Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1

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the square ball week: coincidentally

the square ball week: coincidentally


A week ago I was raving wildly at the prospect of Jordan Botaka replacing Sam Byram against Brentford and stepovering the Championship to new elevations of heavenliness. It didn’t happen.

Sam Byram did get dropped, which was one of the necessary conditions for Botaka to make his impact, but not in a way that allowed our new winger to delight. Instead of 180 minutes of Congolese wizardry, we got ninety minutes of Byramic purgatory against Brentford, and another half-hour and a penalty attempt of sorts against Ipswich.

Nobody looked good for Leeds against Ipswich, expect perhaps Charlie Taylor. Taylor, the Ringo to Lewis, Sam and Alex’s John, Paul and George, has pounded a steady drum at left back (and occasionally left wing) since the middle of last season, not unappreciated but underappreciated, given the Sullivan Show spotlights shining on his teammates. That everyone around him was rubbish on Tuesday night allowed Taylor to demonstrate his true worth; tidying up at the back when he could, easily our best defender in the game, and probably our best player.

Part of the problem ahead of Taylor was a lack of balance caused by a lack of Byram, which is typical, given the calls for him to be dropped for being rubbish. The test wasn’t fair on Sam. Rosler didn’t only change the personnel but the formation, to one that would have suited Sam much better; as the right winger of a four man midfield, instead of the right side of a three man strikeforce, Byram can play nearer the right-back position he used to call home, and burst forward from deep in the manner that caused so much chaos last season, and made him suddenly look attack-minded.

That when he came on Byram was caught up in a penalty claim controversy, tripped/diving as he burst into the penalty area, illustrated the difference; he could have played for hours against Brentford without crossing the line of the eighteen yard box. For half an hour against Ipswich there were suggestions that Byram could look his old self again, if things go right for him.

And they will. Sam Byram will be alright. If you overthink it, what has happened to him this season could be made into a mystery. But when you remember the old adage that form is temporary and class is permanent, and recall the class that Byram has shown he is capable of, particular in his debut season but also as recently as the first game of this, there’s no need to panic. The toes still twinkle as brightly as ever before Sam puts his boots on. It’s just his boots that seem to be packed with lead weights. He can always get a new pair.

Whether he wears them at Leeds is a different question. While Byram has been out of form, circumstances have conspired against him. The move to the right wing was supposed to be the catalyst for a Gareth Bale transformation from full-back to devastating attacker; he loved cutting in from the right last season, filling the empty space also known as Steve Morison and threatening goalkeepers. Now that progress is impeded, Sam may yearn for a spell in his old position; but there he’ll see Gaetaeno Berardi, cap on head and rifle in hand, patrolling behind the barbed wire of his character and his no-prisoners style. While Byram has struggled, Berardi has blossomed, and it’s no longer so easy for Sam to go back; and now, in his new position, there’s Botaka, ready and willing with all the tricks Byram would never attempt; unless it was a couple of seasons ago, at right-back, when he was confident and happy and would trick his way out of trouble in a way that made you think: that Sam, he could be a winger.

Now he could be nowt. Not for Leeds, anyway. The other factor that could be wearing upon Byram is that, simply, he’s employed by Leeds United, and that can be enough to wear anybody down. Byram broke into the team while Neil Warnock was manager, at the exact moment when the walls Ken Bates had built to his own vainglorious reign began to tumble, brick by brick; helped to the ground by GFH, who then took shovels and picks to the foundations, looking for treasure. Brian McDermott followed, then Redfearn (for a day), Hockaday, Redfearn again, Milanic, Redfearn again, now Rosler; do we chuck Gianluca Festa in the mix? Benito Carbone?

While the club has, against most expecations of Cellino, kept hold of its young playing talent, the playing side has been a warzone for most of the last year. Darko Milanic, remember, is still only on leave. A heartwarming tale of the value of Steve Thompson to the club came last season from the lips of Luke Murphy, who found an ally and confidante when Thompson came to the club and, finding someone with the time to give him some time, was rejuvenated and returned from the Development Squad. It was a great story of how a player can be saved from the brink by good coaching, but it relied on Leeds acquiring a good coach for it to happen, and made you wonder how many other players, wandering Thorp Arch like lost souls, just needed someone to talk to, but could find nobody. Perhaps Byram didn’t like to bother Thommo, because he was so busy with Luke; besides, things were alright for Sam back then.

