the square ball week: what goes into a leeds shirtBack
The new kit is officially out and pre-season is about to kick off properly, beyond Thorp Arch; and footballers in white shirts and shorts kicking a ball is all I want to know about now.
Those white shirts and shorts fall a little bit in between two hopes. Sorry Kappa. It’s a nice try, and looks a lot better than it did when it was first leaked with GFH’s logo on the front, but when you promise plain all-white, my mind spins back to the sixties; really all-white, nothing else, no trim, no nothing. Or not even that far: you only have to go back to 1995/96 to see Tony Yeboah (and Paul Beesley) resplendent in a modern mix, or 2000/01 to see David Batty (and Jacob Burns) in Nike’s wonderfully restrained interpretation, to see how beauty is possible (even for Beesley and Burns).
Instead we’ve got these blue collars and cuffs, and where Kappa have slipped here is by not having the courage of their convictions where trim is concerned. If you’re going to add blue trim, you have to include yellow trim, because Leeds’ colours are white, yellow and blue, in that order, and white and blue on a home kit just doesn’t cut it. (Combos are possible; I’ll take yellow and blue without white on a change kit.)
The closest past resemblence to this new kit is by Umbro from 1985, and it’s a thing of beauty, but it’s a thing of beauty because the thick bands of blue around the neck and arms are relieved by subtle threads of white and gold that stitch this shirt into the fabric of LS11. Big blue bits? Not so much.
Whatever about what I think, though; it’s gone down well, with much of that do with the lack of sponsor. I’ve maintained for years that a smart company could arrange to be Leeds’ shirt sponsor and then leave that space blank for maximum goodwill among Leeds fans. In a way that’s what Enterprise Insurance have ended up doing, as our shirt is blank on account of club and sponsor arguing in court, but the opportunity is still there for whatever betting company/flimsy bank/loan shark is waiting garishly in the wings.
More important than what’s on the shirt, though, is what’s in it, which was being much spoken about at the start of the week. Like Enterprise Insurance, Neil Redfearn is someone with whom Leeds United seem unable to find closure, and while his future remains uncertain, that critical word — closure — looms behind conversations about Leeds United’s Academy.
That’s hyperbolic. But it would help if we knew the plan. The back and forth over Redfearn’s role hasn’t helped. This summer we’ve been told he was offered his Academy role again (which, strictly speaking, was a contractual obligation anyway), that he had accepted it (which nobody expected), and now that having accepted it he has been placed on gardening leave (which in retrospect we should have seen coming). Lucy Ward is generally presumed to be in the same position, making it two people seen as synonymous with the Academy’s recent successes — one on the football side, one on general education and care — absent from Thorp Arch.
Staff losses haven’t ended there, and they don’t begin there either, with high-profile (your Naylors and Brombys) and long-serving (Steve Holmes, head of recruitment) coaches and staff being let go from Thorp Arch over the last year. Replacements do exist, but clarity doesn’t; this time last year, Benito Carbone announced himself at Thorp Arch with a flurry of selfies, then a couple of months later he was gone again, without any explanation of just what that was all about.
Massimo Cellino, meanwhile, hasn’t hidden his lack of love for Thorp Arch as land and buildings (“I’m superstitious”); his promise to buy Elland Road the day after buying the club (later revised to ‘November, with the McCormack money’, later revised again to ‘sometime never, because all the McCormack money was spent on trash’) never included buying back the training ground; instead he began a land search and conversations with the council about where he could build instead: Kirkstall Road? Fullerton Park?
At this summer’s famous meltdown press conference the subject came up again, but it was so garbled among angry rants about Redfearn and Manchester City allegedly tapping up a young player that it was impossible to find any coherence there. The only conclusion we can draw is that Thorp Arch and the Academy are subjects that occupy Cellino considerably, and the fear we should have is that we know what happens with Cellino and his obsessions (“Terry — this Verne Troyer — funny man I think…”), but what is lacking is a plan. And where there’s no plan, and rumour, and inexplicable actions, there is distrust.
