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the square ball week: leeds united’s past alternative

the square ball week: leeds united’s past alternative

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For someone who fell so far in love with Leeds United that falling out of love became a reason for leaving, it doesn’t seem like Ross McCormack truly ‘got’ Leeds United after all.

For one thing, there’s his retirement plan to return as a season ticket holder so that his son can be raised as a match-going Leeds fan. As United fans know: if you can, spare the children.

Secondly, there was his determination to beat Leeds United on Wednesday night. Determination that was written all over his wee face, determination that was clear in the way he raised his game (I’m going to presume he hasn’t been playing like that for Fulham all season, otherwise £11m might have been decent value), creating chance after chance for himself and Mathieu Smith. If he couldn’t win, he was at least going to score or create a goal at the Leeds end.

You could see it in his reaction as the game slipped away, too. When Smith raised his eyes to the heavens his head was bumping against he looked resigned to his fate; Mathieu knew. He’d worked it out. But when Ross unleashed a torrent of abuse at the referee and linesman when they sent off Stafylidis, it wasn’t a protest at the decision, it was a protest at the world that was putting barriers between him and his dream of scoring against and beating Leeds United.

Come on, Ross. Did you learn nothing?

If Leeds United had been the sort of club that would make that dream come true, we would have made his other dreams come true, too, and he’d be captain of Leeds United in the Premier League right now. Leeds United might have been the club that Ross McCormack fell in love with, but Leeds United was also the club that was always going to ruin his life.

Smith was frustrated, but he’s a more philosophical soul than Number 44; he’s learned more from having his dreams constantly turned down by the admissions secretary. A spanking new contract at Leeds soon became a £100,000 transfer to Fulham. A new start in the Championship for Fulham became a loan move to League One and Bristol City. A second chance at Fulham began with goals – but then Leeds United came to town. That poor, sad giant. But at least he knows.

It took until the second time he went down with the same knee injury for Ross McCormack to know the jig was up, and even then he seemed to think he could salvage some heroism; saluting the Leeds fans as he limped off, to a chorus of catcalls and boos (and some applause, true). Leeds United seems to have had a way of picking on Ross McCormack, from the times when Billy Paynter kept him out of the team, to the times when Neil Warnock was his manager, to the times when all the good players around him were sold, to the times when his dream of promotion was buried beneath McDermott’s wingers, GFH’s incompetence, Cellino’s madness.

I feel a bit sorry for him, the rich man that he is. It’s never nice to see someone’s dreams destroyed, especially when their dreams involved you. Promotion with Leeds was the dream, but if that wouldn’t do then promotion with Fulham would be next best, and now it’s all about survival with Fulham and maybe, if he could manage it, a goal and three points against Leeds.

I also feel a bit sorry for us. The one area where Leeds are lacking is up front; not in terms of numbers, but quality. Sharp, Antenucci and Doukara each have their own qualities and attributes, but none of them quite fit in, and none of them seem to be scoring many goals. McCormack and Smith didn’t score on Wednesday, but by heck they were dangerous; the way they combined in the first half, I expected them to have three goals each by half time, and while their partnership has been stop-start both this season and last, they were playing to each other’s strengths and were almost, considering the god-awful state of the kit they were wearing and the fact they were the enemy on the day, a joy to watch.

It was a reminder of what we’ve given up along the way. McCormack by necessity – he wanted to leave, and everybody wants eleven million quid – and Smith for no good reason I’ve ever understood. The game against Blackpool this Saturday is a reminder of what we almost gave that up for.

Neither Nile Ranger nor Andre Blackman will play against Leeds on Saturday; Ranger has been missing since December, and Blackman isn’t good enough to get into a defence that has conceded sixteen goals in the last six games. At one point not very long ago, though, someone thought that both players might be good enough to play for us.

Even Darko Milanic seems like a regrettable memory of a childhood holiday we only remember from time to time, but it’s really not been that long; remembering Dave Hockaday feels like hearing a story from your parents about you when you were a baby. But all that happened, and it happened this season, and Andre Blackman on trial happened, and Nile Ranger in the away end too. It was happening, and it was happening to us. We were going to build a team around Nicky Ajose. (Although to be fair to Ajose he’s been on absolute flames for Crewe and seems like a decent player. But still.)

Blackpool are bottom of the league after 24 defeats and 77 goals against them, and there but for the grace of The Hock go we. Okay, so perhaps it wouldn’t have been that bad, but he lost three of his four league games and Leeds United were only going one way. Cellino and Salerno held the final word on transfers, so we got Silvestri, we got Antenucci, we got our desolate unicorn; but you could still spot a Hockaday player a mile off when they appeared. Ajose. Ranger. Blackman. Honest pros. Hardworking, humble. This was the man, remember, who gave David Norris a game.

Massimo Cellino took the rap for Hockaday, and he had to, given the way introduced him with the kind of epic press conference you’d expect to announce Messi; and although he did martyr it up as much as he could – inserted letters in the match programme and the like – he did at least put a stop to what has been charitably called ‘The Hockaday Experiment’ before it got out of control, escaped from the laboratory, fought the armed forces and killed us all.

But the point is to remind ourselves of how fine the lines are. After the Fulham game I wrote that I don’t think that this Leeds United team will ever lose a game of football again, and I stand by that: that team won’t. But that team won’t play every week. Austin might be back this weekend; he’ll improve the side, but he might upset the spirit of the equilibrium of the balance of the seesaw. Byram might leave his lucky socks at Thorp Arch, and the team is altered; changed, ever so slightly, in a subtle way that means we’re no longer invincible. Or maybe we only hold the sort of powerful hex we held on Wednesday over teams with our old players in, in which case we should hope Lee Clark picks Darren O’Dea this weekend.

It could all have been so different, as every football fan ever said every season ever. Picture McCormack and Smith, holding the Championship trophy aloft, and going on to tear up the Premier League in the white shirts of Leeds United; picture Dave Hockaday, gurning grimly from the sidelines as Norris, Ranger and Blackman fail to prevent yet another Leeds defeat on the slide to League One. Or picture what we have now: Neil Redfearn and Steve Thompson building a Jenga tower of hope atop a dining table of youth and sending Leeds up the leagues again.

Until the cat jumps on it. Remember: we know what Ross McCormack doesn’t know about Leeds United and dreams.

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