the square ball week: leeds united from withinBack
Never underestimate the capacity of Leeds United to undermine itself, implode, self-destruct, however you want to term it.
And we can’t pin it all on Massimo Cellino either, because we were doing this long before he came along. He just happens to be the toxic ingredient Leeds United was lacking for it to take the crazy to the next level. He’s the Mentos in our Diet Coke, if you like.
At the time of posting this on Good Friday morning – and timestamps are important at Leeds United these days, so you can know that by the time you read this, you might know a lot more than I know – at the time of posting, nobody knows what the hell has gone on. Or is going on. Or is going to go on, probably quite soon after breakfast.
Yesterday’s schedule was simple and clear: Leeds Fans LLP would announce their firm plans in the morning, then it would be time for Neil Redfearn’s press conference. Team news and Lewis Cook’s injury would be the main topics, with perhaps some comments from Redders about the need to protect his young players.
What wasn’t expected was that Redfearn would be talking about the need to – and the impossibility of – protecting his staff. Steve Thompson was reportedly handed a letter when he arrived at Thorp Arch, informing him that he was suspended immediately and that his contract will not be renewed in the summer. In other words, he’s sacked.
If he knew it was coming it doesn’t sound like he said anything to Redfearn, who in his press conference didn’t sound like he knew what it was all about. That suggests the letter came either as a bolt from the clear blue, or came as a result of something so trivial and banal that neither Redfearn or Thompson thought it would ever lead to this.
If the reports since, about Antenucci’s contract and team selection arguments, turn out to be the basis for the letter, that would push this through the trivial and banal and into the totally ridiculous; especially given Redfearn’s comments earlier in the week about how the right to pick the team as he sees fit is written into his contract. It’s natural to assume that contractual detail would extend to cover and protect the involvement of his assistant, and whosoever else Redders saw fit to take advice from.
The implied logjam is around two contracts worthy of Samuel Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd: one giving Redfearn control that Cellino never intended to allow him to wield; the other setting Antenucci a target that Cellino doesn’t want him to meet. (And that’s hardly a high mark Mirco was asked to aim for either; twelve goals? I thought he’d been signed in hopes of scoring double that.)
So perhaps, while I said earlier that this doesn’t all rest on Cellino’s shoulders, that the utter weirdness of Leeds United must have played its part, we do have to be honest here and say that really Cellino is to blame for the cause and its consequences.
But look closer, and we need to spread that burden a bit more. It’s not just the dysfunctional way he is, and it’s not just the dysfunctional way the club has been, but it’s the culture that has grown within the club over the last 10–15 years that has brought us to where we are today, where bombs like this go off and the supporters and the press and the world at large are left on the edges wondering what the hell has happened.
From Peter Ridsdale, who promised us sustainable success as he gambled the club’s future; through Ken Bates and Shaun Harvey telling us “supporters support” and as such should keep their noses out; to GFH claiming to be building a long term legacy as they searched desperately for a profit and a way out from the day they arrived; to Cellino, who can sack who he wants and hire who he wants whenever he wants, sometimes both within the same breath, and never with any explanation beyond “Have I told you the one about the watermelons?”; through all them and others a culture has been created at Elland Road where it is normal for no one outside the owners’ immediate circle to have a clue what is going on.
That’s the most frustrating thing about Thompson’s suspension: it’s inexplicable. There are theories, and I have nudged one above that feels plausible to me, but I don’t know, and you don’t know, and none of us can explain what has really happened, let alone understand it.
We watch Leeds United all the time, like hawks, not because we want to devour it, but because we love it. People are glued to Twitter every minute of the day looking for updates because they care. And yet the more we watch, and the more that there superficially is to see in this constantly streaming era, the more insular Leeds United becomes. It acts behind a black curtain and we don’t see the process. We see the results, whether we like them or not.
It is ironic that the pre-approved schedule for the day should have included the outline of Leeds Fans LLP’s plans, because the suspension of Steve Thompson cuts right to the heart of what fan ownership actually is. Forget about £100 here or a share there; what it’s actually about is smashing through the hard shell of that insular, secretive culture, getting into the room and into the middle of it and asking, okay guys, what the hell is actually going on? And if the answers aren’t forthcoming, it’s about looking for ourselves until we find our own answers and are satisfied.
It might not change the results. Minority fan ownership is unlikely to be enough to stop Cellino in his tracks when he’s in the mood. But it would give us a view from the inside of that mood, so that instead of being constantly surprised and bewildered by his actions, we can hear a hopefully sane voice close to the action and loyal to the fans say: ‘I was there when it happened, and I saw the way it went down. This is what it’s about; this is why it happened.’
On days like yesterday you can’t overestimate the value of that; the value of knowing, of just knowing. We’ve learned through all the trials of the last fifteen years that it’s essential that we watch Leeds United’s owners; but even as we’ve learned the lesson, we’ve watched from an ever greater distance. To bring this club back to what it should be, something that brings joy and pleasure to its supporters, we need to start watching from close up again. More than just close up; from within.