the square ball week: selling happyBack
These are gentle days of peace and contentment. Across Leeds, replica shirts are being washed, bar scarves are being ironed, and children are whispering happily the words ‘Leeds Leeds Leeds’ as they wait for a dream to take them to Elland Road on a match day.
Here’s Lucas the Kop Cat, waving, grinning; here’s David Haigh, also waving, also grinning. The club shop is giving out free flags. Paddy Kenny is giving out free sherbet dib-dabs. Rudy Austin has brought his stereo round. Things are alright.
Into this, or rather out of this, then, steps El Hadji Diouf. Too individual, too unreliable, and in the end too injured and too highly paid for the new, joy-obsessed Leeds United. Along with David Norris and Adam Drury, he’s reportedly been made available for transfer, although inevitably he has also reportedly not; likely enough, though, an exit is on the cards later, and more peacefully – so far, anyway – than the likes of me predicted.
At the start of last season, I was pretty unimpressed by the signing of Diouf. I remember heading for the opening game against Shrewsbury, when it was announced that he wasn’t just playing, but had Tony Yeboah’s no.21 shirt. There was a strong case for spending the rest of that afternoon in the pub, but we went to see what all the fuss was about anyway. There was indeed a lot of fuss, with a mixture of booing but mostly cheering as Dioufy warmed up on the touchline. I wasn’t sure what he was being cheered for; it seemed to be because we’d heard of him.
I never did quite get the adulation, even as I must admit he performed better than I thought he would. But then, I think he performed differently to how even his fans expected. Diouf was welcomed as one of us, a ‘Dirty Leeds’ player, even though his past record of dirty – spitting at kids and threatening to stab team-mates, for example – in no way corresponded to the ideal of toughness that the sixties and seventies Dirty Leeds template set down.
To his credit, Diouf never really kicked off that way at Leeds. By all accounts, he was a pleasure to speak to off the pitch, willing to give his time to community events and supporters; the image of him grinning with Mini-Diouf on New Year’s Day may have looked a little odd, but it was nice to see him smiling. Even his sending off, in the last home game of the season, was quaintly ridiculous, and I wonder if the referee didn’t red card the reputation that day, rather than the action. But he didn’t prove to be the dominant figure we expected, either. Not only was he not dirty, but save for a few gestures at away fans, he was almost meek.
So while those of us who expected, due to his reputation, that Diouf would cause trouble were proven wrong, the feeling that his reputation as a multi-million pound Premier League footballer disguised his latter shortcomings on the pitch persisted, with me at least. The Scratching Shed’s assessment of Diouf as a ‘favourite’ seems over the top. There were some nice touches and good passes; the assist against Burnley, in McDermott’s second match, was a particular moment of class. But there were long, anonymous stretches too, especially at the start of games, when Diouf would need a kick up the arse after twenty minutes before he’d get involved; then there was the lack of running, mainly because he couldn’t manage more than a laborious amble. Big head Diouf turned out to be all brain, but that brain is no good to us if he can’t run.
Ultimately his summer injury may have sealed his fate. An infected shin sounds nasty, if odd, but Diouf can’t afford leg injuries with his fitness, and he couldn’t afford to miss pre-season. That’s a double whammy right there. With a wage bill to trim before new signings can be made – and Phil Hay’s guide to Financial Fair Play helps explain some of the reasons why – and a tough Championship season which will call on all our resources, the only unfit passenger Leeds can afford to carry as he fights back to fitness is going to be 19 year old Sam Byram, with his whole career and at worst a megabucks transfer fee ahead of him; not 32 year old El Hadji Diouf, earning more than many at Leeds but unlikely to be match fit, well, when?
Diouf should also be easy to move on. That reputation of his will attract interest, with the Middle East a rumoured destination, something which ought to suit both his preferred lifestyle and his bank balance. Perhaps GFH can fix him up. Leeds have been waiting for someone to take Michael Brown and/or Danny Pugh off the books all summer, while players like Matt Mills and Gordon Greer stay tantalisingly beyond transferable reach. As Amitai WInehouse writes at The Square Ball, David Norris is an obvious and basically not good enough candidate to join them on the transfer list, while Adam Drury has had a tougher break; he never really established himself under Warnock, and seemed frustrated at his lack of matches, but didn’t let anyone down when he did play.
Rather Diouf, too, than Ross McCormack. Despite Brian McDermott saying after the Chesterfield game that talk of his transfer is a “non-story,” Middlesbrough seem determined to write the book, making bid after bid while Tony Mowbray says ominously, “I leave that to the men in suits.” Putting Diouf on the transfer list seems like the perfect riposte to the McCormack rumours, and I would urge Middlesbrough to make a bid if they so wish. We need money so we can spend money, sure, goes the message. But we’re not about to get silly with the players we want to keep.
There are still two weeks of the transfer window to go, though; fairly silly times. All is peace and tranquility, for now, even with the renewed interest in GFH Capital’s own sell off this week. The reports from Reuters, picked up by The Guardian and elsewhere, don’t add much to what we spotted here at The City Talking when the accounts were published last week, and which George Dyer explained at Ole1985. While a hushed restructure isn’t ideal, it seems like on this occasion the results aren’t seismic; they just need noting for future reference while the watching brief continues, that’s all.
There’s plenty of time yet for the peace to decrease – around the time Jim White arrives at Sky Sports and the transfer window ten-day countdown begins will be one point. But while the surface is calm and there are no fins breaking the water, take some time out to enjoy a mojito and life. Listen to The Square Ball podcast, in unusually upbeat mood this episode, check out young Alex Mowatt’s peach of a free-kick at Colwyn Bay this week, look forward with pleasure rather than apprehension to Leeds’ game on Saturday, and welcome Dave Jones to Elland Road with a Kop Cat/David Haigh style wave and a toothy grin. Okay, maybe not the last.
More from The City Talking: