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the square ball week: sour dreams

the square ball week: sour dreams

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Sam’s gone, then; off to duke it out with Frazer Richardson for the right-back spot in the great ex-Leeds team in the sky. Or on Sky, more likely.

At the risk of repeating a theme — I’ve said it before, I’ve said it again in the new issue of The Square Ball (out tomorrow), Phil Hay said it in the YEP on Thursday — it bears reinforcing that nobody should be surprised that Sam Byram left Leeds United, nobody should blame him for going, and the word ‘greed’ should be dropped from the discussion altogether.

Sam Byram didn’t leave Leeds United for money, he left so that he could play for a better team at a higher level; and better teams at a higher level tend to pay more anyway, so it’s win-win for him.

Transfer are normally hung on money and greed, because it seems unimaginable, as a Leeds fan, that any other football team could offer anything that compares to the experience of playing for Leeds United; and, flicking through the photos of Byram in his boyhood, growing into various Leeds kits with first Flamingo Land, then Enterprise Insurance, and then finally nothing at all on the front, it’s hard to imagine what more someone who we’d like to imagine loved it at Elland Road as much as we do wants that is more than this.

But Sam Byram might well love Leeds United. He’s been at the club long enough. But just because he loves it, he doesn’t have to knot his fate to it with strong rope and risk plunging with it into the sea.

Besides, why love something that doesn’t love you back? Both me, in TSB on Saturday, and Phil Hay have invoked Robert Snodgrass as the template for Byram’s departure; a player, not only destined for greater things, but with greater things tugging at their sleeve to drag them away, finally loses patience with promises and takes his career into his own hands. There were two routes to the Premier League for Snodgrass and Byram: get there with Leeds, or get there on their own. They gave the first a shot; Snoddy was right then to opt for the second, because he’s been there and we haven’t. And now Byram has got there a long way ahead of us. Six months on the bench waiting for Carl Jenkinson to move aside is a small cost compared to six seasons (probably) waiting for Leeds to build a promotable side.

That’s the rational argument. But we were talking about whether Sam Byram loves Leeds United, and in that case it’s to Ross McCormack we must turn, and his less celebrated quote of LUFC frustration. While Snoddy had, ‘How can you say you’re going for promotion, and then sell your captain?’ McCormack is remembered for, ‘This is not the Leeds United I fell in love with.’

It’s often used to beat him with. If McCormack moves on to Middlesbrough in this transfer window, expect that line to be rolled sarcastically into play; ‘Not the Fulham/Cardiff/weekly wage I fell in love with.’ But there was a lot of truth to what McCormack said, and part of his trouble was that he often spoke the truth, as he saw it, whether it was wise to or not. People fall in love for different reasons, some of them quite selfish, and if a large part of McCormack’s love was due to the promise Leeds held for his personal ambition, it made his anger when it fell apart around him no less tangible or sincere.

The Leeds United Ross McCormack joined was the Leeds United of Max Gradel, Jonny Howson, Bradley Johnson, Robert Snodgrass, Luciano Becchio, Kasper Schmeichel; the last Leeds United team to genuinely challenge for promotion, not just talk about it. As the seasons went by, the quality of the players around McCormack deteriorated, and his responsibility grew, as his role changed, and his love grew deeper and more desperate. He’d fallen in love with a club that was going to take him to where he has always wanted to be — the Premier League — and the last act of his love was to save that club from relegation to League One.

That this was no longer the Leeds United he fell in love with didn’t mean he wasn’t in love with it anymore; it just meant the love had grown too exhausting and too painful to stay so close, that loving Leeds United was doing him more harm than good.

There were, of course, other factors at play for McCormack, in the form of Massimo Cellino. A football club is formed of different things, some of which the fans have a part in; what happens on a Saturday afternoon (assuming it hasn’t been moved), what’s said in press conferences, the coaches and players that come and go and play or don’t play and take us to fifteenth in the table.

But there is another side to the football club that works differently, is built on different attachments, but that has as much depth as the fans’ relationship with their club; and that’s the side of the people on the inside, the players and the staff. Loving Leeds United, for a fan, feels a full-time occupation; but working for Leeds United really is a full-time occupation, and while the hours are good, the toll it can take is tall.

I’ve likened Sam Byram’s experience at Leeds United to a dream, because to come from the Academy and play for his boyhood club should be a dream; and Ross McCormack talked about his time at Leeds in the terminology of dreams and romance, too. But playing for Leeds United is not a dream when you don’t enjoy going to work every day; when you work in an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear; when what is produced at the end of the working week is not good enough, and it’s not your fault.

That’s a change that came with Massimo Cellino, and McCormack felt it first. Ken Bates grumbled about Thorp Arch being like an autonomous annex, too independent of Elland Road, but he did so from the distant principality of Monaco, so an uneasy truce developed in which each just got on with most interested them: trying to build a winning team, at Thorp Arch; trying to recreate a Sim City save-game, at Elland Road.

