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leeds 0 – 2 nürnberg: ken and the art of the uncanny

leeds 0 – 2 nürnberg: ken and the art of the uncanny

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Saturday’s friendly with Nürnberg already had a surreal feel to it. The mid-table Bundesliga side wasn’t an opponent anyone expected or knew much about, and were exotic yet unglamorous like a foreign holiday next to a chemical works. They brought more fans than many league sides, with banners and choreography, a strange sight for the 7 or 8,000 Leeds fans who had turned up to watch a kick about. Then there was Leeds: wearing a new away kit at Elland Road, which is always discomforting. 

Finally, add the most surreal touch of all: the apparent freedom from Ken Bates. Like rescued brown bears being released into the wild, Leeds fans in various states of hangover and drunkenness didn’t seem sure what to do. They sniffed the air, looked nervously around them, and wondered if it might not be safer back in the cage. After eight and a half years, Friday’s brisk announcement that Bates had “ceased to be president” would need some time to sink in.

The game gave itself to that spirit of strangeness. Ginczek scored for Nürnberg after just a few minutes, but you had to be paying attention: the linesman presumably was when he declared the hooked volley from a crossed freekick to have crossed the line, but the net wasn’t rippling, the players looked confused, and for all I knew that flag meant offside. None of the players had looked offisde, but then, the ball hadn’t looked like it was in the goal either. It was 1-0 to Nürnberg, though, and you already sensed it wouldn’t be Leeds’ day.

Nürnberg looked several steps above what Leeds have to offer, which is perhaps to be expected from a Bundesliga team. They had pace, purpose and invention, while Leeds had toil and effort and Luke Varney on his own up front. I don’t know if it’s the formation, the players, or just a lack of match practice, but Leeds don’t look sharp. Passes go astray, shots go wide, simple things just don’t come off. There’s a lack of conviction in what the players do, a failure to see things through. Caught out by some swift passing, Stephen Warnock raced back to slide the ball away from Nürnberg’s winger. Scampering after the ball to prevent a corner, he took an almighty swing at it, kicked the corner flag, and landed on his arse. Corner. But at least the tackle had been decent.

The players may also have been distracted by the bizarrely aggressive edge the game took on. Not since David Batty kicked lumps out of Sampdoria in 1992 has a friendly been so tetchy. Ross McCormack seemed to take a strong dislike to everything around him, not a good sign if he’s going to be involved in the midfield this season. Early in the second half Paddy Kenny was squaring up to Schafer, which would have been fine if they weren’t both goalkeepers and should have been a hundred yards from each other. The Leeds players seemed willing to lamp somebody, anybody, which made it a risky move by Peltier when he let a corner bounce in the box and Nürnberg scored their second. Kenny, fists clenched and eyes bulging, stared after him in disbelief as Peltier returned sheepishly to full back. 

As we knew, there’s a lot to work to be done before the Brighton game on Saturday, and most of the work needs to be done in the transfer market. McDermott has already shifted from the diamond to a new formation with a lone striker – on Saturday Varney, Poleon and McCormack were sharing the job around – but it’s a bad sign if, determined to find a formation to fit the players he’s got, he’s still tinkering with a game to go. Putting round pegs in round holes is sensible, but it might be easier just to buy some wingers.

That means GFH-C and David Haigh need to pull out a surprise this week, and not get distracted, as we all are, by Ken Bates. The statement announcing his cessation was refreshingly to the point, but of course that left an information void Ken was only too glad to fill. Speaking to anyone who would listen on Sunday, Bates confirmed what we must have known in our heart of hearts: he’s no longer president because of some really petty nonsense, and we’re all off to court.

The facts of the case actually seem pretty simple. Ken Bates was still a director of Leeds United until 30th June, though not of parent company Leeds City Holdings. Before resigning his football club directorship to become president, he negotiated a contract worth £500k to fly him to and from Monaco on a private jet – in pounds, not euros, he stresses, which apparently will protect us against fluctuations in fuel prices. His contract as president, according to Ken, said he was entitled to expenses in the same manner as the last eight years – during which time he has not, he reminded us, taken a penny out of the club – and as far he was concerned he had the authority to commit the club to the jet. GFH-C have taken a different view about that and sacked him, by hand-delivered letter, while he was on holiday. Ken had plenty else to add, about Gwyn Williams and “the heart of the club,” about the directors not communicating with him (take the hint, Ken!) and, most ironically of all, about how GFH-C need to put their hand in their pocket and buy some players, or the fans won’t be happy. “I spent £20m on the stadium,” said Ken, “You couldn’t buy a cup of tea there before.” 

But the nub is that either Ken Bates had a contract in June saying he could negotiate a private jet for himself, or he didn’t, and that’s that. It’s entirely typical of Ken Bates that he should do himself out of a presidency because of something so trivial, for someone apparently so rich, as half a million quid for a private jet. 

It’s also typical that he should have let himself be out-manouevred by new owners yet again. "I look forward to working with Roman Abramovich to achieve even greater things,” he said in July 2003, when the Russian turned up just before Chelsea went bust. Bates got a deal then to stay as chairman for another season, then become life president, but he gradually had the chairmanship, his programme column, his supper club and his place on flights to European games taken away, until in March 2004, he blamed a “clash of cultures,” quit, and retreated to occupy his Stamford Bridge penthouse so the ground couldn’t be improved.

For Chelsea and Abramovich 2004, see Leeds and GFH-C 2013, as Bates has yet again been put in the corner. The satisfaction of seeing him lose out on another presidency, after Anegada and after Chelsea, is small, though, because compared to the stature of our club, the stakes seem so insignificant. This is where Leeds United are: where £500k for a jet determines a presidency, and £500k for a winger could determine our season; with expensive court cases now pending from Bates and Gwyn Williams. Petty luxuries, a threadbare squad and a costly legal team: it’s got a familiar ring to it.

One aspect of surrealism is the uncanny, the feeling you get when something unfamiliar seems strangely familiar. Leeds United playing at Elland Road in a chamois leather coloured away kit, for example, is familiar yet unfamiliar, and feels weird. So it is with the familiarity of Ken involving our club in a court case over some needless nonsense, only with the unfamiliar sight of him opposing us in the courtroom. And so it is with the team. Brian McDermott is new, Luke Murphy is new and the team’s kits are new; but there’s something uncanny about the way this all feels so much the same. 

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