the square ball week: more bang for our bambaBack
It might be unkind to call Nicola Salerno a quitter, or to accuse him of flouncing at the drop of a napkin, or to suggest that he gets more vapours than a Georgian dandy. But there’s evidence for the claim.
We’ve barely heard from him since he signed the letter suspending Steve Thompson. Salerno’s next act was to resign, as if the strenuous effort of signing and handing over the letter had been more than his frail constitution could bear. “Steve, this is for you,” he said, handing the poisoned envelope to Redfearn’s assistant by the side of a pitch at Thorp Arch. “I’m just going to lie down for a while,” he added, collapsing into a flowerbed and not emerging again for hours.
Salerno’s actual job status since then has been vague; he’d either resigned, been put on gardening leave, or been told his services were not required or wanted; he had either gone back to Italy, hidden in a hotel room in Leeds, or taken a rest cure by a glassy Swiss lake. But he was still doing something. Leeds United, despite hearing his outspoken views at the end of the last season, and despite him (it’s said) getting up in Andrew Umbers’ face with his views after the Rotherham game, still wanted Sol Bamba, and only one man could get them Sol Bamba. And when that man was eventually coaxed out from the garden shed in which he’d been sheltering from a squirrel, that man got Sol Bamba for Leeds United. And then he promptly quit again; getting one more deal over the line enough to finish him off for good. So long, Nico, and thanks for all the Sol.
Salerno’s departure will allow for some savings at Leeds; the chaise longues and smelling salts can once and for all be removed from the corridors he used to shriek down. But Bamba himself has not come cheap: “The fee is understood to be a considerable one,” report the YEP. It’s undisclosed, too, limiting our opportunities for awed Luke Murphillions-style oohs and aahs.
That Bamba has come at all is another welcome surprise in Adam Pearson’s summer of creeping common sense. Relief is a kind of shock; clowns know this, which is why when they shoot you with a gun it fires flowers, not bullets. We’ve not got to the point where our clown-shoes club is giving us flowers (unless there’s something we should know about the new away kit and an all-over print pattern) but after years of krazy-threats that have been carried through into krazy-acts, it’s a relief and a relaxation to pick up the latest whackybox to fall from the back of a broken-down little yellow car and find no greater jape inside than a well-fitting pair of sensible waterproof shoes. Perhaps some Premium Bonds, or some plain cotton socks. Surprise! screams the clown, and you feel good.
Sol Bamba is a sensible signing. To spend considerable money on him is sensible. It’s not easy to sign good players, as Nicola Salerno proved; he’s credited with signing fifteen players for Leeds last season — or blamed, depending on your point of view. “The £10m for McCormack went all on the garbage,” was Cellino’s POV a month ago. Bambas exist, but Del Fabros are easier to get, and taking the easy path has its own consequences.
Those consequences could be felt in the shape of the defence for the final few games of the season. Five defenders and a goalkeeper were arranged around Bamba, but two of the best of them — Byram and Taylor (Charles) — were overboard from the defence, gripping driftwood down the wings, while the defence itself made shift with Cooper, Wootton, Berardi and Taylor (Stuart). These were players playing well, but not the players anyone had expected to be there back last summer when Jonathan Rossini from Sassuolo or Frederik Sorensen from Juventus were supposed to be coming to play alongside Jason Pearce and form a promotion-winning partnership. The Sorensen deal collapsed the day before the season’s opener at Millwall, and within a week the club had ended a month-long stand-off over his wages and signed Giuseppe Bellusci, but for different reasons he too was absent by the final few weeks; Pearce himself and Stephen Warnock were already goners in January. Far from building for the future, the Leeds defence was a rapidly deteriorating old cottage, left open to the elements and filling up with dust, pigeons and rat skeletons.
Sol Bamba’s late introduction, and his mission, was a rescue act; to take charge of a part of the team where any semblance of planning or order had given way to coach-swapping rot and weakness. And his achievement was that his influence didn’t end with the defence. That’s where he did his best work, diving onto the grenades lobbed at random around the penalty area, by his teammates as often as by opponents; against Middlesbrough he read Bellusci as if he was part of the Middlesbrough forward line, ready to pounce on the slightest error by his fellow centreback. Bellusci and his five friends didn’t learn the lesson, but others did: Alex Mowatt began to assert himself in midfield, taking personal responsibility for scoring the vital goals others weren’t; even Steve Morison dragged two goals out from the dank cellar of his charred Millwall heart, and spoke out on Radio Leeds, seeking order amid the chaos of the final weeks.
That’s what backbone can do to a team. People like to talk about getting the spine of a side — goalkeeper, centre back, midfielder, striker — but backbone is more important, wherever you play. Gordon Strachan’s influence on Leeds United was immeasurable, and it touched every player in every position at every level in the club, all from the right touchline. That’s because, diminutive as he was, Strachan had backbone.
Central, and not diminutive in the least, Bamba will offer a different kind of leadership to Strachan on the pitch, but his willingness to speak out with a player’s opinion last season recalls Strachan’s readiness with a view and his determination to have it heard. As captain, that’s as important as any defensive header or goal line clearance; and as a contrast, it’s huge compared to Jason Pearce’s nervousness and vacancy following the Bellusci and Jerome incident last season. “It’s not in my hands,” he said, when asked specifically by Adam Pope for a captain’s viewpoint, “I don’t really feel like I need to comment on it at all, to be honest.” As an exercise in buck-passing it was second only to Darko Milanic that same week: “It is better if other people in the club comment on this.”
Among too many other things to count, buck-passing has been one of the major causes of the letdowns of Leeds United in recent years, and it has prevailed since Cellino arrived and tried to align himself so tightly with the institution of the club itself that there was barely anything left of it for anybody else to feel responsible for. ‘That’s up to the President’ was said last season about everything from transfer policy to team selection, from pre-match meals to the water in the Thorp Arch pool, even while the President reclined on a lilo in a pool of his own in Miami. When everything’s up to the President, nothing’s up to you; and then we wonder why nobody at this damn club takes any responsibility for anything any more.
Except Bamba. In Sol Bamba we don’t just have a player willing to take the initiative and deal with strikers, but a man not willing to wait to be told to take responsibility for what happens at the club. Some players will tell you that what happens off the pitch is nothing to do with them, that they’re only there to play football, and that’s fine; why should youngsters like Lewis Cook be troubled with the details of Neil Redfearn’s future? But other players take the view that everything that happens to a football club is the business of the football team, and will make it their business to make everything right. The more players there are like that at Leeds United, the better.
We’ve had a lot of bang for our Bamba so far, a lot of relative peace for just one Pearson. The test of the impact of both might not be what they can do themselves, but how many more like them we can get in the club; how the balance of responsibility shifts, from the Presidential suite to the real place of work: the pitch.