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the square ball week: get friendly

the square ball week: get friendly

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•• Written by Moscowhite

I’m sure goals aren’t supposed to make you feel sad. It’s certainly not why people make compilations of them for YouTube.

The soundtracks alone will tell you that. A Hi-NRG techno thwump; car-ad rock; ill-matched classical symphonies better suited to footage of WW2. The best goals compilation I’ve ever seen, of Leeds United goals from the early sixties to the early oughts, is made by its music — Party Hard by Andrew WK — and Andrew, while he would allow that the rough stitched ball of hexagons that is humanity will admit a wide range of possible emotional responses to any work of art, is not a person who encourages sadness. He’s a lot like Andrew Hughes in this respect.

One of the things I love about football is the way its best and worst alike can be elevated to art. And emotional responses to art cannot be predicted. The intent of the goalscorer is always to inspire euphoric joy, but these days authorial intent count for little anymore. An edited and condensed reel of goals and skills can put your pulse on a Max Gradel scale of frantic, but such a close-cropped dose of goal after goal can also be a reminder of one of the other reasons that I love and hate football: that it always ends in failure.

It can be particularly painful when you know the ending. You have to rely on the kindness of your memory when reliving any old footage of your football team, that it will keep you locked and locked only exactly in the moment that you are observing, without intrusions from what happened next.

Take John Sheridan’s free kick against Charlton in May 1987. There are few moments in art history more exhilarating than the film recording of Sheridan zig-zagging away from his own precision, blue tracksuit sleeves fluttering like autumn around him as one of the great Leeds players celebrates one of the great Leeds goals, and brings about — autumn. It was a golden corona around the dark heart of the 1980s, but it was a last bright minute of that season before the leaves turned blue and brown and fell from the trees. Shirtliff scored two, defining Sheridan’s goal as not only a moment of extreme footballing beauty, but extreme sadness.

There are moments of great beauty and art in this video on YouTube: Lee Erwin | Motherwell FC | Goals, Skills & Assists 2014/15 | HD. What it must be to be 21, 6ft 2in, and able to play football that way. Fast for a tall player, he plays almost too fast for his height; his control of the ball begins with control of his body, ensuring its hurtling momentum isn’t a hurtle over a cliff or into a granite defender. But with the ball at his feet he cuts angles across the pitch at full pelt, as if following a path laid down by an engineer’s metal ruler and his mechanical 9H pencil, scoring the pitch like a knife. Left or right foot will do just fine, and one of those careening runs in the video ends in a goal for a team mate and one of those overjoyful moments when half the team celebrates with the scorer, and half over here with the young lad whose geometry set it up.

“I do think that he has the look of a young Mark Viduka,” Peter Lorimer said this week, but I don’t think that’s an apt comparison. “He’s big and strong and holds the ball up really well and has two good feet and can control a ball well and looks comfortable on both sides,” and and and, he added, and it’s all true.

Peter also added, “He has played very little football over the last few years. But there’s a hell of a lot of potential there. If we get off to a good start and get his confidence up and the fans like him, then the world is his oyster.”

There have been few better starts to a season than Noel Whelan’s start to 1994/95. In the first home game, on a Tuesday night in late August, he scored the season’s first goal for Leeds, and the first of his career; a late long-range hit that eluded David Seaman and won the match against Arsenal. Then he scored again, in the next game against Chelsea, volleying over his head from close range into the top of the net, thrillingly close to the bar. Then he scored again, in the next game against Crystal Palace, heading in from just in front of the goalkeeper after David Wetherall’s two headed attempts failed to make it over the line. Then he was man of the match, in the next game against Manchester United, and went on one of those careening runs that ends in a goal for a team mate, Brian Deane, and one of those overjoyful moments when half the team celebrates with the scorer, and half over here with the young lad whose brave run — with a dislocated finger, even — set it up.

If some of the things Peter Lorimer says about Lee Erwin do apply to Mark Viduka — the feet, the strength, the control — the rest of it could perfectly describe Noel Whelan. The potential, the start, the love of the fans; the world, his oyster. That’s one of the reasons why, when I watch Lee Erwin’s highlight’s video, I can feel the same sadness growing within me as when I watch Noel Whelan’s.

