the square ball week: smells like giving upBack
For most of Leeds United’s game against Ipswich Town on Wednesday night I was bothered by one thought: ‘Is this it then?’
I mean, it’s hardly March, and we’re not even being given fake hope for the rest of the season anymore. Seasons have ended early for Leeds before, but not often while transfer windows are still open; technically we’re still at the maybe we’ll loan someone good and sneak the play-offs stage, even if that stage was always just a case of delaying the inevitable.
‘Moram necessitatemque’ is latin for ‘delaying the inevitable,’ and it’d make a good club motto for Leeds United; although 99% of football clubs could stake a claim for it. In English professional football only a handful of clubs are declared winners at the end of the season; the rest of them have just spent forty-odd games delaying the inevitable defeat.
One of the things that can make a season memorable, if you don’t win, is the point at which you give up. 1986/87 ended in defeat on two fronts for Leeds United, in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and in the promotion play-offs, but Billy Bremner and his boys took that season as far as they possibly could without winning it: in extra-time of a replayed play-off, the fans still had hope of success.
Hope is a big part of football, and has to be, given there’s so little chance of success. Why do we keep going back season after season, game after game? Because we hope our team will win. Why do people tune in to the TV to watch the Premier League? Because they hope something memorable will happen. Take a look at Sky’s advertising for games like, say, Aston Villa vs Stoke. ‘You never know!’ it screams. ‘Something good happened in this fixture once. It might happen again!’
Expecting something good to happen this season for Leeds United, even at this early stage, is perhaps a little over optimistic, but you can’t afford to kill the hope. It would take an extraordinary run of good fortune for United to make the play-offs now, but so what? It’s happened once. It might happen again, to us! At the other end, relegation is not quite yet mathematically ruled out, and we could turn that to our advantage: do you want to miss the magical moment when Leeds are mathematically safe? Well, do you? Tickets will be available on the night from the West Stand ticket office etc etc.
Okay, so it’s a little far-fetched, but then this was supposed to be season one in our two season plan for promotion, year zero of Dave Hockaday’s journey to the Champions League, so I don’t think that clinging on to an outside chance of the play-offs is any more optimistic than that. It’s the message I would expect the club to be sending out anyway. The maths is still on our side. The team has started winning more than it loses. The loan window isn’t shut. What we need now is for Max Gradel to put one of his old Leeds shirts on Instagram and we have ourselves an end of season to savour!
“The players are in good spirits,” said chairman Andrew Umbers this week. “Any temporary, sometimes expensive, new player entering the squad could in theory upset the equilibrium of the spirit of the team.”
Spoilsport! And besides Max is dead nice and he’d play for Leeds for free, we all know that.
I laughed and laughed when I read these comments, they were that depressing. For Umbers to echo Bates was not really all that surprising, but for him to one-up the old goat with some fresh material made me think we might have some fun with this guy after all.
The faxes that Bates’ brain used to send for his toothless maw to process were all variations on the theme that all players were dicks and all agents were worse, and it was better all round if the football club had as little to do with either as possible.
Umbers has gone another way. The players at our club are all lovely, lovely blokes, and they get on tremendously. What’s important is that they keep getting on tremendously and that nothing happens to keep them from having a good time.
Of course Billy Sharp favouriting a load of tweets that said his rival strikers were all rubbish, and the rumours that Bellusci has at some stage smacked/been smacked by everybody, and the on-field arguments between him and Steve Morison, and audible sighs of relief from all the players who have got away from the atmosphere at Leeds United to play for other clubs, should not be taken as signs that the team spirit is anything less than a full-on conga line.
But if the bonds among the players are really so strong, how can they at the same time be so fragile that a new player might upset the whole thing? Would Charlie Taylor, the club’s only dedicated left-back, really object so strongly should the club bring in a player to give him a break from the team that it would lead to a general player rebellion and send Leeds hurtling back down the leagues again?
And what of Cani and N’Goyi? Are they really such top, top lads that we overlooked their shortcomings to make them part of the afternoon bingo sessions? Is N’Goyi here because, while apparently we didn’t bother with a medical, his astrological profile was too compatible to resist?
