the square ball week: place makingBack
It’s all falling into place; as, irresistibly, it does every season. June may be unseasonable this year, but football’s calendar has a stronger pull than the turning of spring to summer.
No matter how tattered or broken your football club might appear, certain things still happen that make it concrete, and give it a form it might be not otherwise be able to take on its own.
Leeds United have a club secretary now — Stuart Hayton — and we won’t delve too deeply into whether we had one before. But this is his time; pre-season arrangements, player registrations, sponsorship deals, fixture lists.
The last is arguably the most important for giving a club shape. I’ve written before about the futility of a football club without fixtures; those weeks between the end of one list and the announcement of another, when everything feels kinda aimless. Until the league computer reeled off its plans this week and gave us Burnley at home, could you have named with any accuracy the date of next season’s start? August, sometime, but unless there’s a game on, what’s to know? August 8th. We know it now, because there’s a game on. Burnley at home. Bring it on.
Doncaster in the League Cup; Reading, Bristol City, Sheffield Wednesday and Derby, all in the first month. Preston away, in May, to close; and return us to one of three possible wildernesses before the next fixtures are announced. Fixtures in either the Championship, the Premier League, or League One. We know what we’re doing for the next few months. Hopefully.
A fixture list focuses the mind. Last summer, after Leeds United Ladies were withdrawn from the Women’s Premier League by Leeds United, they were quickly reregistered by people determined that the club would not die. With the help of the local FA, they kept their place in the league, and their place on the fixture list, when that was announced. But for a while last summer, Leeds Ladies FC were a fixture list without a club. When they did play their first game, after a few scratch weeks of frantically signing players, training as much as possible and some heavy pre-season defeats, they beat Stockport County 4–2, and never looked back. A fixture list focuses the mind.
Having some shape to Leeds United’s 2015/16 season brings some shape to the club’s summer so far, which has been curiously formless and hard to follow. Many people expected another takeover this summer; and when Adam Pearson arrived, a coup. There have been changes, for certain, but if there has been a coup, it has been kept bloodlessly behind the scenes.
Without a takeover narrative to follow or confirmed fixtures to look forward to — even pre-season in Austria was a game without a venue for a long time — it has been hard to give the stream of announcements from the club any context, to understand how they’re going to fit together and form a football club for the new season. It still isn’t really clear. Rather than be shamed into reticence by their first press conference of the summer, in which Massimo Cellino ranted and smoked to the delight of sports editors across the country, United must have seen something in the format that they liked, and have risked going live again on LUTV button for the appointment of Uwe Rösler and the appointment of Kappa. They must also have seen something they didn’t like, which is why Massimo wasn’t present at either. Let’s hope seeing something they didn’t like isn’t also why the actual kit wasn’t on view at the kit launch.
Betwixt and between all that, and clogging up the news pages on the official site; can you make a football club out of what’s in this bag? Working backwards: Tyler Denton keen to impress. Luke Parkin ready for action. Tyler Denton and Luke Parkin sign one-year deals together. Lewis Walters agrees new one-year deal. Martyn Glover appointed Head of Recruitment; Stuart Hayton as Club Secretary. Kalvin Phillips “over the moon” to sign new deal. Lee Erwin joins from Motherwell. Young goalkeeper Charlie Horton signs up. Goalkeeping coach Richard Hartis arrives. Kalvin Phillips agrees to new two-year deal. Tyler Denton agrees new one-year deal. Jake Skelton agrees new one-year deal. Rob Kelly named assistant head coach. Luke Parkin agrees new one-year deal. Alex Purver agrees new one-year deal. Frank Mulhern, Tom Lyman and Bailey Peacock-Farrell sign professional contracts. Uwe Rösler becomes head coach. And, back at the start of it all, Lewis Cook signs new two-year deal. I think that’s everything. Did I remember to mention Tyler Denton?
Part of the confusion is that we’ve announced Tyler Denton and Luke Parkin’s contracts three times; Neil Redfearn’s return to the Academy, curiously, isn’t mentioned at all. Another part is that few of us have seen enough of Denton or Parkin to know whether that’s exciting enough news to justify the triple announcement or not. Ditto Walters, Skelton, Purver and the rest; Charlie Horton is probably the most mysterious of all, while Kalvin Phillips and Lewis Cook give the most hope.
The upside is that exactly fifty-two weeks ago the club was making one, big announcement, at one long Cellino-dominated press conference: Dave Hockaday and Junior Lewis, English football’s all-time most whimsical coaching appointment. And boy, was Massimo whimsical that day; “I know Maradona personally,” he said at one point, “I know van Basten, Gullit, I know all these people, that is my life.” Why the hell Dave Hockaday was now his life instead wasn’t explained; at that point, anyway, he was talking about not letting Ross McCormack leave.
Perhaps the memory of the Hock was the reason for this week’s kit conference without a kit, and for keeping its subject on the down-low in advance. Another surprise unveiling, one year on? They should have got Hockaday to model it, just for kicks. When Hockaday was presented to the world as head coach of Leeds United Football Club, it was a shock move, a real what-is-he-thinking, what-are-they-doing moment; it was definitive and, in its own way, iconic. Of course Dave Hockaday would be the one ex-Fourth Division right-back turned sacked non-league coach with a professionally smug high resolution mugshot on Wikipedia; his name was uninspiring, but the images burned with a glow the man himself didn’t possess.
In its own way it was a more impressive statement than anything Leeds United have come up with so far this summer. Which is all wrong. Uwe Rösler is a coach I’ve looked at in the past and thought, yeah, he might be good; and now he’s here, head coach of Leeds United. So that’s good. And yet his appointment hasn’t lit any fires the way Hockaday’s did, with its sheer audacity. Rob Kelly is no doubt many times the assistant Junior Lewis ever was — he’d better be — and a lack of charisma can’t be the reason why his presence hasn’t resonated yet. Maybe it’s just too early. Or maybe we really do need to watch someone sit gormlessly open-mouthed through a tortuous hour-long presser to really feel like we know them.
Or perhaps Leeds United just haven’t got going yet. That’s what’s lacking: a groove. The summer so far has been a lot of announcements, but no story; no beat, no rhythm. Watching the broadcast of the Kappa conference, I could feel it from the nonplussed questioning from the journos in the room; this was all very nice, but it could have been over in five minutes. Perhaps next time just send the press release over? In a box with complimentary refreshments, if the club really insist.
Announcing a shirt sponsorship without a shirt to show; that’s close season at LUFC in a nutshell so far. A host of unknown youth players on one-year deals; a promising Scottish signing who, good as he might turn out to be, better not be marquee; a scattering of backroom staff and rumours of Sol Bamba. And the perennial “one or two more being worked on;” and the perennial fear of more significant deals out than deals in.
It’s early days, and that’s fine, but we have fixtures now, including the start of pre-season at Harrogate in 21 days. I know what the fixtures are, but I’m none the wiser about the team that will be playing in them. It’s yet to be defined; but what defined Leeds United last season was aimlessness. It’s all falling into place around Leeds United; as, irresistibly, it does every season. This year we need to resist letting it fall into place without us.