On 26th November 1994, a Saturday afternoon at Elland Road, Gary McAllister switched the ball wide to the right side of the penalty area, to Deane. Backpeddling to meet the ball, Deane chipped a cross along the line of the six yard box that was met at crossbar height by Whelan, who headed it straight through Mark Crossley and into the Forest goal. “A seventh goal for the youngster,” announces the commentator.

And his last. A year later Noel Whelan was a Coventry City player; a year later, and Noel Whelan was in tears on the M621, looking from the outside at the stadium where he couldn’t play anymore. He was 20. “All of a sudden, you don’t have your family or friends around,” he told the Yorkshire Post in 2010. “It’s an exciting time but a lonely time for a young man as well.”

Lee Erwin is 21, and unlike Whelan, he is “over the moon” to be moving clubs. Unlike Whelan, he’s moving to Leeds, rather than being comforted by Billy Bremner on his way out. Like Whelan at Coventry, though, “I don’t know anyone in Leeds,” he says. “But I’ll get friendly in the next couple of weeks and look forward to it.”

Elland Road has not been the easiest place to get friendly recently. The season ended amid general acrimony, from top to bottom, and it would be hard to find a corner of the club unaffected by the schisms that were known, those rumoured, and those we can only guess at.

Everything seems to have sorted itself out now, but sorted itself out in the most unexpected way. There have been times recently when it felt like the best option would be to burn Leeds United all down and start again; at the very least, it felt like some or all of Cellino, Redfearn, Ward, Salerno, Bamba and the sicknote six would have to go if Leeds United were just to get along. Instead, loanees apart, they’re all still here. And some, presumed gone, are back, or presumed to be coming back.

Whether they’re glad to be back is also something we can only make presumptions and assumptions about. A few weeks ago, Neil Redfearn was taking legal advice after Massimo Cellino gathered the press together and told them all about how Redders had failed the club’s young players by not picking Charlie Taylor soon enough, or Brian Montenegro at all; and that his Leeds-saluting displays of passion meant nothing compared to the cold hard cash coming from Cellino’s wallet and into the club. Now, he’s back at Leeds United, in charge of the club’s young players again, greeted with Leeds salutes by passionate United fans who are happier to see him back than they ever were to see Cellino return.

The smile must have dropped from Sol Bamba’s face when he was publicly demanding answers for the state of the club, but now it looks like the grin is on its way back, and Bamba is the pop-choice for club captain. His cheerful demeanour and commitment to the good of the club could set the tone for Erwin and help him in his efforts to get friendly, but remember: even Sol Bamba wasn’t cheerful here for long. If ever there was a club that could grind the friendliness out of you, it’s Leeds United.

Hopefully Erwin is better equipped for the challenges ahead than Whelan was at Coventry. After a tough start at his new club, things did get better for Noel and his career, although he did have to move in with his manager — Gordon Strachan — to get back on the straight and narrow. But he never made it back to Leeds United as a player, or as a coach, and has only this last season got back in as a commentator on Radio Leeds. It was a long time to wait after his seventh goal for Leeds United, and although he’s had many fine days since, it’s hard not to watch that goal and that video and not feel sad that those few months, autumn 1994, weren’t the start but the end of something for Noel Whelan at Leeds.

Lee Erwin, though, has a former professional footballer for a father and an impressive sleeve tattoo on his right arm, and arrived fresh from a high profile scrap with Rangers’ Bilel Mohsni. When Snowy Whelan broke into the Leeds team he was photographed in the local corner shop pretending he was still on his paper round. Football has changed, and its young men have changed with it. But hope, potential and body-ink can’t erase the sadness inherent in his Motherwell highlights. His move to Leeds United might be the beginning of something great; time will tell. But his move to Leeds United is definitely the end of something great; the end of the blistering, never to be repeated start to his career, a start that thrust him into the limelight and fast-tracked him to West Yorkshire.

Endings are always sad, and football always ends in failure, which is even sadder. It makes you wonder why we all bother, but then, that’s what the goals are for. Unleashed down the left wing, Erwin controls the ball and can feel he has the beating of the defender between him and the goal. The question is, how? A little shove, first, to put the defender where he wants him. Allowing the ball to roll into his stepovers, he pops it out again with a backheel, then cuts distinctively in the opposite direction. The ball bounces off his standing foot and almost away, but luck is with him. When he reaches it, he cracks it, through another ninety degree swivel, and a low strike. A goal! And for a few seconds there are no reasons to feel sad.

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