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the square ball week: leeds united, from hysteria to hypochondria

the square ball week: leeds united, from hysteria to hypochondria


Leeds are beginning to make a habit of getting the glory over and done with early.

Neil Warnock’s team gave us a bright start in 2012/13, beating Wolves in front of the Sky TV cameras at Elland Road, Luciano Becchio diving low to nod in a cross from Ross McCormack after a swift move from back to front. Warnock may have hated every second of watching the detestable Argentinian dare to score and immediately redoubled his plans to sell him, but the rest of us were in dreamland. For a bit.

Last season the hero was Luke Murphy, who increased the impact by waiting until the last minute to score the winner against Brighton; the stakes were even higher in that moment as Murphy, the new £1m signing, latched on to a header from new free signing Mathieu Smith, even finding time to handball it before he bundled the ball over the line in front of the Kop.

Brian McDermott’s reputation, at that point, was still ascending, and it probably never reached higher; Murphy’s either. The sunshine, the packed stands, the carefree post-Bates atmosphere; then finally the goal and the celebrations had more in common with a cup final than with an opening day league match. There should have been some sort of trophy presentation after, even if it was just to hand Murphy a shield engraved with ‘This is as Good as it’s Gonna Get.’

This year’s moment came from another brand new man, Billy Sharp; like Murphy, signed with big expectations, and like Murphy, delivering in the last moments of his first game. The foxiness of the finish in the box, followed by the wolfish tops-off celebration, nearly brought the house down and sent the fans soaring up: that goal, pretty much, is what we go to football for.

If the pattern is to be repeated, and it looks like it is, then there’s probably not much point in going to the football again this season, at least not in search of another high. The win over Wolves in 12/13 was followed by a Tuesday night defeat in Blackpool. McDermott’s Leeds did at least keep us hopeful a while longer, drawing two and winning two of the next five; ultimately, though, that Murphy goal was the last kick of true optimism before the returns diminished and we were left to face a cold and lonely winter.

And this season we had Brighton on Tuesday. At least the comedown from Murphy’s score last season was relatively gentle; this year we were knocked straight to the floor, our faces were ground immediately into the gravel, a heavy boot on the back of our heads. If the Middlesbrough game was like a drug, the first half against Brighton was like an anti-drugs video, an unsparing examination of the price you must pay, as a football fan, to be happy for a moment.

It was a message more people needed to see. It’s not that I want to bring anybody down, but at half-time on Tuesday I was wishing that game was live on Sky, too, so that anyone who watched the Boro matched and flicked off their set at full-time thinking, “Yeah, Leeds’ll be alright this season,” could be rescued from that delusion before it took too tight a grip. As it was, a 21,400 crowd at Elland Road on a Tuesday night means it might as well have been played behind closed doors; only if you were there will you truly know what it was like.

It’s not that I want to belabour a bad performance out of spite, either, but we do need to look at where that performance came from. Dave Hockaday has decided since that there was a “viral bug” affecting his squad: “To be fair to the players on Tuesday, at least half a dozen of them were struggling with it. It was a messy place in the dressing room afterwards. It wasn’t very nice.”

Well, maybe. I didn’t particularly notice any players affected by illness, unless cluelessness is a disease. And the performance at the start of the second half, when the only change was Ajose for Smith, was considerably improved over the whole of the first, so these sickly souls must have either caught a second wind or emptied a Boots counterful of medicine into themselves at half-time.

What looked more to blame were more standard football matters: the formation, the tactics, the style of play. Craig Mackail-Smith didn’t have fields upon fields of space on the wing because Stephen Warnock had a dicky tummy; he had that space because Stephen Warnock was being asked to provide all the width from Geldard Road to the top of Wesley Street and back, while our four midfielders crouched around a card table together in the middle of the park.

There almost seems to be no point in criticising Hockaday and Lewis’s methods, because if they don’t work they’ll be gone before any of us can really analyse the reasons why. But it’s a cop-out to gloss over their influence so easily, and it would miss a point that needs to be made early, about how this schism between president and coach is going to affect our team.

Player after player is being thrown at Hockaday day after day, and the division of jobs seems clear: Cellino and his advisors sign the players, Hockaday or A. N. Other coach them into a team. Or at least they try to. It’s fine in theory, and plenty of people say it works just great on the continent, and it might work just fine in Leeds. I’m not sure it’ll work with Hockaday, though.

“Hearing David Hockaday is yet to be convinced by Aarhus midfielder Casper Sloth, but the club is interested,” tweeted the BBC’s Adam Pope about Leeds’ latest transfer target, a 22-year old Danish midfielder with an absolute gift of a name and a strong reputation. That explicit division between club and Hockaday is a troubling one, especially given how the club – and specifically its president – tends to treat the opinions of its coach.

“Did I ask your f—— advice? No. So shut the f— up,” Massimo says he told his coach about McCormack – and this was when Hockaday was trying to agree with him. It’s hard to imagine, then, Hockaday summoning Cellino to a meeting later today to discuss the merits of Sloth. “Have a seat, Mr President,” the Hock can imagine himself saying, after Cellino knocks humbly on his office door. “You’ve got exactly two minutes to convince me to coach this Sloth.” It’s a nice dream, David, but you’ll never say those words out loud.

Hockaday’s famous honesty, hard-work and humility amounts to just kowtowing to the maniac in charge when it moves off the training pitches; and it doesn’t stay off the training pitches as easily as all that. If Hockaday isn’t convinced by Sloth, will Sloth find it easy to replace Austin or Tonge in midfield? And if he doesn’t immediately go in to the side, will he know it’s because the coach doesn’t really believe in him? And if he does, will it be against Hockaday’s judgement and at the president’s behest, and will all the players know it?

There’s a lot said about supporters supporting at Elland Road, as if we’ve forgotten that only twelve months ago we were cheering the arrival of a marvellous new regime: support the president, support the coach, support the players. But a football club is a collective culture, as Howard Wilkinson will tell you, and what happens in one part of the collective affects what happens in the whole. If the president and the coach don’t support each other, and the president and the coach are supporting different players, who are the supporters supposed to support, and how?

The answer is to keep supporting Leeds United, but Leeds United as a structure should have more pillars and struts to hold it up than just us. United on the terraces but fractured in the corridors won’t keep Leeds upright.

The start of this season should have had more in common with the start of the last than just a late, euphoric winner: the overthrow of detested owners, the promise of exciting new players, a new vibe brought about by a new style and an effervescent and media friendly new leader. Only 24,500 people were moved enough to get involved with the Middlesbrough game, though, compared to 33,400 who made the pilgrimage for last season’s opener; the Sky effect, perhaps, but the Middlesbrough high just wasn’t the same high as last season.

The post-Boro low was much lower, though, and that’s the risk we’re running with the current new ways. Leeds United could, eventually, reach higher than we’ve ever reached before. We’re tiptoeing closer to the edge, though, of plunging lower than we’ve ever been before, and already, with the league season only a couple of weeks old, we’ve seen both extremes.

I didn’t expect to be here peddling pessimism after Billy Sharp’s goal last Saturday, but that’s how Leeds United seems to work, for fans and players alike. After the dizzying moment of glory, the dizziness; after the dizziness, the sickness; and sickness is hard to shake.

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