Cellino’s record with young players at Cagliari was supposed to give us some security about this; bring ’em through and sell ’em high was said to be the philosophy that had kept Cagliari both in the top division and in solvent business, two things Leeds United would love to have as a minimum. The first part was missed, though: buy ’em cheap. As an example of his methods, I think the year that players like Dario Del Fabro and Brian Montenegro spent on loan in Leeds is closer to Cellino’s philosophy than the emergence of Kalvin Phillips. Phillips, though, is much closer to the Leeds United philosophy.
There are two competing dreams here — but then, that’s football. One dream is Cellino’s, of finding discarded, downtrodden angels, resurrecting them and giving them harp lessons to bring out the glorious music within them, and they can ascend to the heavens (for an undisclosed but hefty transfer fee). The other dream is Leeds United’s, of a team of players from Yorkshire, brought through the club’s own system and schooled in its history and ways, a team that functions as a collective and has strong bonds within itself and with the fans in the stands.
It’s hard to make dreams come true, but Leeds United are good at it. Revie’s team of lads brought together young and forged into a family was a dream come true. The presence of Batty and Speed in Wilkinson’s title teams, with players like Gary Kelly (who made his debut in 1991) and Noel Whelan just behind was a dream come true. The Champions League side, with Robinson, Kelly, Harte, Woodgate, McPhail, Jones, Smith: a dream come true. And at last night’s kit launch: Byram, Cook, Mowatt, Taylor: that’s a dream come true.
It’s a dream come true through hard work at Leeds United’s Academy that has produced players that fit Leeds United’s philosophy; players who, when you launch an (almost) all-white kit in front of the fans, are the players you want to wear it. They’re an obvious choice, but it’s only obvious because the system works so well.
Late last season, we took some photos of the four of them while they took breaks between learning their lines for the season ticket launch video. Standing on the path up Beggar’s Hill above Elland Road, what has stayed with me from that afternoon is how, as we took them to pose separately, each one looked at a view of the stadium that is so close to the heart of Leeds fans, and uttered their own variation of, “Wow. It looks good from up here, doesn’t it?”
That’s not to say that, say, Doukara or Bianchi wouldn’t have been similarly impressed. You can import a player and have the club mean as much to them as any youngster raised in the Academy; perhaps more, when you consider the likes of Harry Kewell, to whom the club could hardly mean less. But it’s a roulette spin compared to the safer bet of bringing them through yourself. Look at our midfield over the past few seasons: Brown, Clayton, Norris, Green, Bianchi; what did it take to finally sort it out? Mowatt and Cook.
What was different about them? How could they, with their first youthful steps into first team football, have more impact on our fortunes on the pitch and in the emotions of the fans, than experienced players bought on the understanding that they would have instant impact? Why are they the ones brought out on stage to celebrate the Leeds United shirt, before a big money signing, before a big name signing, before anybody else?
The answer is pretty obvious. What’s less obvious is why you would put something so valuable at risk. Not transfer value, as such; one of the justifications for a downsizing or total closure of the Academy is that it would free up cash to spend on the likes of Chris Wood (but also on Del Fabro, because we’d still need somebody in the Development Squad). But the value that can’t be counted in pounds and pence because it speaks to the heritage, history, philosophy and dreams of our football club. Until season ticket sales or kit launches come around, when that heritage, history and philosophy, those dreams, certainly do translate into pound and pence.
The rumours of the Academy’s demise may be vastly overstated, but its worth can’t be; and it can’t be allowed to drop out of sight into rumour, conjecture, fear. The concentration this season is falling again on the first team. Uwe Rösler has been given a full backroom staff, a £3m striker, and a mandate to transform what we see on the pitch at Elland Road from last season’s lethargic diamond variations, to a game of high intensity pressing in a 4–3–3 or 3–5–2; it sounds promising, and for Cellino to give such licence to a head coach is a welcome slackening of the reigns.
But while the first team is well taken care of, we need to remember how much of that first team is reliant on work that has gone on over the past ten years to produce a large proportion of the players that Rösler has at his disposal; and the extra edge that gives Leeds United both as a team its fans like to watch, and a team its opponents ought to fear. We’ve got a swank new kit, alright; we need to keep thinking about what we’re putting in it.