument to this, that has been appearing ever since packed lunches were mentioned and talk hit the papers of training at Leeds becoming “like a boot camp”, is that the spoiled sods deserve it. They’re treated too well and a hard slap from real life is just what they need. Normal people buy normal underwear and don’t complain and there’s no reason why footballers should be any different. They got free pants and hugs from McDermott last season, so make them wear hair shirts and run up hills for Hockaday this. Stop moaning about training kit and training methods and get on with it.

I find that a peculiarly joyless approach. It seems to hark back to an ideal world where you can’t imagine John Charles complaining about not getting free socks; where footballers were ordinary working people just like you and I who lived on the same streets and drove the same cars. I’m not sure that was ever the reality. John Charles was treated like a pop star – he had a top ten single – or a god, certainly in Italy; Jack Charlton might have lived in a modest house and driven to work in a modest car, but when he got to work he got free massages from Les Cocker and Don Revie and, I expect, his kit laid out waiting for him in the changing rooms. There weren’t many jobs in the 1960s where you got a massage in the course of your normal working day, but that’s football: football is different, and footballers do different things.

And in the end it’s all to our benefit. Sure, I’m not the one getting my nutritional, healthy meals supplied in a posh training ground canteen; I don’t have piles of free pants and socks. Leeds United’s footballers have all that, the lucky bastards, paid for with my ticket money. But by having all that, perhaps they’ll go out next season and do some things on the football pitch that make me happy, that make buying a ticket worthwhile, that make me glad to be able just to watch and enjoy and appreciate the sight of a game I love being played really well. That’s when I get my benefit. It’s not as guaranteed or as measurable as a pile of Macron training wear, but it’s value all the same.

If Byram zips down the wing and passes the ball to Mowatt, who swings the ball over the six yard box for Smith to head into the net, I’ll be delighted. I won’t be resentful of their training wear. I won’t even be thinking about it – I’ll be too happy to care. That’s one of the things I go to football for – to be too happy to care.

It all applies to Ross McCormack, too. Or Badge-Kisser McContract, as he’s now known in certain quarters. At the moment it looks like he’ll be leaving United, whether pushed or jumping, and already the determination to burn down every single good memory we have of his time at Leeds has begun.

I loved it when McCormack kissed the Leeds badge, because I like to think that the players on the pitch enjoy playing for our club as much as we enjoy watching them. And that’s what a kiss of the badge says to me – I really like it here. I’m enjoying playing football that you enjoy watching.

A kiss is not a contract in blood and it’s not an iron chain. It’s a sign of affection, often bestowed upon leaving: the goodbye kiss. Even goodbye kisses can be nice, if bittersweet. It’s nice to be thought worthy of being kissed at all, even if it is only fleeting. And while Ross McCormack was kissing the badge on his shirt, we were doing the nearest thing to kissing him in the stands: cheering, clapping, singing his name.

It might have been easier for Ross McCormack to never have bothered. To never have shown any emotion, or happiness, or pleasure at playing for Leeds United. In a way, he overpaid on his side of the bargain: we didn’t just get goals, good football and joyful moments from our ticket money, we got appreciation and love, too. And it seems like, having received all that, we’ve just piled it up to fling back in his face at the first opportunity.

We can’t ask footballers to live in the real world of packed lunches and shop bought pants, and then object when they make real-world decisions about their careers. And we can’t demand that footballers exist with us on the plane of real life, then vacate that reality for a fantasy land where the transfer market doesn’t exist and footballers never move clubs.

And we shouldn’t – if we want to be happy – destroy our good memories where there’s no need. 29 times last season Ross McCormack made me too happy to care about anything, and that was a more than fair exchange, and exactly what I look for in football. If McCormack leaves, I’ll regret that I won’t get that from him anymore. But I won’t resent the memory of being happy, because one day memories of being happy might be all I have.

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