To be fair to Umbers, one of the pleasant aspects of the resurgence under Redders has been the visibility of a good team spirit. When Leeds score it’s like a race to see which of the players can get into the stands first; nobody ever celebrates alone, and even a tap-in is an excuse for a pile on. Billy Sharp was an exception on Wednesday night, strolling over to Neil Redfearn as if to calmly remind Redders that he’d said “If you score, you stay in,” and then glance with smug meaningfulness at Steve Morison, sat on the bench; but he was a big part in starting the party vibe at Huddersfield the other week, and we know he’s a moody get anyway. If he ever changed, maybe Steve Morison wouldn’t love him the way he does now.
Particularly among the Academy graduates the friendships are clearly strong, and it’s nice to see mates having a good time, and I can understand why Umbers would want to protect that. The team are, however, 15th, and I’m not as keen on protecting that. In fact, I’d quite like to see us improve on it, if we can.
A temporary player could, in theory, upset the equilibrium of the spirit of the team; but one way to guard against that would be, when Redfearn submits his list of players (“Again,” as Redders put it this week), to ask him to indicate which of them are total bastards and which are nice blokes. The club could then focus its attention on trying to sign the nice blokes, and not the total bastards. And who knows – a few more nice blokes around the place might even improve the team spirit?
Team spirit might be a false flag anyway. To put our winning run down to how well the lads are getting on misses one of the crucial points of football: that the lads only get on when the the team is winning. I wouldn’t like to guess at which came first, the positive vibes or the wins, because I’m not a psychologist; neither is Andrew Umbers, and yet here we are.
Neil Redfearn isn’t a psychologist either, but he seems to think that it would be easier for the team to win games if the squad had some more, better players; and if the team keeps winning games then the mood should be good, so who’s to say that maintaining team spirit isn’t part of his plan, too?
Of course, the real kicker that Umbers has inexpertly hidden in his comments is there in that phrase “sometimes expensive,” and all this flannel about equilibrium is really just dressing up the fact that the club doesn’t want to spend money on loan players when the season is as good as gone.
It’s not even like it’s a point that would get much argument from anyone. Would we rather see some no-mark Premier League wannabe in our team, or Kalvin Phillips promoted from the Academy? Back when we were being promised Gradel, the club actually gave us Cameron Stewart, so why not just try Lewis Walters?
I’m not sure. It just feels so… defeatist. In my report on the Ipswich game I wrote about how I wished Varney’s early header had been allowed to stand, to give the game a point, something to put us up against, to inject some excitement. In the same way, I kinda wish we were still in relegation trouble, to give the rest of the season some sort of bite, some tension, some target to fight for.
As it is, it’s all looking a bit Aston Villa vs Stoke for the rest of the season. About the one bright point is that, with nothing to play for and no loan signings imminent, we might see some more of the Academy lads get a game; but I’m not sure how I feel about March to May turning into an overpriced sequence of development squad friendlies.
Maybe Umbers will have to get creative about generating some interest for the rest of the season; he’s not going to dangle any Gradels in front of us, clearly, but maybe he could take advantage of that team spirit by putting little Chris Dawson in a cage at the side of the pitch and telling Cookie, Charlie, Little Sam and co that if they don’t beat Nottingham Forest by two clear goals then a ravenous Kop Cat will be thrown in there with him.
It needs something. What’s bugged me this week is not that Andrew Umbers thinks he can talk to us all like idiots; I kind of assumed that would be the case anyway. It’s that we won an ultimately exciting game of football at Elland Road in midweek, but that ultimately it doesn’t mean anything because we’ve given up. Again. In the first week of March.
It’s an odd thing to say about a club as lacking in transparency as Leeds United; but sometimes it’s too transparent, and in the wrong places. Con me, fool me, say what you like about the ownership and the boardroom. But the one place I’m happy to be deluded into hoping is on the pitch, because that’s what football is supposed to be about.