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the square ball week: ability to pay

the square ball week: ability to pay


The raven industrialist looked at Sam through narrow eyes, sighting the boy like a quail in a field along the steep slope of his prominent nose, using it like the barrel of a rifle.

Anyone could see, as Mr Cellino handed Sam a glass of whisky, poured from one of several cut-glass decanters on a table in the centre of the room, that Sam still bore the scars and bruises of the weekend’s game.

“He’ll have to learn he has to pay something for his ambition,” said Mr Cellino.

“I carried that boy,” he went on. “It was my back, and nobody elses.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you’ve carried me or something?” asked Sam.

“Yes,” said Mr Cellino, spitting the ess, so it landed sounding closely to ‘Si.’ “From the very beginning.”

“I’ve played myself into that crummy team!” said Sam, his voice loud but level.

“But you just don’t appreciate how much help you’ve had, Sam.”

“Look,” said Sam, his eyes darting around the room at Mr Cellino’s advisors, Mr Cellino’s friends, his family, his hangers on; and Adam Pearson. “Am I a good footballer, or am I not?”

Mr Cellino didn’t answer. He just finished his drink as Sam was ushered out the door by Pearson, and out of earshot. “You’re in a tricky position with Cellino, you know,” Pearson told him; in a tricky position with Cellino himself, and considering his future.

“I know he hasn’t liked me for a bit,” said Sam.

“He thought he had some sort of ownership over you. He just doesn’t like to see it taken away. Still. You’ll be alright as long as I’m there. You understand what I mean?”

Later, at the party, as he collected a few unguarded bottles from the bar, a woman cornered unguarded Sam. “You’re Sam Byram, aren’t you? You look different on the field. Like a tiger.” Without a word from Sam they embraced; without a word he shortened the embrace to swig from one of the bottles. “You look pale,” said the woman. “Aren’t you well?” Sam looked at her face for the first time, trying to find something there that he hadn’t found anywhere else.

“Am I a good footballer?” he asked her.

And that’s all you have to do to bring This Sporting Life, a film made in 1963 about a rugby league football player in Wakefield, up to date for Leeds United Football Club: change Gerald Weaver to Massimo Cellino, Charles Slomer to Adam Pearson, Frank Machin to Sam Byram. People often say in Massimo Cellino’s defence that he needs time to learn how an English football club is run, but he’s an expert in the methods of 1963.

“He’ll have to learn he has to pay something for his ambition”; and Byram paid with his reputation this week, as many a Leeds United player has over the last decade. I sometimes think there can be no worse fate for a talented young footballer than to become established in the first team at Leeds United. It should be a dream come true, but it’s a trap.

“Sam Byram is the only one that maybe thinks Leeds is too small for him,” said Cellino this week. “He maybe thinks he deserves to be in a bigger team and a bigger club and maybe he’s right.” There are three maybes in there, as if, when Cellino is telling us what he thinks Sam Byram “maybe” thinking, he isn’t one hundred percent sure. Neither am I. ‘What Sam Byram might be thinking’ is not a subject I ever thought to ask Massimo Cellino about.

But if Sam Byram does think he deserves to be in a bigger team and a bigger club then maybe, as Cellino says, he is right. There would be something wrong with him if he didn’t think that. Sure, we’ll reflexively cry out for our Champions of Europe exceptionalism; how can there be a bigger club than Leeds United? What more could a player want than to play at Elland Road? But it’s that exceptionalism that masks what Leeds United truly lacks, that Sam Byram doesn’t: ambition. And the ability to pay.

“This year, if we get close, maybe we can make the play-offs,” Cellino told Sky Sports this week. “But this team has to be built and to grow. It’s not ready yet, I don’t think. The target is to keep us in the Championship.” That’s an adjustment from a year ago, which was the start of Cellino’s last two year plan to get Leeds into the Premier League. And the plan has changed:

“I do not want Premier League football; I wish for it. I am very superstitious. If you want something in football you never get it. If you wish for something then you get it.”

Right. So Leeds United’s ambitions, as they currently stand, are not to get relegated to League One this season, then hope a faerie’s touch charms us into the Premier League next. Cellino has his fingers crossed, and with that to guide us, Leeds United and Sam Byram could with luck be kicking off in the Premier League as soon as August 2017, when Byram will be just short of his twenty-fourth birthday; assuming the old adage that ‘In football, you make your own luck’ doesn’t turn out to be a more powerful incantation than rubbing Verne Troyer’s head, and getting out of the Championship doesn’t turn out to take more than just wishes.

The situation for Sam Byram is the same as it was for Jermaine Beckford, Bradley Johnson, Robert Snodgrass; the same as it will be for Alex Mowatt, Lewis Cook, Charlie Taylor. Good enough to play for more ambitious teams than Leeds United, they tie their fates to the ambitions of Leeds United, and risk the consequences for their career as those ambitions become dust.

Sam Byram, so the current popular narrative goes, has not lived up to the potential he showed when he first broke into the first team and swept all the player of the year awards. But Sam Byram, since he broke into the first team, has played in sides that have been grubbing around nearer the third division than the first, managed by Neil Warnock, Brian McDermott, Dave Hockaday, Darko Milanic and Neil Redfearn, who spoke out last season and spoke out plainly: Sam Byram’s career has not been managed properly by the managers of the team.

