the square ball week: leeds united, middlesbrough, grass & the skyBack
The fixture list wasn’t kind to Middlesbrough this week, and neither, when the fixtures were played, was the football. Good. It’s about time things started going our way.
The pre-match clichemeter is registering seismic activity around the phrase “a good time to play them,” after Boro’s defeat to Arsenal in the Cup last Sunday, and their 1–1 draw with Birmingham in the week; the lunchtime kickoff is expected to count against them too, shaving vital hours off their recovery and preparation time.
That’s good to hear. Not only is it good to hear that Middlesbrough will be tired, cranky, upset and wanting their lunch, but it’s good to think that any time might be a good time for Leeds to play another team, after long Saturday afternoons spent hiding in a windowless room at Elland Road with all the stadium lights off, hoping that whoever it is this week will stop knocking by about half three and just go away.
We’re not like that anymore. Leeds United can, this weekend, travel to play the top team in the division, and feel reasonably confident that we’ll win. Is now a good time to play Boro? Mate, all the time is a good time right now.
Even after a week like this. If Middlesbrough have had a tough few days on the pitch, Leeds have been running things equally hard this week in their own arena of choice: the courts. Since last weekend, our local sports reporters have brought us updates on cases involving accusations of racism, wrongful dismissal, winding up orders, harassment and mispaid Italian TV money; involving a cast of characters including but not limited to Giuseppe Bellusci, Gwyn Williams, Dennis Wise, Gus Poyet, Salem Patel, Hisham Alrayes, David Haigh, Mark Taylor, Ken Bates, Melvyn Levi and family, and Massimo Cellino; in other words, pretty much the full set.
This weekend we’ll even be reacquainted with Jonathan Woodgate, one of Leeds United’s courtroom pioneers, back in the days when to see United players or officials on the courthouse steps was an unusual enough sight to be worthy of comment.
It’s feels pretty much standard now, so much so that the reporting is understated, just a natural part of the news cycle at Leeds United AFC. Sol Bamba has been nursing a hamstring strain but should be fit to play Middlesbrough and a winding up order will be contested in court on Monday. Well, obviously.
We’ve been keeping lawyers’ children fed in this way for years now, since even before Woodgate and Bowyer; right back to the Caspian takeover that, while it brought us a PLC, cost us McAllister, Speed, Silver, Fotherby and Wilkinson all at once. The summer of 1996 set the tone for the years ahead, of boardroom wrangles taken to the courtroom, of Leeds United telling it to the judge.
You can feel the age and the weight of it all in the names on the docket this week. At least Giuseppe Bellusci is relatively new, and provided he confines his old fashioned roughhouse threats to boxed ears rather than black eyes in future, his days of repeating cuss words into solicitors’ tape recorders should now be all over.
But Dennis Wise is not a name Leeds fans are especially keen to hear in connection with the club again, while Gus Poyet is a slightly less unpopular blast from the past; although he does seem to become a bit more of a dickhead every time we play one of his teams. They were the recipients, six years ago, of the obscene email being discussed in Gwyn Williams’ unsuccessful claim for wrongful dismissal this week. Mark Taylor, whose winding up petition is threatening to liquidate Leeds City Holdings at the moment, has had time to fall out with Ken Bates and then befriend him again since Leeds fans last had any reason to think about him. The case of Bates vs the Levis, which also reared its head again this week, has been going on so long now that hardly anyone can remember what it has to do with Leeds United any more.
These are the weeks when you could feel sorry for Massimo Cellino, if he still had anything to do with the club. Before he stepped down he used to like to refer to the mess he’d inherited at Leeds, turning down his chin and glancing coyly but intently upwards at his interviewers, the King of Corn transformed into our Queen of Hearts. Perhaps, at those moments, he wasn’t thinking so much of the horrors of forensic accounting; more of the horrors of becoming familiar with the existence in this world of Dennis Wise. “What is eet?” he would yell, leafing through the files. “Why it so short, but its ’air like zees ees growing?”
These are also the weeks when you can – and should – be glad for the existence and talents of Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt, Sam Byram and Charlie Taylor; for Lewis Walters, Kalvin Phillips and Jake Skelton. The latter three kept a half term crowd entertained in a development game at Elland Road this week, while the first four have been credited with turning things round for the first team, despite being but babes. Lewis Cook, for context, was 12 when Gwyn sent that email to Dennis and Gus; he’s already more popular at Leeds than any of them have ever been.
Lewis Walters is also probably more popular than any of those three right now, and he hasn’t even kicked a ball for the first team yet; but he might soon, and that’s enough. In amongst all the courtroom drama, Walters’ return to fitness was the good news story of the week, even though there aren’t many Leeds fans who have seen him play. The possibility that we might see him in the first team soon, though, was enough for an outbreak of general golden-generation giddiness.
Trying to find the traces of a football club beneath the rubble of the Ridsdale, Krasner, Bates, GFH and Cellino (so far) eras has been a difficult task over the years, like trying to rescue a puppy after an earthquake. It’s the task Massimo Cellino has publicly set himself, of uncovering and returning the club to fresh air and sunlight, but so far driving a JCB into the debris at high speed and shouting at it hasn’t had great results.
Cook, Mowatt, Byram and now Taylor have brought more precise tools to the job, and it’s thanks to them, rather than Boro’s fixture list, that the Riverside holds no fear this weekend. It’s the quality of Lewis Cook that gives us faith in the quality of Lewis Walters, as Leeds fans become addicted to inhaling the fresh deodorant fumes of youth’s success; Cook’s great, snifffffff; gimme the next one! It doesn’t matter at this point whether Walters is any good or not; he smells good, and that’s enough.
Middlesbrough’s chemical works have a unique perfume all of their own, of course, and if Sky want to break away from their clichemeter in the build up to the match tomorrow, they can take a tip from me, and move this match from the grass to the sky; rather than an ex-Yorkshire derby of top vs mid-table, it’s an airborne battle between pollutants and perfume; a clash of smothering smog and delicious aromas, of stale hangover air versus sizzling bacon smells.
And back in Leeds, where United continues to play its decades old games against itself, it’s the sombre atmosphere of the courtoom versus the freshly mown grass of Thorp Arch fields. The grass, this week, is winning; and on grass, against Middlesbrough, we just might win again.