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the square ball week: back to the future

the square ball week: back to the future

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Bradley Johnson is worth £6million on the open transfer market, now. And he’s worth it to teams at the top of the Championship, who ought — they reckon — to be on their way to the Premier League.

That’s where Bradders was until recently, anyway, and where he’s spent a lot of his time since Ken Bates decided he wasn’t worth ‘equality’ and let him go, for nothing, to help kickstart the ex-Leeds revolution at Norwich City.

We don’t always need to look back. Johnson is effectively old news now, and while that generation of players — Johnson, Howson, Snodgrass, Gradel — are still around, their every move doesn’t quite have the strong emotional pull it once had on Leeds fans. Snoddy’s comeback from injury at Hull — tweeting photos pounding the running machine — is a feelgood story straight from Rocky, while Mad Max’s cruciate injury so soon after coming back from France is a bone fide sobber; never mind Bournemouth, I was looking forward to watching him play again on the regular, and I dread to think about the effect on his career.

But they’re old news. And we can say that not only because they left so long ago, but because we now have the beginnings of a team that might nudge them out of our thoughts. Why think about Bradley Johnson, when we have Lewis Cook? What matters Jonny Howson, compared to Alex Mowatt? Is Snodgrass really significant to us any more, when we have Sam Byram? — or at least his shadow, that will hopefully fill out bodily again with the closure of the transfer window.

The transfer window closed on Leeds United with a sense of relief and warmth. We kept who we had to keep, got rid of who we needed to get rid of, and we signed what we needed to sign, if not necessarily who. We’ll find that part out soon enough.

Jordan Botaka is the name, signed from Dutch Eredivisie side Excelsior; not, in the end, Anthony Limbombe, from NEC. Perhaps one Eredivisie winger is much like any other; and equivalent to Will Buckley, or Lloyd Dyer, or whichever Dyer we were apparently after, or any of the other names that popped up over that final weekend as the subject of United’s interest, but not a follow-up bid.

When the news of Botaka’s signing broke, he was actually mid-game, on the pitch for Excelsior, which didn’t suggest much in terms of stable, long-term planning — he was one late tackle away from screwing up our transfer window. But he came through, our policy endured, and he’s a Leeds player now. “God is good! To God be the glory!” he said on Instagram. “Let’s do this!”

As an example of stable football club being run according to a plan and a policy, this transfer window has been held up. But unless, like in other recent seasons, you’re surveying the wreckage of a football club whose good players have all left, I’m not sure how you’re supposed to judge the success or otherwise of a transfer window in the week that it has closed, before another game has been played. Botaka is ready to do this; God is good. But he hasn’t done anything yet.

But Botaka has his chance, and if United earned one thing in this window, it’s a chance to let new players like Botaka, and relatively new ones like Chris Wood and Stuart Dallas, take their chances. They could be the future, and with that ahead of us, we can shrug off Bradley Johnson as Derby County’s problem: we have problems of our own. And for a change, they’re nice ones.

We aren’t completely letting go of the past, though. It sounds like a cliche, but the most significant move of this transfer window might not have been to do with a first team player coming, or a reserve player going, but with an Academy boss coming back. The return of Neil Redfearn might have raised the roof, but even amid the new found sobriety, the Elland Road regime isn’t ready for that kind of rapprochement. The comeback we have got raised eyebrows: the return of Paul Hart.

If you want to see Leeds credentials out on the table, Redders and Hart side by side, it’s a close run thing; both were suave servants, but Hart has the advantage of turning out on the pitch in a Leeds shirt, something we’ve all dreamed of doing; including Redders. It’s with the Academy that they’re both most closely associated now, though; Hart for the two FA Youth Cup wins, 1993 and 1997; Redfearn for the crop we’re enjoying now, Cook and Mowatt and Byram and Taylor and Phillips and others we haven’t seen yet.

Hart’s first gang might not have hit the heights; Noel Whelan went highest, but by and large the rest weren’t ready for the Premier League. But then, United’s training facilities weren’t ready for the Premier League. Thorp Arch opened after Sharp, Forrester, Tinkler and the rest had graduated, to a Howard Wilkinson blueprint that he entrusted to Paul Hart to build. By the time the vision was embedded and the next generation was through, we had what we can look back now and call the best youth system in English football. They went straight through, from Paul Hart’s school to the Champions League semi-final, hardly taking a breath.

It’s looking back that we realise how good we had it then. Not that nobody appreciated the Champions League when we were there, but back then we thought we were staying there; we had it good, but we thought we were going to get better. We got Tresor Kandol.

That we have to look back so far tells the story of how far we’ve fallen. It’s also the main question about the reappointment of Paul Hart. His young players achieved more than the Redders generation (so far); but they achieved it a long while ago, when football was quite a different thing. It’s eighteen years since a wacky Leeds United beanie was plonked on Woodgate’s bonce to celebrate the Youth Cup win; or, in other words, Lewis Cook’s entire life.

Bringing back Hart, and David Spencer, United’s former Head of Operations who has also returned to the club, seems like an attempt by Adam Pearson to rebuild the club as it was when he had it, when it held the keys to success in its hand; before Peter Ridsdale chucked the keys away and kicked down the door.

They say you should never go back; and if you want to go forward, you have to look forward. Shrug off Bradley Johnson, forget about Howson and Gradel and Snodgrass, look forward to the future and the players following Cook, Mowatt, Byram, Taylor. Football is nostalgic at heart, though, and the best way it knows to look forward is to look back. Experience is valued, and a track record, and Paul Hart has both at Leeds, in spades. Jordan Botaka? Let’s give him his chance, Hart his second, and hope.

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