Somebody tweeted during the week to the effect that Sam Byram owes Leeds United another contract, because Leeds United made him what he is. What Leeds United have made him is a player who is slightly-too-good for The Championship, without a recognised position, underpaid relative to his peers, suffering a crisis of confidence. If he’d never been at Leeds — if he’d come through the youth set up and into the first team at Everton, say, or Tottenham or even Southampton, our old nemesis from League One — he could be an England international right now, one of the stars of the Premier League. With his talent and application, Sam Byram could have progressed quite happily as a footballer if there had never been any such thing as Leeds United; in fact he could have progressed further. So who owes who?

Perhaps it’s not a question of anybody owing anybody anything, but one thing Cellino achieved with his comments this week was to make the situation incredibly personal. “He’s been offered a contract a few times, he didn’t want to sign and I am deeply offended,” he said, reaching an arm out so Terry could pass him his handbag. “I can’t believe that we’ve fallen out with it. I am so hurt inside that if he comes asking for a contract I would prefer to sign someone else.”

Or, as it was put in This Sporting Life in 1963, “He thought he had some sort of ownership over you. He just doesn’t like to see it taken away.” Who actually is being hurt when Sam Byram declines a new contract; Leeds United or Massimo Cellino?

Massimo Cellino is the reason we know about it. Sam Byram hasn’t made any public statements about his future; he hasn’t demanded any transfers. He hasn’t, as far as we’re aware, demanded a pay increase; the pay decrease on offer probably stopped that idea in its tracks. Sam Byram has, instead, not signed a contract that would reduce his wages, and continued to do his job for Leeds United, for £5,000 per week less than Steve Morison got for not doing his. To extrapolate those numbers, while Steve Morison was at Leeds, he made nearly £2.1m; Sam Byram made £1.5m.

It’s those kinds of figures that lead to players being condemned as greedy whenever the subject of a new contract comes up; Sam Byram has so much money, goes another trope of the week, he could afford to take a pay cut. And that’s absolutely true. But what is there to suggest that pay is the problem? Luke Murphy accepted a pay cut, in return for a contract extension of three seasons. Byram could afford the pay cut. But he can’t afford the three seasons.

“But when I hear that a player from Leeds, with his agent, that he thinks that Leeds is not big enough for him, that he wants something bigger, I felt really embarrassed,” said Cellino, expecting sympathy for his blushes. But Cellino should be embarrassed, because it is embarrassing, and it’s his fault.

Of all the things Cellino has promised, whether it’s the Champions League, promotion within two seasons (starting from when?), or buying back Elland Road, his main failure is that he has not yet built a football club where a young footballer like Sam Byram can have faith in his future. Where a quality player can ignore the lure of Premier League clubs, because he is sure that he’ll be there soon enough with Leeds United. Where a developing talent can be confident that the coaching and management is helping him to his full potential. Where Sam Byram will sign a contract to keep playing for Leeds United because of the exciting future, not out of perceived debts due for his past.

Massimo Cellino hasn’t built that club. He’s built a club that wasted a season and had to start again, where any capable administrator walks out after a matter of months, where Verne Troyer is a regular guest in the boardroom and on the official website; and where the fans will spend the next few months until Sam Byram’s departure arguing about whether to barrack him or not, all because Massimo Cellino felt “embarrassed” and went running to Sky Sports to turn the fans against a 22 year old player who has been more popular at Leeds United, and given more pleasure to Leeds United fans, than Massimo Cellino ever will.

It will be a few months, because Cellino chose to condemn Byram at the end of a transfer window, rather than at the start, meaning there won’t be a swift conclusion — unless we let him leave on an emergency loan. To understand Cellino’s reasoning, you only have to go back to the account he gave of his behaviour when selling Ross McCormack:

“For a while I was keeping him for my satisfaction, to show him I was stronger than him,” said Cellino. “Then someone asked me ‘are you not selling him for the good of Leeds or just to show that you’re stronger than him?’ I had to do what was right for Leeds. So I told Fulham ‘okay, you say £10m, I say £11m.’ And we sold.”

The next few months, branded as a contract rebel, are the price Sam Byram will pay for his ambition; and for embarrassing a man who thought he owned him. For not being content with mediocrity, he will be booed. For not wanting to waste his talent in the bottom half of the second division, he will be sent curses in capital letters on social media. For wanting to play in a better team, with better players, a better manager, and a better owner, to see if he can himself be a better player than he is now, everything good he ever did for Leeds United will be forgotten, by some, buried not by anything Sam Byram said or did, but by what Massimo Cellino has said about him.

"“Look,” Sam will ask himself over the next few months, as his form wavers, as Buckley, Berardi and Botaka take his place in the side, as Leeds fans berate his poor form even as Premier League clubs draw up wild, promising contracts. “Am I a good footballer, or am I not?”

After asking the woman at the party that question in This Sporting Life, Frank Machin casts her roughly aside, and then we see him, beer bottles in hand, wandering insanely over the tracks in a railway yard. An express steams by, and Frank grins at it, as if seeing beneath its heavy iron wheels an answer to the question that is tormenting him. “Am I a good footballer, or am I not? Am I a good footballer, or am I not? Am I a good footballer, or am I not?”

That won’t be Sam Byram’s fate. Sam Byram will move to the Premier League, and he’ll rediscover his form, develop to his full potential, and spend the best years of his career being very well paid to play football at the top level. The price paid for his ambition will be worth it, because Sam Byram is a good footballer.

I wish I had such confidence in Leeds United’s future; I wish Leeds United had Sam Byram’s ambition; I wish Leeds United had Sam Byram’s ability to pay, instead of embarrassment, hurt, and wishes.

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