Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1

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the square ball week: witches & friends

the square ball week: witches & friends


•• by Moscowhite

“We hate it when our friends become successful,” sang Morrissey. “And if they’re northern, that makes it even worse.” Born on the wrong side of the Pennines, and wrong about this; I don’t think he was ever a fan of Leeds.

Leeds United’s season ended in that deadly 0–0 draw with Rotherham almost a month ago; truth is, our season ended long before that. But it wasn’t quite over. Perhaps that’s why Massimo Cellino has such a downer on end-of-season holidays; something can always still happen. In his case, it’s bewildering press conferences and relentless face-spiting over the simple task of hiring a head of recruitment; but that’s only Massimo’s case. Which is a very special case.

For a lot of Leeds United fans, the case — and the chance of some simple escapism — was the Football League play-offs. Southend vs Wycombe, Preston vs Swindon, Middlesbrough vs Norwich. Not even an L to be seen, let alone an SD and two Es. But Leeds ran through it all like writing in rock.

The cast list started with the marginal: Hogan Ephraim, one loanee of thousands; Paul Dews, a press officer; Mark Cooper, son of a Revie era legend; Luciano Becchio, not marginal to us, but to his current (until this midweek) club. It ran to the integral: Paul Huntington, Neil Kilkenny, Bradley Johnson, Adam Clayton; to varying degrees parts of our League One interlude and the climb away from the depths. Then it reached the inseparable. Jonny Howson. Simon Grayson. Glynn Snodin. Jermaine Beckford. Even, cloaked somewhere on a dark hill over Deepdale, Peter Ridsdale.

You could slide a sheet of paper between the last five and our club, but it would have to be a very thin sheet, and it wouldn’t be easy. And all five were celebrating by the end of Bank Holiday Monday. Their weekend had it all: Wembley, goals, trophies, medals, honours; overall, it had achievement. Take a look at Beckford, Grayson and Snodin celebrating in the Royal Box at Wembley, and take a look at three guys celebrating a job well done, enjoying the glories that come your way when you do your job well. Or, Simon and Glynn might argue, when you’re allowed to do your job well.

They, with Kilkenny and Huntington, weren’t the only ex-Leeds in the Royal Box at the end of the League One final; and as our wandering sons collected their medals and gladhanded the dignitaries, I can’t have been the only one willing somebody to take a swing at Shaun Harvey; well, willing Glynn Snodin, because it was never really likely to be anybody else. He and they played it cool, though. Concentrate on the happy. The snakes can wait.

Happy is what it all was. At Leeds United, we don’t hate it when our friends become successful, because we remember who our friends are. Even before the League One era, Simon Grayson and Glynn Snodin have history stretching back to the mid-eighties; Snodin is credited with reviving and popularising the Leeds Salute. How can you not feel happy when the guys who fired up their Preston team for their FA Cup match at Old Trafford by scrawled a motivating message about January 3rd on a whiteboard taste glory; especially when you know damn well that, at some point (or several points) during the celebrations they’ll have banged out a drunken rendition of Marching On Together, with nananas in the right places and elbow joints creaking.

Jermaine Beckford is a slightly different matter. Jermaine is loved, now, for his promotion-winning goal against Bristol Rovers, but like Max Gradel — although for slightly different reasons — his reputation was on the line that day. The luminous glory of his winner at Old Trafford had been dimmed by the knowledge that he’d put in a transfer request just before that; in the months that followed, as Leeds’ ascent to the Championship threatened to topple into a ravine, Beckford was the focal point for the fear that it might all go wrong: and it would be all his fault. Sixteen goals in the league before Christmas, nine after; he was benched for the four games before the crunch Bristol Rovers game, for reasons suspected at the time to be as much to do with his attitude as his form.

Of course, when he brought him back for the vital last match, Grayson didn’t just pick him, he made him captain; a call straight out of the Howard Wilkinson ‘Don’t tell Shutty about Bobby’s ankle’ playbook.

But that was Beckford then, fluctuating wildly between hero and zero; and in a way that’s been Beckford throughout his career. His early days after arriving at Leeds from Wealdstone were Paynteresque until loan spells at Scunthorpe sorted him out. Submit a transfer request that rocked Leeds United’s promotion ambitions; score the winner at Old Trafford. Make petulant gestures and refuse to shake Simon Grayson’s hand when substituted against Southampton, bringing down boos from the Elland Road fans; score two goals in each of the next two games. Fail to make the grade in Chelsea’s youth system; run from one penalty box to the other to score a winning goal against them in the Premier League for Everton. Even this season has Beckford has clung for dear life to the swinging pendulum of his career: considering early retirement in February due to the effects of a severe ear infection; scored a hat-trick at Wembley in the Beckford Final in May.

The story of Beckford’s career contains more peaks and troughs than the average; and when he does retire, it’ll be with more achievements than the average, too. Since winning promotion with Leeds, he’s been Everton’s top scorer, been transferred for £2.5million, played international football and scored for Jamaica, scored a hat-trick at Wembley and won another promotion.

