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the square ball week: heroes of leeds united

the square ball week: heroes of leeds united

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I’m not sure how much space is left in football for heroes.

The game has become so outlandish in so many ways, that to describe a footballer as your hero now seems daft.

It might also be because I’m in my mid-thirties and having a footballer as my hero might seem faintly ridiculous, but what the hell. Just because you got older doesn’t mean you don’t need someone to look up to.

But even when you ask a kid who their favourite player is, it doesn’t quite seem the same as it once was. Let them name almost any current Premier League player and the only reason you won’t reply with, “What? That tosser?” is because either a) you’re not in the habit of making children cry or b) they said James Milner.

Some of us still look to football for our heroes, all the same, and that has made recent years at Leeds United rather difficult. I’m not saying Jermaine Beckford is a legend like Clarke or Charles, but it was difficult to see him go. I’m not saying Robert Snodgrass had feet like Messi, but watching him play was often the only thing worth the entrance fee. I’m not saying that I loved and worshipped Luciano Becchio, but I loved and worshipped Luciano Becchio.

Then last season there was Ross McCormack, the last hero standing; and partly because of those who had left before, and partly because we just knew he would leave, he was hard to call heroic no matter how far away from relegation he ultimately dragged us, almost alone.

Football’s a team sport, but individual heroes are important. One thing that has been brought home while watching Leeds this season is just how boring the team aspects of the game can be. From Dave Hockaday’s point of view, I’m sure that when against Bradford Norris passed to Tonge who passed to Norris who passed to Tonge, it was exemplary teamwork. But by heck I wished for some flash individual to steal the ball from their leaden feet and lash it into the top corner.

Teamwork is often a prelude to those moments out of individual skill, but at clubs like Leeds it’s also where our heroes are found. This week I had the pleasure and good fortune to spend a morning with David Batty, and I don’t mind admitting that at first it was difficult to breathe the same air. Only once did David Batty steal the ball from leaden feet and lash it into the top corner, against Notts County in 1991/92, but while other players like Cantona and Chapman became the stars, it was Batty in the background who became the hero.

Batty’s story makes you wonder what we’re looking for when we look for a Leeds United hero. Is it about those game-changing, heart-stopping moments of sheer brilliance, the volleys and the dribbles and the goals that decide games and, when truly spectacular, become folklore, like Yeboah’s best? Or is it about someone who may only score once in a blue moon of unicorn-dust, but who, the rest of the time, carry the ethos and the meaning of the football club in their heart and soul?

In recent weeks I’ve also been reporting on this site on the progress of Leeds Ladies FC’s first season since Leeds United cut their ties with the club and it had to start again, with regular updates from their captain Emma Bentley. I also interviewed Emma for the new issue of The City Talking paper, that you can find inside the YEP today, and found in her someone who represents pretty much everything Leeds fans look for in a player.

“At times it wasn’t pretty football,” she said, talking about Leeds’ fightback from 2–0 down against Stockport on the opening day. “We had to do what needed to be done. It was as simple as that. Leeds have never been a team like Arsenal where people say, I enjoy watching that team. People enjoy watching Leeds because we’re Leeds. We fight and we battle and that’s what it’s about.”

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That is what Leeds is about, probably more so than long range volleys or free kicks into the top corner. On the rare occasions when we get a goal like that from a Yeboah or a Bellusci the moment has to be treasured, and replayed endlessly, but it’s during all the rest of the time that we learn who really deserves hero status at a football club like Leeds.

I started thinking about all this when I was thinking about Giuseppe Bellusci’s goal against Bournemouth on Tuesday night. That goal was special. The available stats say that, in 134 games in Italy, The Warrior scored one goal – whether it was a free kick from twenty-five yards or whether he bundled it in off his backside, I don’t know. But when he lined up the free kick on Tuesday, there was no question he was confident, and a few seconds later, there was no question that his confidence was well placed. As well placed as the ball.

If only Bellusci himself had been as well placed while trying to mark Wes Thomas against Birmingham on Saturday; or while clearing a high ball against Bournemouth, instead of letting it bounce under his foot and off to danger in our penalty area. Our penalty area, particularly against Bournemouth, was like a training trampoline for energetic toddlers, Bellusci and Pearce bouncing uncertainly after bouncing balls that should have been dealt with easily.

How much of all that Bellusci was able to erase with one free kick is an open question, because if he continues to defend that way without scoring any more free kicks for too long he could end up going the same way as Ian Harte. There has to be more. The goal against Bournemouth has assured Bellusci cult hero status, but that doesn’t satisfy.

Which is a shame, because as daft as it sounds to an adult and as oddly as it contrasts with the modern game, Leeds United need a hero on the pitch right now, and the pre-nicknamed Warrior from Italy could fit the bill. Just not yet. We can’t bestow that status on any of them yet.

One of the downsides of the overwhelming influx of players this summer is that they will find it hard to gel together as a team. Another downside is that they will find it hard to gel with the fans. Marco Silvestri has leapt ahead by being the first to join, and by adapting Massimo Cellino’s patented ‘But Have You Met My Daughter?’ technique with his girlfriend to win over the fans. It helps that he looks like a genuinely brilliant goalkeeper.

After Silvestri The Cat, though, the returns diminish. Adryan is billed as the star, but as we’ve seen, that’s different to heroism. He falls into the same gap as Brian Montenegro, Dario Del Fabro and Zan Benedicic as players that we know are here, but who we haven’t really seen. Could Brian Montenegro be the next Robert Snodgrass; might he be capable of captaining the club while curving volleys past despairing keepers? I have absolutely no idea, and I don’t really have much idea of how we’re going to find out.

In the new issue of The Square Ball, which is on sale online here right now for £1 as a digital download, and will be on sale before the Huddersfield game for £1.50, Charlie Phillips highlights a conundrum of the culture change Leeds United is undergoing. Charlie points out that nobody should be able to tell Leeds United how to be Leeds United – and that includes Massimo Cellino.

The template for our club should come from us, the fans, the people who have been part of it for all our lives; not the people who hadn’t even heard of our city before their daddy bought our football team. Or from daddy himself. Cellino’s way of doing things, however, has definitely tilted our identity from its historical axis, even if only a little.

It’s a tilt that will make it hard for players like Bellusci or Montenegro to adjust. What actually are they doing here? Why did they come? Was it for Leeds United, or was it for Massimo Cellino, or was it for something else? Perhaps misunderstanding the question, when Adryan was asked last week what he knew about LUFC before he signed, he said: “Billy Sharp.” That’s not the right answer. If he’d said “Billy Bremner,” and known what he was talking about, that might have been a different matter.

That’s the difference between ‘soccer stars’ and football heroes. The guy who comes to Leeds to play with Billy Sharp could be a star. The guy who comes to follow in the footsteps of Billy Bremner could be a hero.

Giuseppe Bellusci could still be either; Marco Silvestri has learned the Leeds salute and is well on the way; Mirco Antenucci might not know the offside rule but he knows where to drink. The club has been flipped upside down by Cellino, and the team so far reflects that. What we need now is to hold that team down with some well-placed heavy weight heroes; players we can identify with again, players who feel like part of this, part of us.

Players like that seem rarer in these unheroic times than bewilderingly good free kicks, and they’re even more valuable. Bellusci might be one of those players. Just not yet.

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