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the square ball week: patience, and leeds united without tom lees

the square ball week: patience, and leeds united without tom lees

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Tom Lees joined Leeds United fifteen years ago, when Leeds United were in the Premier League, and were about to stun Europe in the Champions League.

Those days are gone, and now Tom Lees is gone. If those days weren’t gone, and Leeds were still competing at the very top of the top flight and in Europe, Tom Lees probably would have gone years ago, without playing a game. He has never looked like a Champions League defender, something his many detractors have been eager to remind everybody this week.

But we are where we are, and we’ve been where we’ve been, and Tom Lees has been there with us. I’d begun to think of him of as permanent. To describe a player as competent might sound like an insult, but I mean it as praise; Lees is a competent Championship defender, and if we had ever been promoted to the Premier League with Lees in the side – don’t laugh, it could have happened – I reckon Lees would have proved competent there too.

Tom lacked star quality compared to Delph, Howson or Byram, and that in its own way made him feel much more like ours, and a bit more Leeds; so often the heroes of great Leeds teams have been unsung. We all knew Delph was for sale, even when Bates said he wasn’t; and it wasn’t a surprise when Howson got a shot at a higher level. There’s been a semi-humorous expectation that Byram will be out the door someday – if not to Norwich, then elsewhere – since the day he broke into the side, and that has always tempered the adoration slightly. If Sam Byram plays too well, he’ll leave, so we tie ourselves in knots, willing him to perform but knowing a good performance is doom.

But Tom Lees was ours. Not glossy enough to be a target for other clubs, while a better replacement would be too expensive for us. Championship managers beg and plead for solid centre backs, and when you get one, you ignore their faults and you don’t let them go, because you never know when the next one will be along. Brian McDermott tried to replace Lees with Marius Zaliukas, and look how that turned out.

Even if an adequate replacement had been found, it wouldn’t have threatened Lees’ place in the squad too much. Thought well enough to take part in a strong England U21 group, he was just that bit too good to ever want to let go, even if he had to settle for the bench. If anything, any highly-rated replacement would probably leave first for bigger and better things, and in would come Tom again, stern, silent, prone to the odd mistake, but ours.

It’s all hypothetical now, because he’s gone. Sheffield Wednesday seem delighted to get him, and delighted by the price, which at most amounts to the balance of the wages we were due to pay him. When a team and a manager are that pleased to have signed one of our players, especially one that hasn’t often been praised at our club, it makes me wonder about what we might have lost. It was easy when Blackburn fans moaned that Luke Varney was useless; that wasn’t anything we didn’t know. But is there something about Tom Lees that we didn’t know?

The mantra on Lees has been that he has lost the form he had in his first season after coming back to Leeds as a hero of Bury’s promotion side. It’s true, and the flip is that if he could just find that form again, he’d be a good player. One reason that I’m surprised to see him leave now is that I had thought these situations were Dave Hockaday’s forte.

What reputation Hockaday has is built on working with young players and improving them, and Lees was a prime candidate for a Hockaday makeover. Lewis Cook just needs to keep doing what he’s doing; Sam Byram needs Dorothy to take him to Oz to get his courage back; Chris Dawson just needs to keep listening to Skee-Lo. Players like Luke Murphy and Tom Lees need whatever the Hock has got to help them get back on track.

“It was very obvious to him and to me that it was the right time for him to move on,” said Hockaday. “He feels like he needs a fresh start and his body language betrayed that to me at times. But he’s been good as gold and I genuinely wish him all the best.”

Perhaps that’s the right assessment, and only a departure for pastures new could solve the problem – that was how it was with Gary Speed when, after going off the boil at Leeds, he departed for Everton. But after only a handful of pre-season games it feels like an admission of defeat. I’m not suggesting we should have been begging Lees to stay, but I am concerned that we couldn’t find a way to refresh a tired player and see if a new coach and a new approach could bring the best out of him.

We’ll find out if he ever gets his best back, one way or another, and I think Lees is going to have a successful career. He reminds me a bit of Simon Grayson, only with hundreds more first team games at this age. Grayson grew up in the same Leeds youth sides as Gary Speed and David Batty, but by the time they were league champions and indelibly associated with the club, Grayson had moved on to Leicester to find first team football. He found much more; he became captain and won promotion and a League Cup final, and continued a solid career at Aston Villa and Blackburn, valued wherever he went.

I can imagine a fate like that for Lees. People already call him a stalwart, aged 23; they’ll still be calling him that when he’s 33, and has captained Wednesday for six thousand games or whatever. Leeds will probably travel to Hillsborough that season for his testimonial.

If Leeds United could use anything right now, it’s a player like that. The squad lost some of its character when Ross McCormack left; now it’s lost some of its sturdiness. The new signings – Bianchi, Silvestri, Doukara, Berardi – and the semi-mythical unsignings – come in, Viviani and Benedicic – are exciting, but some of them are only loans, and none of them have been seen enough for us to know if they’ll be part of this club for five years or more to come. They might turn out to have all the endurance, stability and commitment we need, but we’ll have to wait to find out; and until they answer one way or the other (or actually sign), the squad looks to lack granite.

We need to find these things out soon. And if they don’t have the grit we need, we need to find some players who do. Soon. After we play Dundee United tomorrow, that’s it: the new season is here. It arrives while we have two new signings in limbo, one possible Lees replacement deemed to expensive, and a general assumption that we’ll need some more centre backs at some point, but no indication about who or when.

The team finally got into gear at Swindon on Tuesday, but this team will inevitably remain a work in progress for the next few weeks at least, as underplayed new signings like Berardi bed in, and unreal new signings like Viviani unpack their bags and try to catch up; then there are players we haven’t even heard about yet. Hockaday can expect to still be bolting new players on to his team and his methods right up until the transfer window closes, which is interesting, as quite a few people expect him to be gone long before then.

That’s not a judgement on Hockaday so much as a recognition that our president is who he is, and that he has form in this area. Few football chairmen are patient with their managers any more, but Massimo Cellino takes impatience and impulsion to another level; and that transmits to the fans, who become itchy at being asked to be patient with Hockaday and his new team while knowing that Cellino, to be blunt, won’t be. If we don’t like the way the season starts, we need to keep the faith and give Hockaday a chance. If Cellino doesn’t like it, he’ll sack him.

That air of impatience might have done for Tom Lees in the end, too. So his body language wasn’t right; so his mind was on a fresh start. That’s part of the coach’s work, especially one who was brought in to get more out of the current squad: to work with a player to help him improve, get back to his best, and enjoy playing for Leeds United again. Instead, Gloomy Gus has been shipped out to the first club that came along; there isn’t much sign of a bidding war, while perhaps a little more patience in that regard could have at least brought in a better offer than free for a highly rated player – highly rated outside Leeds, at Leeds.

We can throw Tom Lees on the pile of confusing contradictions that make up Leeds United’s new era, where managers are sacked but not really, where old owners leave but stay on the board, where players are signed but not signed. The club now needs, above much else, patience while it rebuilds – but the club is the last place where patience can be found.

We can also raise a mugful of strong builder’s tea to Tom Lees, and acknowledge his long contribution to the club: fifteen years, from an eight year old boy to a twenty-three year old man, all with Leeds United. He’s not a legend, not a great, not a superstar: he’s a good defender. Sometimes a good defender is just what you need, and for Leeds United, one of those times is now.

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