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leeds united 1-1 qpr: taking memories

leeds united 1-1 qpr: taking memories

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Jimmy Hasselbaink screwed Leeds United over, but he had his (financial) reasons, and I can’t be mad at him about it anymore.

It’s nearly seventeen years since Hasselbaink turned his back on Leeds United and forced through a move to Atletico Madrid. That wasn’t the anniversary being remembered at Elland Road this week — this week was about a sixteenth year of dignified remembrance of Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight. But as those anniversaries stack up, sixteen years, seventeen years, and this shadow of Leeds United Football Club less and less resembles the club we used to have, I’m by turns glad that today’s fifteen year old didn’t have to live through the awfulness of Chris and Kevin’s murders, and sad that they didn’t get to see the team we had back then play.

Those three seasons after George Graham’s first still rank among my favourites. After the famous never-scoring season that Howard Wilkinson began and Derek Lilley ended, Graham dipped into new owners Caspian’s wallet and bought astutely: Hasselbaink, Haaland, Hopkin, Hiden, Ribeiro, not David bloody Robertson though. Their arrivals set the baseline for the following seasons’ blend of honest effort — Wetherall, Molenaar, Radebe, Bowyer — and emerging class — Kewell, Woodgate, Smith, McPhail, that took the club to fifth, fourth and third in the Premier League.

Hasselbaink was a big part of that; twenty-two goals in his first season, twenty the next. And what goals they were. Jimmy’s goals didn’t have the beauty of Tony Yeboah’s best volleys, but that was because their power was more concentrated upon the tight focus of the target, the goal. Yeboah would loop a volley through the air of Elland Road, so the ball told an arc through the floodlit night, left a trail; Hasselbaink would just smash the ball along the grass as hard has he could, along the shortest route into the goal.

Hasselbaink really excelled in his ability to score from anywhere, at any given moment; within thirty-five yards of goal defenders couldn’t leave him be, because he might snap the ball past them into the net in a hot half-second. That was part of the thrill; not that the goals themselves would be memorable — apart from his last minute header in the title decider (for the wrong team, but eh) against Arsenal, most of them have faded — but that at any moment he might score. The potential and the anticipation made his 84 games as thrilling to watch as his 42 goals.

Then he realised the latent lucrative potential in his piledriver right boot and, just before the season when the club acquired his arch, playmaking foil, Michael Bridges, forced his way out to Spain and the big money. Relegation in his only season in Spain might have made him the fool, if he hadn’t scored 24 goals in 34 games as Atletico went down, emerging with his reputation enhanced and an even bigger move, to Chelsea. Of all clubs. That gave us the chance to throw the Piggybank catcalls his way, but as he kept scoring a goal every other game for Chelsea, then Middlesbrough, and as Leeds entered the post-Champions League tailspin, the gulf became too great for boos to cross, and one thought became clear: that with Hasselbaink, if he’d stayed, Leeds United might have won something.

Do you hate a player like that? Peter Ridsdale said United wouldn’t break the wage structure to give Hasselbaink the money he wanted. By the time Ridsdale had finished paying Robbie Keane, Robbie Fowler, Seth Johnson and the rest, the club was broke without a cup. The one time the fool was fiscally responsible, it cost United dear. Looking at the football since, and the football on display against the team Hasselbaink now manages, QPR, I can’t hate Hasselbaink for leaving anymore, not the way I hate Ridsdale for letting him go and mismanaging wildly afterwards. Seventeen years later, those 42 goals, and their celebrations — wide smiles and cartwheels the first season, inexplicable fury and slapping Ian Harte in the second — are something I want to remember fondly, because I loved them, and I’ve got nothing like them to love now.

Chris Wood’s goal against QPR was okay. Leeds managed to burst into attacks a couple of times, despite playing with only one in attack at home, again. Steve Evans seems determined not to offer any hint of entertainment, and given the sparse crowd, perhaps it isn’t worth it. When crosses did come over from Mustapha Carayol, Wood generally wasn’t on the end of them, until Murphy curled an inswinging pass from inside left onto Alex Smithies, who characteristically flapped so that Wood could pounce, getting everything on the ball to guide it in.

It wasn’t enough to make up for the too-familiar lack of invention or even of basic decency from Leeds United, who were better than QPR — apparently ‘outthought’ by Evans, or never expecting such a negative line-up at Ellad Road — but still couldn’t string passes together among a five man midfield. It also wasn’t enough to win the game, but that was Giuseppe Bellusci’s fault.

It was also Steve Evans’ fault. He was tinkering, pointlessly. I don’t know why Lewie Coyle replaced Stuart Dallas with five minutes to go, and Coyle and Berardi didn’t seem to know which way round they were supposed to line up down the right, and Sebestian Polter was able to break clear between them.

It was also Steve Evans’ fault for not dropping Giuseppe Bellusci after his game-losing intervention at Rotherham; Sol Bamba had a slight illness, apparently, but Evans made it clear that Bellusci was always going to start. And Bellusci was always going to do this; a liability in possession, either dwelling on the ball and losing it, or shanking Hollywood passes to the left-wing that put Carayol under pressure and turned attack into defence. Bellusci and Berardi between them should have had Polter under control, drifting wide out of the channel without much support, but Bellusci took him out in the penalty area anyway: penalty.

That finally gave Bailey Peacock-Farell something to do: picking Chery’s superb penalty out of his net, and regretting a lost clean sheet at the end of a quiet debut. It also gave Steve Evans questions to answer about Bellusci.

“He’s very good player,” Evans claimed after the game; “In a couple of games he’s done a couple of things you wouldn’t expect of him.” Evans also added: “I tell you what he is, he’s a man. He walked into the dressing room and was very humble to everyone. He did the same at Rotherham.”

Yes. Bellusci did the same at Rotherham, apologising to the dressing room for a result-changing mistake; but that’s not what you’d expect of him, despite him doing the same thing two games in a row. Various calculators have been brought into play on Twitter about this, and the running total of points lost to Bellusci mistakes this season is thirteen; enough to move United up to eighth. But he’s a very good player. Who has done a couple of things you might not expect of him.

Evans says he’ll have 100% confidence starting Bellusci on Saturday at Burnley, that the dressing room is tight knit, the players defend each other; but that now just feels like a particularly dumb way of driving a wedge between players and fans. After giving away the penalty, Bellusci was booed by a sizeable proportion of the fans inside Elland Road, and patience with him has absolutely gone. The on-field mistakes haven’t improved since his debut at Watford eighteen months ago. His self-before-side attitude towards taking (and missing) freekicks and getting involved wherever a red card might be on offer has gone beyond irritating. The off-field talk that he is, as a person, a collosal dickhead has become a clamour that’s hard to ignore; and while Silvestri, Antenucci and Doukara (until he started biting people) have shook it off by playing reasonably well, the refusal to play at Charlton has stuck to Bellusci, who was rumoured to be the ringleader then, and is believed to be his president’s favourite now.

In short, I loathe him. But there he is, wearing the white shirt of Leeds United Football Club, which gives him an honourable status that Jimmy Piggybaink had revoked when he left for Madrid. Or that’s the theory, anyway. Jimmy Hasselbaink, though; seventeen years ago he was giving me 84 great games, 42 great goals, as part of a team that, before it all went wrong, was on the cusp of getting so much right, and that was fun to watch and enjoy along the way.

Giuseppe Bellusci, for eighteen months, has been giving me a pain in the arse, and not one reason to go and watch him or Leeds United play football. In a week of memories, good and bad, I’ll take memories over this.

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