GFH were even more dislocated than Bates, but only brought distant confusion. An email from Hisham would be contradicted by an email from Salem, and they would have the email argument in Dubai while everyone in the UK was still in bed anyway, so staff could safely wake up, skip to the end of the chain and ignore whatever new tactical innovation GFH had swiped from playing the latest FIFA. Even if GFH had known what was going on, they wouldn’t have understood what was going on, so it was best to just get on with things.

Cellino, though, was seen wandering the training pitches with Gianluca Festa months before he even unofficially took over the club and sacked Brian McDermott, let alone when he officially took over the club and sacked Brian McDermott; and he has had the most day-to-day influence of any of our most recent owners, swapping coaches day-to-day, closing the canteen, emptying the pool, cooking pre-match meals, sending furniture salesboys to training to offer advice. Cellino has picked fights with players; McCormack, Byram, Bamba (although Bamba fought first), and with coaches: McDermott, absent without leave; Steve Thompson, absented without reason; Neil Redfearn, about whom Cellino was absent of any sense. Think back to Rudy Austin’s face as Terry George announced Cellino’s pre-match pasta, and imagine going to work feeling like Rudy looked, every single day.

Mention of Bates and GFH is a reminder that the circumstances that mean Byram’s dreams have had to change from white and yellow to claret and blue aren’t all of Cellino’s making; that Massimo can’t take all the blame for the club being no more attractive to an ambitious player than it was the the day that Robert Snodgrass walked off the preseason tour — the same tour, incidentally, when Byram made his first big impression. But if the reaction to Byram’s departure has been less bilious than usual, the downside of the relative peace has been a greater acceptance of our lot: what else could we expect? We’re not a big enough club for Byram, and haven’t been for a long time. Leeds fans are facing up to that in greater numbers than before, at the end of a long, slow process of knife-twisting that began back before Fabian Delph was reinvested in the East Stand.

What Cellino has to accept, though, is that he is here, he is Leeds United’s owner, and the knife-twisting hasn’t stopped. It hasn’t stopped despite his grandiose promises that it would. Cellino has told us what he wants for Leeds United: he wants to own the stadium, he wants to own the training ground, he wants a first team with beautiful young players, and Ross McCormack; he wants to be in the Premier League next season, which is now the season after that; he wants the love of the fans and the love of the city. And he, and we, don’t have any of that, because he hasn’t done enough to make any of it happen.

Cellino says he wants to build a team around young players from the academy; giving Cook a year extension on the same terms and offering Byram a paycut say otherwise, as does chasing away the over-performing academy director in a dramatic fit of pique. Cellino says he wants Premier League football; signing Serie B players and giving them Conference level coaches says otherwise. Cellino says he wants Sky and the Football League to stop disrupting matchdays for the fans; charging category A prices with punitive ‘complaint taxes’ — as he has been translated characterising the infamous pie-tax in a (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whtWZ3x20cQ) in Italy — says otherwise.

What Cellino usually says, in fact, has more in common with what Byram, Snodgrass or McCormack have said over the years; he’s tired, the plane is much harder to push than he thought, his dream is becoming a nightmare, his balls are shrivelled and useless (he might be on his own with that last one, mind). The Leeds United in his mind, or in his heart, is a Champions League club with a team of local boys turned heroes, with Cellino — adopted Leodensian — the greatest hero of them all; and a lot of fans have been sold on that most persuasive of dreams. But even Cellino doesn’t sound like he believes in his own dream anymore.

It was a lack of personal faith in a souring dream that eventually led Cellino from the Fiat of Cagliari to the Rolls Royce of Leeds United; if he couldn’t get to glory the long way, he’d take the shortcut. Unlike Sam Byram, I fear, Cellino doesn’t have the talent to sustain the position he secured for himself at a higher level. Premier League scouts and managers looked at Byram’s dwindling performances in the Championship and saw an ailing youth they could rescue and build up to greatness, and came and got him. Cellino looked at his own dwindling performances as owner of Cagliari, and decided to sack all that off and go see if doing something much harder wouldn’t be much easier.

The question for us is not so much to do with Snodgrass, McCormack or Byram; or with Cook, Mowatt and Taylor. Their love affairs with Leeds United ended because they outgrew the relationship. Our problem is if Massimo Cellino feels the same about Leeds as he did about Cagliari; if he feels the same about Leeds as McCormack did. Cellino, as much as McCormack, fell in love with Leeds United because he thought it could deliver a dream. Cellino, just as much as McCormack, has found out that Leeds United is not the dreamy football club he fell in love with.

When that dream turns sour for a player, it’s tough to watch them leap into the arms of another club, that you know they love much less, but who in the long run may be much better for them.

What happens when the dream turns sour for an owner?

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