Leeds United, meanwhile, have done nowt.

Players like Howson, Johnson and Snodgrass have played in (and been relegated from – hey, it’s all life experience) the Premier League; the first two will be back there next season, with a glory day at Wembley in the cabinet to boot. Even Paul Huntington not only has a play-off winner’s medal, but a player of the year award from Preston; even Hogan Ephraim has a Championship winner’s medal with QPR and minutes on the pitch in the Premier League.

Leeds United, meanwhile have done nowt.

One response to this is familiar from every summer: let’s get them all back. Beckford is a free agent, if he could be tempted away from whatever Preston offer him, he could join Becchio up front. Perhaps the best way to tempt him would be to sack Uwe Rösler and get Grayson and Snods back from Preston; sorry, Uwe, but you knew what you were getting into. They could bring Huntington and Kilkenny with them; Killa will be a different player without Ken Bates glowering at him from the West Stand. Released by Blackburn, Paul Robinson is being rumoured — again — to be returning as goalkeeper. After Wycombe lost out in their final, Ephraim may be looking for a new challenge, and surely Howson and Johnson’s chances in the Premier League will be limited this time around? Get them back.

After missing the whole season with a serious injury, Hull City will no doubt want to send Robert Snodgrass out on loan to regain fitness, and Max Gradel is ending the season of his life with Saint Etienne by angling for a move — back to Leeds? — in the press. Improved by their MLS experiences, Lloyd Sam and Mike Grella could be in line for a return; while it’s an absolutely given that one day Robbie Rogers will be reunited with Laynes Espresso. And with Leeds United. And with Andy O’Brien, because I haven’t mentioned many defenders yet and Fede Bessone would be a ludicrous step too far.

I would confidently back that side for a barn-burning promotion straight out of the Championship, but one key ingredient is still missing: the Chancellor of Leeds Children’s University, James Milner. Like Beckford, he’s a free agent this summer. Like Grayson, he’s a Leeds fan. Like Howson, he’s a Leeds lad. Like Rogers, he’s destined to come home one day.

When he does, he’ll bring at least 53 England caps, two Premier League winner’s medals, an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Charity Shield; plus 64 appearances in Europe, over 500 career games and 59 goals. By anybody’s standards, that ought to be enough, and as he seems like a frugal sort of chap, his bank balance ought to have him set for life. What better time to turn his back on that glamour and glitz, that has never suited him, and return to what football is all about: captaining your boyhood club back to glory. For minimum wage. Hell, he could probably do it with an old waterlogged leather ball and rolled up newspapers for shinpads; Milner is authenticity.

Or Milner is a witch. Or the whole damn gang of them are witches. While we revelled last weekend in the beaming smiles of Beckford and Grayson, don’t forget what we chose to ignore; the malodorous presence of Peter Ridsdale, loitering in the background gloom. And while we watch and appreciate the successes of our former players and managers and their sons, don’t forget that this is Leeds United, that forty years ago this week we were robbed in Paris, that gypsy curses have beset this club and its ground since ancient times and that, in the balance of the world, when someone is happy, someone else must be sad. Happiness is Beckford. Sadness is Leeds.

The plan to bring them all home has been in the ether for so long — the day Alan Smith was sold, people were already talking hopefully about a buyback clause — that it has become the most over-detailed, complex and unfathomable heist plot in the history of Hollywood. The better idea might be the simpler one. We don’t need to bring all the old boys back; we need all the old boys to retire. With so many former players and managers enjoying successful lives and careers (and Dave Hockaday), there is no room for Leeds United to prosper. “The Honeymoon Suite? I’m terribly sorry, Mr Lennon has that suite booked. Yes, forever.”

We need them to retire; all of them, or perhaps just The One. Maybe the multitude of ex-dudes aren’t holding Leeds back en masse; perhaps The One holds The Key, and when he falls, we rise. But who? Of our oldest old boys, Ian Harte is looking for a new club after promotion from Bournemouth; Alan Smith, whose love burned hottest and whose departure burned most, has just signed a new one-year playing contract with Notts County. Paul Robinson might yet be coming back.

There is hopeful news in Australia as nemesis of nemeses Harry Kewell has quit playing, and if I was to pick anybody as a hex, and a pox, and a stain on Leeds United, it would be him. But the truth is we’ll only ever know in retrospect; if, at the end of the season, Harte and Smith are both still trucking and Robbo has been between the sticks for our glorious Championship winning campaign, we’ll know it was Kewell who kept us down so long. If glory eludes us for another few seasons, only when it arrives will we realise that Casper Ankergran’s retirement was the watershed in our fortunes, or that it was waiting for Matthew Kilgallon to do the decent thing that was the weight on our shoulders all this time.

Let’s just hope, as we await the final reckoning, that the witch is not Lewis Cook.