Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1
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the square ball week: the story of the season

the square ball week: the story of the season

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A few weeks ago I wrote here about watching a Lee Erwin highlights video and feeling inexplicably sad, and tried to explain it. Something about John Sheridan, Noel Whelan, and knowing that ahead of every moment of glory in football, is a moment, or many, of failure.

England demonstrated that for us this week. That thrilling comeback against Norway, and Lucy Bronze, the third point of an attacking triangle on the right side, spreading more algebra with her right foot to score; Jodie Taylor and Bronze again taking only fifteen minutes to build a dream against Canada with merciless finishing; then all the triple-Lion(ess)hearted blocks and challenges from Laura Bassett to give England the basis to be the better team against Japan; well, we know what happens next. And we’ll always know what happens next. Glory in football is a delaying mechanism for failure.

When I watched a video of Chris Wood’s hot-shot season of goals for Leicester in the Championship a the season before last, though, I ended up by laughing. Not at the goals themselves, but at how the video ends: with stirring shots of Molineux and of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ League One winning side from 2014, punctuated by the words: “Welcome to Wolves”.

LOL. Wolves didn’t sign Wood last summer due, apparently, to personal terms; they didn’t sign him this summer due, apparently, to Leeds United. And probably personal terms again. “Welcome to Wolves” ain’t worth what “Welcome to Leeds” is worth, according to our inbuilt Super Leeds exceptionalism; but ain’t worth what good wages are worth, either.

“The impression I got was that this was not a money decision,” says Uwe Rösler. “He fitted our wage structure.” Uwe also said, though, “The deal is a big one and we won’t be able to do two or three of them. I didn’t realise this was possible – when I compare our wage budget to others. And our wage budget is what I was told last week.”

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle — a good old fashioned compromise. Leeds United have, since the Revie era, been able to attract players based on the name; but the name also carries with it expectations not only of status, but of reward. You don’t expect to sign as Leeds United’s main striker for nothing. That was the root of last summer’s Thorp Arch canteentroversy; you don’t expect to sign for Leeds United and have to bring a packed lunch. Leeds United have a certain standing, and that means upholding certain standards.

The name also means the club has a strong bargaining position. You don’t expect to sign as Leeds United’s main striker, full stop, so when they come to you and say that’s what they’ll make you, you listen. Wood signed on the very morning that the transfer window opened, and even if a hot YouTube welcome from Wolves wasn’t enough to tempt him there, he had time enough to see what other offers came his way.

He also had time to consider what Leeds United really is in 2015, compared to what it was in 1975, and it’s telling that he says he took that into account. “Of course, I had my thoughts about what happened last season and the way the club was run and things like that,” he told the YEP, and that’s something that has worried me through the years of Bates, of GFH, of Cellino; that football as a whole has become wary of Leeds United, of playing or managing there.

“But I came up here to speak to the manager to get my own little feel on it,” Wood continued. “It was the biggest move of my career and I didn’t want to take things lightly. I did my homework and made sure I was at the right place for me.”

That homework included meeting Rösler, but it also included meeting Massimo Cellino; but it ended with a signature. “As soon as I got things into my head, I was on the phone to the manager that I wanted to be here and they struck the deal quickly.” That might tell us something, too.

Rösler has given Cellino a lot of the credit for signing Wood, especially given the constraints of the wage budget; he didn’t think it would be possible, “But with the help of Mr Cellino, it has happened.” What form that help took isn’t clear; Wood still fitted the wage structure, according to Rösler, so it sounds less like extra money, more like a division of the overall budget in this big signing’s favour. It might mean fewer signings, but it might also mean better ones.

That’s a strategic reversal from last season. Cellino complained himself that £9m, all the McCormack money, had gone on trash, with the scattershot stockpiling of players that took place last summer before the transfer embargo hit, and as late as January with the loan deals for Cani and Ngoyi; Leeds were signing players less for their qualities than for their pure existence. It was all about numbers of players, and then Cellino complained when they weren’t all playing.

You could argue that we gained from signing Silvestri, Antenucci, Bellusci; certainly Bamba was well chosen; but in company with old friend hindsight, were they all worth one McCormack? McCormack was the player in 2013/14, pretty much the only one, but what he lacked was support. The support act that really proved itself last season, though, was not Bianchi or Benedicic, but Mowatt, Murphy and Lewis Cook, the last a crucial addition that helped balance our midfield and bring the best out of the others, and a player we already had. McCormack and Cook. Think about that. Think about a policy of banking on quality.

The quality is clear in Wood’s “Welcome to Wolves” video. Not only is he tall like a Chapman, but he shoots early like a Hasselbaink, and he looks comfortable in the channels, which is where Rösler will want him. Either on a through ball or a pull back or a cross, Wood gets the ball not so much in the six yard box but aligned with its left and right edges, and scores from wherever he is, a perfect target in Rösler’s preferred 4–3–3.

That’s as significant a policy shift as the money we’re spending. Leeds aren’t only spending big on Wood, but spending big on a player to fit the manager’s system, a system that is a long way from what we saw at Leeds last season. That lamentable diamond must have come from Cellino, and despite his twenty-odd years in football you have to wonder about the tactical nous of somebody who can talk tactics for hours with Dave Hockaday. Perhaps dropping Jürgen Klopp and “heavy metal football” into the conversation finally convinced Cellino to innovate — “Heavy metal? Terry, fetch my guitar.”

The pacy wide players Rösler will also need are also being linked, and in some cases are on trial, and compared to last year’s relentless randomness, there seems to be some order to the team Leeds are building. We’re a week into preseason, and a week from the first friendly, at Harrogate, and Rösler says, “We made a representation to the players about how we want them to play and why we are doing the physical drills.”

I wonder if he made the same representation to Cellino. One thing you can say about Cellino, is that he doesn’t go into things half-hearted; when he likes something, he loves it, and when he does something, he does it to death. His support, in that sense, is as double-edged as any YouTube goals video; it’s exhilarating, and makes you feel glory; but it doesn’t let you forget that beyond glory is death, and that death might get you first.

A few weeks ago, as well as feeling sad about Noel Whelan, I was wondering what such random signings as that American goalkeeper and all the kids on one-year deals said about the team we’re going to see next season. £3m on Chris Wood might answer that wonder. We’re going to see Uwe Rösler’s team. Whether we see Uwe Rösler’s glory, or Uwe Rösler’s death, will be the story of the season; replayable, for ever, on YouTube.

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