There’s not a shortage of coaches at Thorp Arch now, so technically there should be someone there with the time and coaching talent to sort Byram out. While Leeds have kept the core of last season’s promise in the first team, and added some expensive and (hopefully, Botaka) exciting players around it, the summer of sanity has beefed Thorp Arch up, from the closed out of season holiday camp vibes of last summer to a full structure of first team and Academy coaching (although I don’t know if the swimming pool has been filled again with water).

We needed that. What Cellino showed when he spent the McCormack money on self-described garbage was that, for all his talk about building up the club (and buying back Elland Road) he’s very easily distracted by new and shiny things. The first team is where it’s at for Cellino. He likes the idea of young players coming through to represent the club; but resents the expense of running the Academy to make that happen. That, perhaps, is something Adam Pearson brought to the club in his four months here; a close eye on the structure, while Cellino revelled in the decorating.

Sam Byram, Leeds United • photographed on Beggar’s Hill by Shang-Ting Peng

Pearson also brought hints of the Leeds United that almost was. Pearson himself is the greatest representative of that; a part of the Leeds United board in its sure ascendancy, before Peter Ridsdale shot the whole thing into insecure orbit. Pearson’s time at Leeds didn’t seem halcyon at the time, but looking back, the mix of the recent successes of Howard Wilkinson with the forward-thinking approach of the Pearson board struck the right balance for bringing about steady improvement, if not interstellar travel. The days when we needed and signed a Michael Bridges, before the days when we stockpiled Robbies, Fowlers atop Keanes.

With Paul Hart returning at the Academy this month, Leeds reinstalled one of the key components of that era, the man who helped deliver Robinson, Woodgate, Smith, McPhail, Harte, Jones and the rest (i.e. Tommy Knarvik), ready to play alongside Bridges, Martyn, Batty. Former operations director from those days, David Spencer, was said to have been brought back in to oversee retail operations. Coaches installed at the Academy under Hart were people who had worked with Pearson before, at Hull, and overall there was a feeling of an old gang being brought back together, for another crack at unfinished business.

Some people have seen that as a precursor to a Pearson-led takeover; if, having departed, he comes back in as owner, the gang will be there ready and waiting. But that he was able to bring them all in while executive director suggests he didn’t need to be outright owner to restart Project Millennium at LUFC; as long as he was given licence, and interference was kept to a minimum, Pearson could build the club he wanted at Leeds, and do it the way it should have been done fifteen years ago.

Fifteen years ago, though, Pearson found the path not so much blocked as swept away by a freak storm, in the shape of an out-of-control and financially insensible chairman, ruled by ego and a glutton for profile. As Ridsdale took more control behind the scenes, and the club’s situation became more precarious, and as sense departed from its corridors once and for all, Adam Pearson departed, suddenly, too. He had seen the way things were going, and acknowledged that there was nothing more he could do to stop Ridsdale. He’d kept Peter in his box for about three years; but not the box had been replaced with a fishtank, and there was no chance his widening grin would fit in there.

Pearson’s latest departure from Leeds was more of a shocker than last time, a sudden announcement after the Ipswich defeat. He has since released a statement on the Hull FC website, assuring them of his 100% attention to managing the club and securing corporate sponsorship to ensure its future financial health, and avoiding any direct mention of his reasons for leaving Leeds United and returning to rugby league.

Without concrete reasons — and I’m classifying the open letter on the LUFC website as flimsy, here — speculation will rule about Pearson’s departure. Speculation, with some evidence of history brought to bear; history that shows that Pearson is good at seeing which way the wind is blowing, good at recognising when he’s wasting his time trying to do a good job, good at removing himself from the scene of trouble, before trouble occurs.

Although this has been a summer of sanity, and a welcome one, it has always come with an asterisk: that it coincided, if you believe in coincidences, with the arrival of Adam Pearson. There may be a similar asterisk in the record books of the future to mark the coincidence of the day he left.