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the square ball week: seems funny

the square ball week: seems funny

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It’s funny how people talk about your club’s old players. It’s funny how they talk about your club, too.

The funnies were of the droll, heard-them-all-before kind this week, after a group of Eintracht Frankfurt fans arrived at their team’s friendly against Leeds with hardware, trying to look hard, and after the media everywhere decided that ‘same old Leeds’ was the easiest way to explain the scrapping that followed.

Leeds will never change, in some people’s eyes, and that’s why it’s always funny to hear people talk about our club. Mention a new Leeds player to someone unfamiliar. Let’s say, Casper Sloth. “Sloth, eh?” they’ll ask. “Midfielder? Like Bremner then is he, a vicious thug?”

Sloth, perennial loser of Aarhus’s goose-booing championships, would not fit most people’s stereotypical view of a Leeds United midfielder; much like most of the fans caught up in the trouble in Salzburg this week won’t fit most people’s stereotypical view of a Leeds United hooligan. But it’s hard to divert entrenched views away from preconceptions; which is what makes it funny sometimes when you hear people talk about your club’s old players.

Here, for example, is an assessment of Jason Pearce, from Wigan Athletic fan site This Northern Soul:

‘[This] will be the 27 year old Pearce’s eighth pre-season as a first team squad player with 356 first team appearances under his belt for Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Leeds United and Latics. Given his wealth of prior experience, Pearce’s comments surely carry some weight.’

Jason Pearce? Our Jason Pearce? I kinda liked Pearce as a player, but the main thing I remember of his brief time as Leeds United captain was his failure to step up during the Bellusci/Jerome contretemps; “I don’t really feel like I need to comment on it at all, to be honest, like…” muttered the captain of Leeds United Football Club, lamely. When it comes to comments, I’m not sure I’d give his much weight.

But there he is at Wigan, the senior pro. When he arrived at Leeds it was with a clutch of young player awards from Portsmouth, and a ticket to redeem at the potential counter; now, at Wigan, ‘Pearce is one of the pillars upon which Gary Caldwell will build his team.’

I did say this would happen. Only I said it a year ago, and I actually said it about Tom Lees. ‘People already call him a stalwart, aged 23; they’ll still be calling him that when he’s 33, and has captained Wednesday for six thousand games or whatever. Leeds will probably travel to Hillsborough that season for his testimonial.’

I wasn’t a million miles wrong. Lees was captain last season when Loovens was unavailable, and Wednesday are spending their summer fending off multi-million pound bids for a defender now described as ‘pivotal’, ‘sensational’ and ‘a revelation’. He’s the player Wednesday used to model their new away kit; we once put his face on a puppy.

As for Jason Pearce, the reason Wigan fans are happy with him this week is that the stern, steady professional is enjoying preseason this summer. ‘Pearce’s positive comments about Caldwell’s approach to the pre-season will be welcomed by Wigan Athletic supporters,’ writes the writer. ‘A year ago a disaster was on its way to happen.’

A year ago Uwe Rösler was Wigan Athletic manager, and in at least some Wigan fans’ opinions, preseason is where the good times under his management came to an end. The Championship playoffs and an FA Cup semi-final had been all good; but that squad ‘was to be brought to its knees by its pre-season training regimen’ before 2014/15 kicked off.

‘There are those in football who will say that players cannot be “overtrained”,’ the article continues, ‘but whatever happened in those training camps in Germany got the season off to a disastrous start.’

Wigan returned from Germany as a fall of poor knackered lambs, slaughtered on the regular when second half came around and their legs gave way. They were unable to physically compete in the Championship, despite a preseason that had included a training camp in Mitteleuropa and a win over Besiktas.

It was information about Rösler that I had gone seeking, and having found some, I hope that our preseason opinions of our new manager aren’t being regarded with the same bemusement by Wigan fans as struck me when I found them listening, listening mind you, to Jason Pearce. We’re all acting over here as if Rösler knows what he’s doing. There’s somebody from Wigan now, look, rolling their eyes, chomping a pie. Well, what do they know? He probably does, right?

I hope so. The game against Eintracht Frankfurt this week was close in terms of the score, but that owed a lot to some very mid-July finishing from their forwards. It wasn’t easy for Frankfurt, but their second goal was, and their win was much more possible than ours because they were the ones with the ball all the time.

It’s hard to see a different pattern against Hoffenheim on Saturday, or against Everton after that, and then after that we play Burnley at Elland Road and we get three league points, yeah? That’s the theory. Rösler has his views on preseason friendlies — by and large, he’s against them, because he’s not such a friendly chap when it comes to football — but presumably by playing better teams, we’ll presumably level up, and a 2–1 defeat to Frankfurt will presumably translate to an easy win over Burnley.

There’s an element of schoolyard logic to that. Hoffenheim beat Frankfurt 5–1 last season, so if we beat Hoffenheim this weekend, that renders Tuesday’s result void because we’re clearly the better team, right? Burnley have played Frankfurt twice — two legs of the Inter Cities Fairs Cup, in 1967 — and drew and lost. So if we reassert our superiority over Frankfurt by beating Hoffenheim, a winning start to the season will be nailed on.

But there’s some more secure football logic to it, too. When United returned from Italy last year we had learned nothing from hammering some locals 16–0, or from playing against ourselves, and the trip felt wasted; those games did us no good when losing 2–0 to Mansfield a week later. This time the opposition is stronger than Leeds will face in the Championship, and as a result the games are harder, and after competing hard against Frankfurt, the Championship should be a breeze. Perhaps the players will be surprised at how easy it all is.

Or maybe they’ll be surprised to actually have the ball at their feet. That’s what footballers like, right? The grass beneath, the ball in front, a game to play; but you can’t play the game without the ball. And after chasing Frankfurt around all Tuesday evening, the players might have wondered what sort of game they’re being asked to play.

Heavy metal football is what we’ve been promised, but Leeds don’t look ready for the heavyweight division we’re mixing in, not yet. At least, though, we’re learning things, which for us is an improvement over the last preseason. Let’s hope Rösler has learnt some things since last year, too.

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