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the square ball week: we can smile about it now

the square ball week: we can smile about it now


It’s sometimes surprising how the George Graham era is viewed these days, now more than 15 years have passed and the story has been told and retold.

‘Sergeant Wilko had lost it,’ goes the tale. ‘Cantona embarrassed us at Elland Road and Howard had to go. George Graham took over and it was dour stuff, but it was necessary, and he did a good job.’

He did do a good job, although I’ve never bought in to the idea that Wilkinson had ‘lost it.’ The season before had ended badly, but we had reached a cup final; the sales of McAllister (to join Strachan’s money-printing project at Coventry) and Speed (to rejuvenate his stale form with Everton) didn’t bode well, but he bought brilliantly in Lee Bowyer and Nigel Martyn, and took an expensive punt on Lee Sharpe; while the somewhat mystifying arrival of Ian Rush has to be set against his status as one of the greatest goalscorers of all time and that, after giving debuts to the likes of Kewell, Harte, Gray and Maybury, Wilko wanted an old head to coach them and the other youngsters coming through. 

The season started with a draw, a defeat, and two wins, before the calamity against Stretford. I refuse to believe Howard Wilkinson would have caused Leeds United to be relegated – he was far too pragmatic for that kind of nonsense, and while it might not have been pretty, he would have pulled it together. He did, after all, know who was coming through at Thorp Arch, in a team that would win the FA Youth Cup that season.

Nevertheless, George Graham arrived with a mission to ‘save Leeds United,’ and that remit excused the eight months of torture and tedium that followed. Because, whatever the situation, Leeds were really bad to watch that season. Really bad. 28 goals scored was fewer than anybody else in the league. The 38 conceded was the 3rd best defensive record, but the two better teams – Arsenal and Liverpool – scored 62 each. Deane and Sharpe were our joint top scorers, with 5 each. 

A typical line up from 1996/97 is enough to make a modernista tactics fan cry. Take the 0-0 draw at home to Derby in January. Martyn was absent so Mark Beeney was in goal. The defenders on the pitch were, in no particular order, Kelly, Dorigo, Palmer, Radebe, Molenaar, Halle and Jackson. The remaining three were Bowyer, Deane and Wallace, with Rush coming on as sub for Wallace. By the time April came around, Graham had used the transfer market – which back then closed in March – to bring in Derek Lilley and Pierre Laurent, reducing the number of defenders to six for a home game against Aston Villa – which ended in a 0-0 draw. Nowadays Barcelona are seen as revolutionary for playing without defenders. Playing without attackers was Graham’s own revolutionary gift to Leeds.

The sheer heartbreaking misery of a 7/10 split in favour of outfield defenders gets brushed aside now because it was ‘necessary.’ George Graham just had to get through the season with what he had – the Beesleys, the Rushes – ignoring the fact that starts for Andy Gray, the previous season’s brightest spark, reduced from 12 to 1, and for Harry Kewell, from 2 starts to 1 sub appearance; that Graham chucked our best striker on the ‘Brolin’ pile, deciding that Tony Yeboah’s injuries were a result of disinterest and shipping him out. It wasn’t that Graham was against using young players – just that Ford, Harte, Jackson and Couzens were all defenders; and it wasn’t that we didn’t need a striker – just that he bought Derek Lilley.

Those kinds of infuriating selections and decisions now would have us all howling at the moon. And there’s no point pretending it was any fun at the time. Crowds dipped below 26,000 for Southampton at home in March – a 0-0 draw – and as the team scored just two goals in the last six games of the season, nobody was feeling giddy excitement about great times ahead for our rejuvenated club. We were staring at Derek Lilley, and wondering why.

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, David Hopkin, Alfie Haaland, Bruno Riberio and David Robertson were why, of course; the summer 1997 spending spree transformed the team, hot sun glinting from Hasselbaink’s ear ring as he scored a debut goal against Arsenal on the first day of the season, ‘Jimmy’ on his back, raw power in his boots. Leeds marched up to 5th and Europe, scoring 57, conceding 46, and resembling a proper football team again. Gorgeous George’s master plan had worked – a dour season was through, scintillating rewards were ours.

We look back at that time now and laugh: at how a football club could keep a straight face while charging people to watch a midfield of Carlton Palmer and Mark Jackson; at the mere idea of Ian Rush playing on the wing; at singing ‘We’ll Score Again, Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When,’ as December clicked into January with 3 goals scored in 7 matches. We also nod sagely at the wisdom of it all – ‘It wasn’t pretty,’ we say, ‘But it had to be done.’ From the distance of more than a decade and a half it looks like a painful blip, a quick and incisive bit of surgery. The truth is they were eight bloody awful months that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Which is something that needs to be kept in mind as McDermott steers Leeds United through 2013/14. In his report on the Reading game at Fear & Loathing in LS11, Adam Jubb noted some of the similarities to the Graham era:

McDermott appears to have all the players on board and playing to their absolute maximum and reminiscent in a way to the early George Graham days (mercifully, not too much) has moulded a very organised and tough to beat unit. But at the moment, maybe we’re even tougher to get beaten by?

But Adam also talks about making moves in the loan market to bolster our “promotion push” – Albrighton, Becchio, anyone who can help McCormack. That presumes that a promotion push exists, despite David Haigh and Salah Nooruddin talking in terms of waiting two to three seasons for McDermott to pull it off. And they’re the guys for whom, the sooner Leeds go up, the sooner the value of their investment rockets. 

I can’t read Brian McDermott’s mind, but I don’t think a Wilko-style 89/90 promotion project is what we’re seeing here. This year we win more games than we lose and see what happens. Next year – next year is next year. Nobody, when Derek Lilley arrived for £500k in March ’97, expected Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to follow for £2m in July. When Pierre Laurent arrived from France, we didn’t think it was a prelude to Haaland, Hopkin and European qualification. 

We’re looking for Strachans and Faircloughs to lead us out of The Championship right now, to save us from any more Wednesdays in Reading. But we’re not there yet. These are the days of Lilley and Laurent – but with the bonuses of fewer defenders on the field, and better football. Seventeen years on, we look back at Graham’s first season, and laugh. Right now, I can look back at the Brighton game from a few weeks ago and laugh; I can look forward to the Burnley game tomorrow with a smile on my face. 

This might not be a vintage season, but at least we don’t have Carlton Palmer and Mark Ford in midfield. Stick with it. We’re having more fun than you think.

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