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the square ball week: leeds united & the guarantees of nothing

the square ball week: leeds united & the guarantees of nothing

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The transcript of Phil Hay’s interview with Andrew Umbers this week runs to around 3850 words. It’s hard work to read. It reads like it was even harder work to get.

The version edited down for print in the Yorkshire Evening Post is just over 500 words, but there’s a story in the extra 3350. Only it’s a story about Phil Hay and his fellow local sports journalists, rather than a story about Andrew Umbers; and as I’m sure Phil will tell you, in his line of work the journalist should never be the story.

Well, it’s about time that truism got turned on its head, if only this once. There has been a story about local sports journalism in Leeds over the past decade, and it’s not been a very fair one to the journalists themselves.

They didn’t, we’re told, press Ken Bates enough; there was never enough media pressure on Shaun Harvey; GFH and their PR crews were given too much leeway; until teeth were eventually bared at Massimo Cellino, a man who many Leeds fans felt didn’t warrant that attention. Until recent events made it clear that he does.

There’s a perception out there that Ken Bates was underreported while at Leeds United, and Massimo Cellino has been overreported, but this misses another truism; that journalists don’t make the news, they report it. Right to the very end of Bates and Harvey’s time in charge, perpetual third wheel Peter Lorimer was able to proclaim that they’d “Done bugger all wrong”, and publicly the club always maintained that facade: here was Leeds United, doing bugger all wrong, insisting that it was being run well, but nevertheless inspiring anxious feelings in many people that something really quite wrong was going on in the background.

Reporting on that anxiety was a tough task, because ‘Thousands of People Have This Nagging Feeling That Something’s Up With Ken Bates’ isn’t a headline that’s likely to make many editor’s hearts beat faster; until more than a thousand of those people took to the streets to march from City Square to Elland Road, and hearts did beat faster in the YEP newsroom, and it became a headline and a story that went straight to the front page. That’s news.

Massimo Cellino is a different animal to Ken Bates; a rare animal, in that he manages at times to make even Ken look sophisticated in his approach. Ken is the man they couldn’t hang – although I’m sure he’d love to see hanging brought back – but Massimo is the man who can’t help but get caught; more than that, he’s the guy who always gets the blame. Just look at the last ten days: pretty much everybody has responded to the most recent chaos by wagging disapproving fingers across the Atlantic to Miami, where Massimo has sat up surprised from the Louis Vuitton towel he nicked from his daughter, interrupting his tanning sessions by the pool to hold his palms outstretched and insist, ‘Don’t be looking at me guys, I’m banned!’

If Massimo Cellino has been overreported it’s because there has been too much stuff to report, and far from revel in it, I’m sure Phil Hay, Adam Pope and co. must long for the days when all they had to go on with the club’s owners were unreportable suspicions, rather than steady streams of Italian court documents; translating, interpreting and communicating them to a supporter base that variously has a right to know about this stuff, a desire to stick its fingers in its ear and ignore this stuff, and a fierce urge to argue every minor detail of this stuff. And this stuff, remember, is not why people like Phil and Adam got into the sportswriting game in the first place: nobody studies sports journalism hoping that one day when they grow up they can spend their days researching the Sardinian court system. But Massimo Cellino, whether in Leeds, Miami, or Portugal scouting god-knows-what players; whether in court, the boardroom or in Fibre; has been inescapable this season, and has dominated reporting, as he has dominated Leeds United, in an overt way that Bates and Harvey never quite did.

That’s not to say that during the Bates and Harvey era the work was not done, and that’s why I’m glad the YEP decided to publish the transcript of Phil’s conversation with Andrew Umbers this week. Bates and Harvey may have been unreportable by comparison, but it was never for want of trying. I’ve heard old yarns about Ken spending his days phoning local Leeds journalists one by one to berate them at length about this and that, and when you remember how Ken and Suzannah used to like nothing better of an evening than to ring round Leeds United supporters to berate them at length about this and that, you can easily imagine that those stories are true. Again, though, ‘Angry Old Man Phones Local Newspaper to Complain’ is anecdotally amusing, but not newsworthy.

What also used to go on were conversations like this week’s with Andrew Umbers. Umbers is Harvey reincarnated; compare Harvey’s comments last October about how football fans shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about how football clubs are run as businesses to Umbers this week: “From a fans’ perspective, they’re not that interested in the business side. They’re interested in the football side.” Like Harvey, that’s how Umbers would like things to be; but like Harvey, it’s people like Umbers that mean that can no longer be the case.

There will have been transcripts like this of equally frustrating and logic-defying conversations with Shaun Harvey over the years, and Phil Hay might look back and wish those in charge at the YEP had both the web platform and the editorial confidence to publish them back in the day. The transcript is 3850 words of textbook tooth pulling, as Umbers bats back every inconsistency as if such inconsistency were the most normal, natural thing in the world; and it’s only by reading it all, once, that you can appreciate what Phil Hay’s life is like, every day.

That inconsistency was actually best summed up in a remark by Massimo Cellino to The Guardian’s James Riach, who asked him who is making the decisions while he’s banned. “I wish I could know … That’s the problem, nobody is making the decisions. That’s the truth.”

