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the square ball week: opportunities knocked

the square ball week: opportunities knocked

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One of the most faithful claims to the good of Massimo Cellino’s endeavours as owner of Leeds United skittled away from him last week: that he’s held on to the kids.

Held on to them by the tails, it seems, like cats, which will inevitably lead to much biting and scratching and much playing for West Ham.

Despite this, as clockwork as the end of January, I have heard it said — or, I guess, read it tweeted — that Leeds United have had “another good transfer window”.

Assuming the club isn’t picking up the tab for moving Mirco Antenucci’s collection of classic Ferraris back to Italy — if that’s what this was — then yes, perhaps we have.

But really, January 2016 has pretty much followed the same trajectory as every other January we have had or are likely to have. Business will be done early, we’re told; five or six or four or five or three or four or two or three or one or two or two players will definitely be coming in — if we can get them over the line, that is. There was a fresh dimension for 2016, and a new mental image to add to Simon Grayson’s warchest, when Steve Evans’ talked about “going in heavy” on some new signings; Evans talked about the areas we really needed to strengthen, as did the fans, then the club strengthened some entirely different areas; then we gradually realised why there was so much publicity about signing Willie McKay’s twin lads from Doncaster: because we were signing no bugger else and Monty Gimpel isn’t fooling anybody anymore.

At his pre-Bolton press conference Evans took grim optimism to newly deluded levels, splitting definitions about whether Cellino said there would be no more new signings or that more new signings would be unlikely, and what does that mean anyway, really, if you really stop and think about it for a minute, I mean really think? You can’t spell ‘unlikely’ without ‘likely’, can you? So what the president presumably meant was the a new striker and centre half are absolutely nailed on to arrive.

“We’ve had too many games where it’s been a forty-five or sixty minute performance, not ninety,” said Evans. “Better players will help the group.” He didn’t say anything about an alternative scenario, perhaps waiting for news on Chris Wood’s injury before throwing himself upon Antenucci, like Moby Dick attacking the Pequod.

To say we haven’t signed any bugger might be unfair. We’ve got Liam Bridcutt (until the end of the season), who made a crucial steel difference to Leeds United’s midfield (although not when Brentford were running through it to score a goal); Mustapha Carayol (until the end of the season) who looks like he’s going to be frustrating (which is the polite way of saying rubbish) but score loads of good goals, which means we’ll have to argue about him constantly (I’m on Team Botaka; sorry, Muzzy); and Toumani Diagouraga, who has had half an hour so far but who, judging from every available description, we had to wait until now to sign so that we’d all forget that if we’d just kept Rudy Austin we wouldn’t need him. But then, Rudy Austin in January wouldn’t be shiny and new, and shiny and new conquers all.

One permanent midfielder and two loan midfielders are alright, but after Murphy, Cook, Mowatt, Dallas, Adeyemi, Phillips, Botaka, Sloth, Bianchi (ta ta, though) and even one of the McKay twins, Diagouraga, Bridcutt and Carayol do seem to be gilding an already gilt lily. In Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans, Jean des Esseintes’ determination to live a life of aesthetic ecstasy causes him to embed so many gemstones into the shell of a tortoise that it collapses under the weight and dies. And isn’t that exactly like the Leeds United midfield, hmm?

There were advance murmurings that if United didn’t spend much during this window, it would be a sign that all was not well financially. Phil Hay’s column on the forthcoming accounts outlines some of the challenges Cellino has faced, challenges which may have been eased by the sale of Sam Byram — they were behind the initial, problematic request that Byram take a pay cut — but which still remain in forms that put the lads left behind at risk.

“Given the size of the bids we’ve had they’d have left already at most clubs,” said Evans at this press conference, while the little Leeds fan on his shoulder hissed at him to shut up. “The president’s been outstanding and kept those players,” he continued, as the hissing grew louder. “He’s confided in me about the some of the bids and I’ve thought ‘wow’,” he said, and the little Leeds fan stuck a fork in his cheek and told him to shut his mouth, shut his stupid blabbing mouth right now.

“I sit here and not for one second do I think any of our exciting youngsters will leave this club in this window,” Evans added, a week to the day since one did, and you begin to wonder what goes through his mind when he says this stuff. He says he’s been backed “100%” by “the president”; he swears blind “the president” hasn’t said he won’t get any more players, and he says he’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t get any more players; and he’s clearly kidding himself if he thinks he’s getting any more players. Is he kidding himself about the outgoings, too?

The signal I’m picking up, and the worry that nags at me, is not that United are enduring a Batesian transfer window of deliberate dismantling. Like Evans with Byram, back in 2012 Simon Grayson thought he’d be getting the money from Jonny Howson’s sale to spend; that was the final straw that broke Grayson, whereas Evans is a born camel. The vibe this winter is less malicious, and more delinquent. I’m not sure Cellino’s mind is on the football team.

The inclination of Cellino’s current thinking was demonstrated when he texted Adam Pope to explain that the court hearing of the Lucky23 yacht case (not the one he was done for, the one he might be done for) was nothing to worry about because the law would be changing in twelve months to mean that what he did wouldn’t be a crime anymore anyway — not that he did it; texted while Adam Pope was describing what was happening in Leeds United’s match at Brentford to listeners to BBC Radio Leeds and Five Live Sports Extra. Never mind the football match, Adam, what about this Italian legal technicality?

Cellino’s deal with Evans was, according to Evans, that if the side was within six points of a play-off place in January then players would be brought in to push Leeds into contention. The gap now is ten points, and Cellino has other things on his mind; court appearances, Rule K arbitrations, fights with Sky TV, fights with supporters, interviews in Italy about Cagliari Calcio and, I guess, the odd night out here and there (if you twist his arm).

Little things like signing players that would improve the football team seem far from Cellino’s thoughts. The phone rings, Steve Evans stresses the importance of signing Kyle Lafferty, Massimo tells him he’s right on it, it’s his next phone call, he’s been working hard on it all weekend in fact; Massimo hangs up, sighs, and pours a jug of creamiest goat milk over his head. “Idiota!” he says, speed-dialing his lawyers in Italy. “Lafferty, my balls Lafferty.”

Which is great because Lafferty on loan would be a painful waste of time and money. But there are surely players that would not be a waste of time and money, players that could improve the team this season and into next, players that the fans might enjoy watching, meaning a better atmosphere at games and that more people might turn up, and not object to the ticket prices, and might even buy a pie. It all starts with, and all comes down to, the team, after all.

Waving his hand to clear the steam from his bath of boiling milk, Cellino looks at the caller ID as his phone plays his new Mötley Crüe ringtone. Edoardo… meh. Ah, Edoardo Howe? Oh, okay. Si?

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