charlton athletic 2-1 leeds united: all talkBack
On Twitter last week were a flurry of four-word reviews of Leeds United’s season. I could review the season in four letters, but I’ll resist that urge.
If we’re keeping it family friendly, I’ll take two words of the four and let the rest be silent: “All talk.”
Leeds United’s games have been a blessed relief from the constant argument that has surrounded the club, from the moment Massimo Cellino set the tone for the season by holding a 45 minute press conference to unveil a head coach who was barely worth a word. In their few weeks together Cellino and Hockaday defined all the empty talk that followed, the former waxing lyrical about his presidential promises, the latter eventually declaring himself part of United’s inevitable journey to the Champions League.
At Charlton on Saturday the talk made its way yet again from the sidelines to the pitch, as six players went missing, and one player’s reputation came back from being lost. And the team lost anyway, but that’s been the drill these past few weeks.
The Case of The Sick Six is difficult to crack because it has been told in second hand words and gestures that have obscured what little there is to be seen of the original events. A view of Friday’s drama would be fascinating, and that we don’t have one is support for the idea that Leeds United should just give in to inevitability and become the reality TV show it has been threatening to become for years.
Did all the players report at Thorp Arch on Friday, or did they phone in? Did they go down one by one on the training pitches, or visit Neil Redfearn’s office later? Was there a unified, inverted-Spartacus protest? Were there arguments, fights, attempts to drag them bodily aboard the bus, or did they just drive quietly away? If not all the injuries were genuine, were Silvestri and Antenucci actually hurt and caught up in a situation not of their making? And if so, why didn’t they make like Berardi, unfit but willing to make the journey anyway?
The actions of our stern-faced Swiss part-time filmmaker perhaps hold the key. By all accounts, Gaetano was not fit to play; and yet he was named on the bench in London anyway. Maybe, in the actions of his teammates, he saw something he wanted no part of, and traveling was a way of planting his flag in a different camp; the clearest indication that, real injuries or not, there were camps and flags and divides to deal with.
People judge you by the company you keep, and Berardi sat with Redfearn; people judge you, too, by the things you say, and it’s telling that the ‘official’ club spokesperson who gave the media the ‘official’ list of injuries, chose to stay ‘officially’ anonymous. Either they weren’t supposed to be speaking, or like Berardi, they didn’t want to be associated with the things they were being asked to say and do.
On the pitch actions speak louder than words, but it was a combination of both that gave us Steve Morison as an unlikely hero at The Valley. It was the goal they said would never be scored, and certainly not like this; cracked in from the edge of the area from a corner. The conditions were right for Morison – he’s always seemed happier in South London than West Yorkshire, which has been part of the problem – and it will be interesting to see if or when he scores for Leeds again.
The goal wasn’t the end of it for Morison, however; in fact it made him the main story of the day, and like everyone else, he had plenty to say to the waiting press. There was humility – “I’m an average player” – but there was that crucial and difficult cockiness too. Not having scored for Leeds for so long, well, “Some of that wasn’t my fault,” and, besides, the idea that he hadn’t scored for two years: “Well, that’s a lie.” Okay, Steve, but this is Leeds United, and while goals for Millwall might count for the self, they don’t count for the side – and that is still the point.
Where Morison did strike a chord was in his description of Neil Redfearn as a man alone, handing out hotel bookings and doing head counts on the bus; supported by the heart-rending photos of a solitary Redders putting out the warmup cones at The Valley. The picture Morison painted of Redfearn was of a man to be pitied, but it might have been more useful if Morison had thought of Redders as a man to be helped.
Alex Mowatt has stepped up in recent weeks, playing beyond his years like a goalscoring captain; players like Charlie Taylor and Sam Byram have been shoved out of position and given their all (Byram won another penalty at Charlton, flying into the penalty area like he’s been doing it all his life). Michael Tonge has stepped up over the season, becoming an assistant coach by default. But before his goal on Saturday, what has Morison done to help?
His goal and his comments made Morison a symbol of the protest against the Cellino Contingent (a preferable but probably just as unfair moniker to ‘The Italians’) but in recent weeks his inability to control a football and reluctance to get in the penalty area have been symbols of the problems Leeds have continued to have on the pitch. A week ago, against Cardiff, I watched as Morison tried to control a simple ball, letting it hit the back of his kicking leg and bounce off his standing leg for a throw-in. He can talk all he wants about his contribution over the past few months, but like that of many others, it has not been good enough. His first Leeds goal in 35 matches came in a defeat anyway, and his words, welcome as they are, aren’t a solution.
Neither are Neil Redfearn’s words, although Redders is in a much more awkward situation where you suspect that one wrong word – whether about a man-bag, or anything else – could result in the Thompson treatment. That makes it impossible for Redfearn to properly discuss what has to go down as a poor result at Charlton. Leeds played well for most of the game, went ahead, but lost; they should have won. While Morison bagged a goal and the praise, Billy Sharp fluffed a penalty and fluffed his role alongside Morison in a 4–4–2, but what can Redfearn say about him other than ‘I’m grateful he turned up’?
The events of recent weeks have created a situation where it’s impossible to judge whether Neil Redfearn is a good coach anymore. Results with Redfearn as head coach have been best with Steve Thompson as his assistant; we’ve lost five in a row since Thommo went. Redfearn’s ability to change things up has come into question, but then his resources from which to change things have been drained at the same time. Redfearn’s post-match assessments, Cardiff aside, have sounded increasingly listless; little wonder, as of everyone at Elland Road, while he probably has most to say, he has the least leeway to say it. And all of that appears to be by design.
There’s nothing Redfearn can say to justify recent results on the pitch, and nothing anyone can say to justify behaviour off the pitch, and nothing anyone can say to inspire confidence in the future, and yet they – and we – all keep talking all the same. At the time of writing I’m waiting for Cellino’s version of the weekend’s events to hit the internet; that’s bound to be helpful.
But there’s nothing else to say at this point other than that, with two games to go, Leeds United are falling apart. Whatever the truth of their situation, it’s hard to see a way back for The Sick Six. Balancing their talent against the chaos, it’s hard to see how players like Cook, Byram, Mowatt and Taylor will still be around next season.
That’s ten first team players down at one stroke, before we even think about the coaches or even the ownership. That leaves us to start again: leaves us to build a new team out of what’s left, a new team team around Steve Morison and Gaetano Berardi. They might both have talked a good game this weekend, but talking isn’t enough.