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the square ball week: football circles

the square ball week: football circles


The ball is round, as many have observed, and the field is rectangular; football itself is circular.

League tables are presented like ladders, straight up and down, or pyramids; tournaments are brackets. But the rhythm is circular. It’s mostly the same teams coming round again every season, and variety seized upon when fixtures are announced and a team is found that we haven’t seen for a while. The chief interest for a lot of Leeds fans in the Premier League relegation battles is that it might bring about the chance to visit Villa Park again.

The people, too, circulate, the same players and managers revolving around the same clubs. The pool is limited, after all. Things have moved on since the days when players would start at Torquay, advance their careers to Swindon or a Bristol side, then go back to Torquay for the twilight of their career; we have reasonable train travel and decently maintained roads these days, which helps players get about a bit more. But familiar players stay familiar, even after they’ve gone.

Jonny Howson scored a great goal for Norwich this week, and the night before Leeds lost to an Ipswich team that has Jonathan Douglas in it. Match of the Day and that Channel 5 thing sometimes feel like clip compilations of our ex-players, and in recent weeks Elland Road has reverberated with half-hugs and backslaps as Simon Grayson, Paul Huntington, Paul Green, Frazer Richardson and Neil Redfearn (twice) all came back to visit; the second time, Redders brought Andy Hughes and Luciano Becchio with him, the friendliest haunting since Casper (still occasionally seen with Brighton).

It’s not surprising, then, that when Leeds United announced a new executive director this week, he wasn’t new at all, but was our old Commercial Director, Paul Bell, come back again from a time as Chief Operating Officer at Sheffield Wednesday. Oh, I thought, that guy again. Great.

It’s difficult to bust away from your past in football, and Bell was only gone from Elland Road for about a year, not long enough to remember that he was the a key part of commercial activities during the ownerships of Ken Bates and Gulf Finance House; days we all look back on with great fondness, I’m sure. Paul Bell does; he “grew the club’s hospitality base to its highest level since their time in the Champions League,” which means in large part that he helped spend the Fabian Delph transfer fee on the East Stand’s executive boxes. (Delph is another you can still watch on the telly, if you want.)

My main memory of Paul Bell’s time at Leeds was an infuriating exchange one Friday night on Twitter back in 2011, when he seemed determined not to see any advantage in Leeds United having a presence on the very platform we were using, despite every Premier League club (except Manchester United, as he kept pointing out) having a presence, and Arsenal having at that time more than one million followers; and despite the club’s commentator and press officer, Thom Kirwin and Paul Dews having to act by default as unofficial-official club spokespeople on Twitter, amassing thousands of followers and endless grief in proof of the demand. Bell was unrepentant; Manchester United didn’t have Twitter, therefore he wasn’t convinced of the value. He was similarly unrepentant about unveiling a Leeds United home shirt with a massive blue stripe down the middle.

Maybe he really will be a lot better this time, after his time at Sheffield Wednesday, after his promotion. Sheffield Wednesday fans largely blame him for their sky-high ticket prices this season, but it’s fair to say that with the pie-tax Cellino is already well ahead of Bell there; in keeping with the him-again theme, a Portsmouth fan soon got in touch, remembering Paul Bell from his time as commercial director at Fratton Park as the club’s financial implosion truly took hold. “Good luck with that, mush,” said our sympathetic Pompey friend.

Portsmouth are a club where it paid off for the fans to keep following the trails. There isn’t space to go into the Pompey ownership web here, but suffice to say it involves people that probably never actually existed; and it involved many repetitions of the same names reappearing in different forms. The to Elland Road return of anyone from the Bates era should be regarded with at least a pause for thought (unless, like, it’s Luciano Becchio); Bell is not alone in that, as the club seems to find it impossible to ever wash Andrew Umbers out of its hair.

But along with the suspicion is tiredness. Couldn’t we just have, y’know, someone new? Someone whose name I don’t read and laugh at? A surprise, a change, someone to shake up the dusty cycle of dreary old faces?

In one of Massimo Cellino’s earliest press conferences, while talking about how Ross McCormack is a “bloody talent” that he wouldn’t sell at any price, Cellino laid down some exciting credentials. “I know Maradona personally, I know van Basten, Gullit, I know all these people. That is my life!” But it’s not the life he has brought to Elland Road. ‘I know Dave Hockaday personally, I know Terry George, Milanic, I know all these people. That is my life!’

The introduction of an executive director into Cellino’s lacklustre life at Leeds is an interesting move, given how determined he has been to do without. Adam Pearson left? No problem, Massimo will just work twice as hard; Pearson’s time at Leeds began in retrospect began to look like an interruption to Cellino’s normal, a normal where Cellino does everything, alone. Hiring Pearson at all became a temporary admission of weakness.

Pearson, another name from Leeds United’s past, did make himself felt while he was back at Elland Road; the club was being run so much better than when Cellino was left to his own devices that you could feel it. His absence has been an equally easy feel. It didn’t take long for Cellino to go back around the circle to his pre-Pearson behaviours, and what Paul Bell has done by returning is strap himself again to the roulette wheel within the football wheel that is spins constantly behind the scenes at Elland Road.

It’s not a roulette wheel that has brought us much luck for a long time. Perhaps Paul Bell, like Steve Evans over the last couple of weeks, can get enough chips out of the spins to build up some credit from the inevitable spirals ahead. Evans is on the brink of a spiral this weekend; he didn’t take defeat to Ipswich well, and the image of the suave soccer boss giving an in-depth interview to The Times — even if it did include a lengthy, nauseating arse-lick of Alex Ferguson — turned over again to reveal the touchline bully boy who used to be escorted from dugouts by the police. Football’s a circle, so it’s fair that we should go round and round; tornado or whirlpool, though, the skies or the deep, that’s the question.


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