Andrew Umbers’ interview with Phil Hay is an extended defence of that situation: nobody is making decisions, but decisions are being made anyway. The first 820 words of the transcript are all about the club’s first football team, its injury mysteries and the situation of the head coach, before Umbers undercuts it all by announcing: “You have to remember that I’m in charge of the business side of Leeds United, not the footballing side. I want to be clear about that.” In other words, everything he had spoken about up until that point was nothing to do with him.

So who is it to do with? On Neil Redfearn’s future, Umbers says: “That is Mr Cellino’s decision … It’s not my decision … You’re going to have to refer to Massimo on that when he comes back.” The football side would appear to be unequivocally in the hands of Massimo Cellino, but he is currently banned, and so the decision to suspend Steve Thompson…?

“Nicola Salerno had a responsibility to look after all the footballing side of Leeds United post Massimo’s disqualification. He took that decision … Steve Thompson had one boss, Nicola Salerno. That boss decided that Steve Thompson was not going to be part of our set-up … Those are the authorities vested with Nicola Salerno post Massimo’s disqualification.”

And Nicola Salerno now…?

“Nicola is absent,” due to the reaction to Thompson’s suspension, according to Umbers; “He’s a fantastic guy, a lovely guy, and he’ll remain absent. We’ll see what happens in the close season.”

So while Massimo’s been away… “He’s been in Miami for two to three months. You should ask the staff who’s been running the business and they’ll probably give you a different answer to what you think. On the football side it’s been run by Neil Redfearn. On the business side it’s been run by me.”

It’d be nice to read a transcript of Neil Redfearn’s response to the news that the football side has “been run by Neil Redfearn” for the past two to three months, although I suspect that’s one the YEP couldn’t print without offending grandma. But by simple deduction, you have to conclude that Umbers is right here, in fact if not in spirit: because if Neil Redfearn has not been running the football side, who has? There is no one else left.

In this vacuum, where there is nobody to make decisions and yet decisions continue to be taken, among the decisions being taken are decisions about the futures of the club’s players; which, remember, is nothing to do with Andrew Umbers, who is only responsible for the business side. Nonetheless:

“We made it a policy to play [our Academy players]. If they’re good enough, play them because we’re going to back you. Leeds United do not want to lose any of these young players. Leeds United will not lose any of these young players … We’re in the process of working through player contracts for all of our first-team squad and also our scholars. I can only tell you that it’s going to be a very positive message … We’re not selling our best players. We are not selling our young players … The fans can be assured – and they’ll judge me on my word – that you’ll see not only those young players but an improved squad by the start of next season.”

This is where the transcript is valuable, because this is where we can hold Andrew Umbers to account; or at least, we think we can. Because what are all those confident proclamations about the future direction of the football side worth, from the mouth of a man who says, “I’m in charge of the business side of Leeds United, not the footballing side. I want to be clear about that”?

And which players is he talking about not selling? None of them, specifically – because if he was specific, then we could really hold him to this. When Umbers says, “Leeds United will not lose any of these young players,” it’s in a conversation about “the under–15s, under–16s, the 21s.” When he says, “We’re not selling our best players,” it’s too subjective to be meaningful: Souleymane Doukara might not be for sale, but is he really one of the club’s best players? Umbers may say so, but then he couldn’t possbly comment on football.

When he says we’ll, “see not only those young players but an improved squad by the start of next season,” those young players are still not defined, and I’m fairly sure we were told we had an improved squad this season; a squad that’s now on course for its lowest Championship finish since relegation in 2007.

“We’re in the process of working through player contracts for all of our first-team squad and also our scholars,” says Umbers. “I can only tell you that it’s going to be a very positive message.”

Aye. We’ve had the ol’ flurry of scholar contracts used as a sign that everythng’s going great before; wherefore art thou, Monty Gimpel? And Jonny Howson’s sale was a “very positive message” at the time – our wantaway captain turned as if from lead into gold for Simon’s chest.

Phil Hay asked Umbers if his guarantees about the best players and the young players are something he would resign over if they don’t come to pass – “Because it won’t be your decision ultimately” – and while Umbers says the fans “will judge me on my word”, he doesn’t say, ‘and I’ll resign if my word turns out to be worthless’; “I’m just aware of what we’re doing and what’s going on” is the flimsy non-statement he prefers.

The term I prefer for the whole transcript is ‘evasive’. There are confident gestures from Umbers in there, but ultimately that’s all they are: gestures. His guarantees about the futures of our best young players would only be worthwhile if he had named, specifically, Lewis Cook, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor; and even then his guarantees stretch no further than the start of next season. The start of next season is not the end of the transfer window, a new contract is not a guarantee of non-sale (just ask Mathieu Smith), and the word of a Leeds United chairman is hard to come by and pretty much useless when it’s found.

“I think, with respect, there’s been a trust issue here for donkey’s years,” says Andrew Umbers. “Fifteen years maybe. It’s always the Leeds United way.” And Andrew Umbers, with respect, is doing nothing to solve that.

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