the square ball week: but i want a ponyBack
Where is he? Where is our beautiful pony?
Ponies have been in such short supply at Elland Road in recent seasons that to have Adryan Oliveira Tavares snatched from our sight after such fleeting glimpses seems horribly cruel. Do you remember our defeat in Rotherham in October? Do you remember the way Tavares dominated the night as a prancing substitute, the way he made even that really aggravating result fade into insignificance, because our mythical unicorn had become an actual, it’s your birthday and we got you a pony, pony?
If Tavares, imported from the Americas to Italy like some flashy yacht, then dragged across Europe by his ear to Leeds, is Massimo Cellino’s pawn, then putting him in the team was Darko Milanic’s gambit. Darko’s instructions to the rest of the players were that they should stand stock-still in straight lines and hate each other, or that’s how it looked; so his introduction of the most glammed up baller this club has had in years was a surprise.
Like a dour uncle discovered cross-dressing at weekends, Darko was out, loud and proud about Tavares from then on, wearing him to the shops against Norwich and Wolves, at which point Massimo cruelly asked him what he thought he looked like and sent him home to get changed.
Darko’s banishment was far from the end for Tavares, although Redders never quite seemed as comfortable with him in the side; those first few months of Redfearn’s reign looked like an attempt to make do and mend with the hand me downs bought for Hockaday and Milanic, until a Christmas clearout uncovered the players Redders had been looking for at the back of the wardrobe.
Look at the team that embarrassed itself at Portman Road in early December, and against the fast-moving cycle of modern football it looks and feels like ancient history. Antenucci, Doukara, Tavares, Bianchi, Warnock, Pearce; six of the eleven are either gone for good or seldom seen.
When those that remain do show themselves, they’re like unwelcome guests at a birthday party for someone they used to know through work. Jeez, is he still friends with them? Why did he keep in touch with those guys?
Antenucci’s still quite popular – it’s the beard – but his nipples would barely make a dent in the polyester of Billy Sharp’s popularity these days; Doukara appearing in the starting lineup again would be about as welcome as looking over to the dugout and seeing Milanic back; Bianchi’s slight return against Reading on Tuesday night went about as well as if Dave Hockaday had been named in midfield. Perhaps the Hock would have played better. The mixture of celebrations and sighs of relief that have greeted the news of Bianchi’s broken knee meanly ignore the fact that must be bloody painful; but football’s a mean sport, and Casper Sloth made the difference on the night, so…
Sloth is another player to have lived an almost existence for Leeds United so far; occasional appearances, murmurs from the reserves that he thinks his non-selection is “really weird”; Cellino using him, Doukara and Bianchi as a human shield when Shaun Harvey Oswald took aim at his presidency. But nobody has been all that bothered. He was good against Huddersfield and lifted a Bianchithargic midfield against Reading, but he’s not a pony. And who cares about things that aren’t ponies?
The implication from Peter Lorimer this week, though, is that this is neither the time or the place for ponies. “Of all the fringe players at the club,” Peter wrote in his YEP column, “He’s the one that the fans seem most keen to see more of”; to which most fans responded by asking, “Damn, bitch, did you just say ‘fringe player’? Burn!”
“As strange as it sounds, I actually believe Adryan would fare better in the Premier League,” continues Lorimer, before adding, “That’s not to say he’d cut it in the Premier League,” at which point someone has to step in and ask just what the hell has gone down between Tavares and Lorimer to make Peter run his mouth with all this trash talk. “Neil Redfearn has got to have concerns about Adryan’s fitness,” Lorimer continued, “have you seen the size of his mother?”
“A Championship relegation battle isn’t the place where Adryan is going to thrive,” is what Lorimer really went on to say, his glass clearly half-empty despite our recent wins over Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Reading; and this gets much closer to what seems to be the source of Tavares’ exile. He’s too young, too individual, too lightweight, too flamboyant for where we are and what we have to do.
I’m sure how much I believe in that idea. For one thing, one of the first things that struck me about Tavares that first night in Rotherham was that he was a lot more feisty than I had expected. He was straight into it with a linesman – always a good sign – and willing to stick a boot in to tackle. He didn’t always win the ball, but he wasn’t shy when feet were flying. The famous flop against Birmingham might have made the name Tavares known around the world for all the wrong reasons, but I think he more than just resembles Alan Smith back when he was a teenage girl; hidden behind that pout is a temper like his, too.
Secondly, I’ve never seen a problem for which ‘be less creative’ has been the solution; outside the world of football, at least. It’s a peculiarism of the sport that the more time a team spends at the bottom of the league, the less it does that resembles what the teams at the top do. A team at the top of the Championship would probably not choose to play Steve Morison up front; and yet at the bottom, where goals are just as vital, here comes ol’ one-R, because he works hard and is a hard worker and that. But he can’t, for the life of him, score a goal.
There must be something to be said for work ethic as a vaccine against relegation, as it’s a tactic that hoary old football coaches return to time after time, and you’d expect they know their business. But even if it’s true in a general sense, I’m not sure that it’s true of the great Leeds fightback of winter ’15. Look at Luke Murphy, power-drifting the ball home from distance to beat Bournemouth; Byram’s deft skill to score the first against Huddersfield, Antenucci’s pinpoint cross onto Sharp’s head for the winner; Murphy again picking his spot from long range to open the scoring against Reading; Byram again nodding just inside the post after a floated chip from, of course, Morison. Although I swear down he came really close to overhitting that cross straight out of play but that’s beside the point for the moment.
These are the flecked highlights in the new hairdo that is Redfearn’s new look Leeds, but the play away from goal hasn’t lacked for volume, sheen or hold. Lewis Cook’s no pony, but he plays with skill and imagination at high intensity and high speed; Murphy is more laconic, but has been as ambitious with his passing as with his shooting. Mowatt has been more workmanlike of late, but don’t forget his netbusting days against Cardiff and Charlton; Byram looks reinvented as a right winger/striker, playing maybe even for the first time with the joy that matches his skill. Rudy Austin has played too.
The replacement of the Cellino yacht-rock crew with swarthy Englishmen, salty and true, has been talked up as a back-to-basics, British bulldog entry into the Championship relegation dogfight; but this fightback is being fought with feathers in our caps and a dashing swashbuckle. Leeds have turned up the volume on creativity and flamboyance and reaped the rewards from players whose energy and skill had been buried under humility, honesty, hard work and all the rest of it.
And yet this dressage arena of plumage, finery and finely controlled dance has no room for Tavares, who ought to fit right in. Fitting in, though, is not what Tavares is for; or at least, not what he has been used for so far. Back when Milanic introduced him against Rotherham, Tavares was a useful distraction as the team toiled and imploded; don’t look at the score, look at the glitter in his mane! Now, though, we’ve got glitter all over, from the sparking boots of Murphy to the spring heels of Cook. We don’t need entertaining. We’re winning. Why do we want a pony now?
Tavares right now is the cake we can’t eat because he’d spoil our dinner. Results are good, the team is playing well, Steve Morison is going to start scoring any day now; there’s no need to dazzle the fans when we can, at last, look squarely at our team without despair. And that’s okay. We’ve spent months, if not years, asking and asking and asking for a pony, and now it’s our birthday and we’ve unwrapped Luke Murphy, a pink ribbon around his neck; a reminder of what we already have and why new shiny things aren’t always better just because they’re new and shiny.
Tavares was our pony when all we had was a desert. Now we have lush, green grass, he has to become again a unicorn; an impossible animal, waiting for us in the clouds.