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the square ball week: on the edge

the square ball week: on the edge

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Pre-season training is about building up, about gradually increasing intensity before the season proper begins. It’s tough, it’s harsh, and you can wonder at times if it’s worth the pain and effort, but eventually a peak is reached and you go into the first game of the season razor sharp and ready.

I don’t know about the players, but as a fan, I feel like this pre-season has left me feeling all the wires of my nerves. That razor sharpness is the edge the fans are all dancing on, as we wonder: what’s next? 

We were eased in; Farsley was about sunshine and breaking a sweat; Slovenia had beers and good times. The one big difference was Luke Murphy – a million pound signing was a summer drill the club hadn’t tried since 2007. Other than that, business was pretty much as usual, and that was usual for Leeds United. We’ve become used to things not changing, and that’s why the few weeks since have felt like such a series of shocks.

Taken together, it’s extraordinary how far the club has come in the last month. We had new owners already, but looking back, it felt like it was more in name than in deed; I wonder if the speed of the changes this month has even taken them by surprise.

Bates, Harvey, Allen, Williams: all gone. Howard’s Restaurant and Yorkshire Radio: closed. The club website: relaunched. Communication with fans’ respresentatives from LUSC and LUST: open. A new shop in Trinity Leeds: open. Ticket prices: reduced; ticket sales: increased. It feels like every day something happens, and it’s something different, and it’s something positive. 

Which is probably why the news from the Yorkshire Evening Post that new investment could be on the way that would enable the repurchase of Elland Road has been greeted with such fervour. The buy-back price of the ground is £15m, and any deal would presumably be designed to remove the burden of the £2m rent the club pays to Teak Commercial in the British Virgin Islands.

It would also be symbolic. I don’t buy the idea that Ken Bates secretly owns Elland Road or Thorp Arch, but the fact that Leeds United don’t causes an itch in my throat. There’s a question of control, too, as this morning’s sad news about Coventry City demonstrates what can happen when club ownership and ground ownership become separated and vested interests clash. Elland Road’s fate should be in Leeds United’s control, and the line in the YEP’s report that says “United have ‘no immediate plans’ to pursue Ken Bates’ proposals for an eight-storey hotel complex at Elland Road’s South East corner” suggests that control will thankfully not be exerted through draining building projects.

There has been a different feeling about the way this news has been received. The ‘here we go again’ sighs that greeted talk of investors over the last eighteen months is largely absent; ‘here we go’ seems to be the point now, as fans rub their hands. Perhaps its because this would be something tangible: this investment comes in and something specific is done with it. All the investment so far seems to have gone into keeping the club running, which is vital, but provides a less visible result.

Amid the excitement, that need to keep the club running remains top of GFH-C’s list. The undercurrent to all the recent work is money: Bates and his jet were a cost, Yorkshire Radio was a cost, the rent for the stadium is a cost. Thanks to the way Bates financed the East Stand work, season ticket money is owed to a third party company, so the club is pushing match day sales. From outside, it’s impossible to know if this a steady process to trim the fat from the amorphous beast Leeds United had become, or whether a panicked accountant is fighting financial fires somewhere in the East Stand catacombs.

The one thing that hasn’t seen investment, or change, or dramatic alteration, is the team. Luke Murphy aside, we’ve brought in two free strikers; Murphy was paid for from money raised by moving players on. That has remained the rhetoric: players must go out for players to come in, and GFH-C’s investment in the squad must remain at a balanced zero. While the fans wear huge grins as they listen to Bates’s grumbles, Brian McDermott has as often been seen frowning. He hasn’t got the wingers he wanted, so can’t use the formation he would like; he hasn’t signed the leader he says we need, so will be less confident in his team. Well, it’s not even his team yet – these are still pretty much the same players from last year.

There’s a risk here, because while all the positive talk has been about the changes off the field, nobody will be talking about the closure of Howard’s Restaurant come 3pm on Saturday. What’s more, 33,000 happy fans will be arriving at 3pm – an astonishing number given our recent past – and the battle will be to ensure that there are still 33,000 happy fans at 5pm. GFH-C have replaced talk with action in the last month, and it’s worked like a charm so far. We’ll only know for sure, when the talking stops in the stands and the action starts on the pitch, whether that charm extends to Brian McDermott and the team.

The first issue of the season of The Square Ball magazine is undoubtedly charming, and will be on sale before the game at the same old bargain price of £1.50. In fact, you can already buy the digital download version for only £1. It’s 56 full colour pages of the best independent writing you’ll find anywhere about Leeds United Football Club, including more thoughts on the summer, a review of the Slovenian trip and the visit to Shelbourne, previews of the season and the players that need to go big this year, looks back to the old Leeds Leeds Leeds magazine and our uncertain FA Cup form of the early sixties, reviews of Neil Warnock’s two (yes, two) autobiographies; there’s even a play. Yes, a play. Plus a pull out squad poster and a tribute to Ken Bates. After all, he wasn’t all bad, was he? Ahem. Find out more about The Square Ball magazine and podcast at www.thesquareball.net

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