the square ball week: diminishing returnsBack
Leeds United released a statement about the latest accounts this week, like a teaser trailer of all the best spun bits that we’ll be deathly analysing the moment the full numbers become available from Companies House.
I’ve just about resisted the temptation to refresh the Companies House website, regular until they drop, because I remember very well the two days I spent on my own in a room at my parents’ house when I was younger, hanging up and redialling, hanging up and redialling, hanging up and redialling as I tried to get Champions League tickets. I’d just about given up when finally the phone rang, I was put into a queue, and I got one of the last seats in the ground to watch United take on Barcelona, AC Milan and Besiktas.
The feeling when I got through and got the tickets was incredible, as was the feeling when I saw, from my seat by the north-west tunnel, looking along the goal line, that Dida had dropped Lee Bowyer’s shot into the back of the net. Somehow, I don’t think downloading a pdf of Leeds United’s financial statements for 2014/15 will bring me the same pleasure, so I’m just going to leave it for now.
Instead, I’ve been looking back at that era, through the prism of a couple of turn-of-the-century issues of Leeds Leeds Leeds magazine that have been lying around; and to earlier eras, watching John Pemberton beat John Lukic Wootton-style in the away leg of the one-sided mid-nineties UEFA Cup tussle with PSV Eindhoven.
I don’t know what I’m looking for, really. In the latter case it was definitely for footage of Pembo’s OG (and if anyone has footage of him being sent off against QPR earlier in the season, hook me up), but I look at these old videos and magazines as glimpses of something, just, better. Even John Pemberton.
I was reminded of what better looks like when I watched Ross McCormack play for Fulham at Elland Road on Tuesday night. You can get a false impression about football from watching Leeds United all the time, and assume that it’s only at the top of the Premier League and in the Champions League where players can do things like trap a football and play a clever pass to a teammate in a difficult position. And yet here was McCormack, in a team no better than ours, being really good at football.
And in case I needed reminding, the boos that followed his every touch reminded me that he used to play for Leeds United, and that we don’t have players that good anymore. We have Mirco Antenucci now, and it’s only when you watch him try to control a football after you’ve seen Ross McCormack do it, that you realise just how bad his touch is; we have players like Giuseppe Bellusci, and we try to convince ourselves that they’re intelligent ball-players. At the weekend, Bellusci’s persistent forty yard passes from our empty penalty area to Watford’s penalty area said otherwise; his attempt to lob the tallest goalkeeper in the Premier League from the halfway line in the closing minutes ought to end any rumours pertaining to his brain.
A brief glance at relic from the David O’Leary era will show how far we’ve fallen. On my desk as I type is a copy of Leeds Leeds Leeds magazine from February 2001, that contains much discussion and analysis of our new signing, Rio Ferdinand. The front cover story is Harry Kewell’s return from injury and the posters are of Lee Bowyer and Olivier Dacourt. Olivier Dacourt. To think that I ever watched a player as good as Olivier Dacourt play for Leeds United.
Differences like that are stark and easily illustrated, but not every drop feels the same. It’s fifteen years since Leeds signed Ferdinand, but the gap between being English champions and Pemberton knocking in the second goal of three for PSV (who, will Luc Nilis up front and Philip Cocu to score their goals that night, hardly needed his help) was only three-and-a-half years; from Batty, McAllister, Speed and Strachan to Beesley, Bowman, Palmer and Pemberton. Mark Ford, in case you’re wondering, was on the bench.
McAllister and Speed were still there, and Gary Kelly, David Wetherall and in particular Tony Yeboah were the real deal for quality. John Lukic was another link to the title still present, but perhaps by that time he shouldn’t have been. In the first leg at Elland Road Dorigo, Deane and Wallace were in the squad but Leeds had lost 3-5, and watching the highlights, were chased all over the place by a much better team. The frustration was palpable, visible, not just from the stands; when PSV took the mick with a tee-up flick free kick, the Leeds United wall can’t hide their disgust when they see the ball sail into the net. It was as bad to be them as to watch them.
And yet I still look back on that team and those players with some real fondness, despite the diminished return they represented compared to the champs of 1991/92. Maybe it’s because time has given them context. We know now what followed Pembo and his crew, and that it was a Champions League semi-final; we can appreciate a player like David Wetherall for his service and his career, in a way that wasn’t possible in his third full season; we know, too, in a way we maybe didn’t then, that the real class of 1992 was a group of players who were playing above themselves in a way they hadn’t before and couldn’t again — that the only difference between John Pemberton and Chris Whyte was that Chris Whyte won the league.
There’s also a question of level. If Beesley and Bowman looked out of their depth against PSV Eindhoven, at least they were playing against PSV Eindhoven. And in the previous round this version of Leeds United, fallen from its title-winning pomp, had battered Monaco 3-0, largely thanks to Tony Yeboah. That’s the other thing: think Pembo, and it’s not too long before you think Yeboah, think McAllister, think Speed and Wallace and Deane. And yes, Brian Deane was a better player than you’ve been told.
To try and bridge the gap now between, say, Scott Wootton and Olivier Dacourt, the landscape is much harder to navigate, dotted with the bodies of Paul Okon, Jermaine Wright, Sean Gregan, Billy Paynter, Michael Brown. We’re not a team that might beat travel to and beat Monaco but struggle against PSV Eindhoven; we’re a team whose bus would be turned around in the car park as security insisted there had been some mistake.
Watching Ross McCormack brought that home. Some Leeds fans like to act as if his failure to get promoted with Fulham somehow demonstrates a failure on his part; as if, with seventeen goals last season and sixteen so far this, 18th in the Championship should be his level. But while McCormack keeps his personal playing standards (and his renumeration) high, Leeds United’s slip ever lower in comparison, until we reach a bottom line: we don’t stand a chance of signing a player as good as Ross McCormack today.
Or any time soon. The club have only put out a statement about the accounts so far, that is designed to emphasise the positive, and the positive news is that losses have apparently been massively reduced compared to Cellino’s first half season (and GFH’s last). But that’s not the only thing that has reduced. Turnover is down; wages are down; gates are down; and comments from Cellino to the press have indicated that, while this state of play a year ago, turnover and wages have since diminished even further while losses have gone back up. And we can all see what’s happening to attendances.
And, amid it all, what’s happening to the fun. No doubt the full accounts will cause arguments, as fans try to parse the differences between losses and debts and match the numbers to the club’s statements about the numbers; and eventually all we’ll have is a financial picture of a football club that is almost twelve months out of date already.
What can’t be argued with is what we see on the pitch. This week Lewis Cook broke five-and-a-half hours of tedium with a goal that was good enough to obliterate that boredom for five-and-a-half minutes, before a dire and diminishing team reverted to dire and diminishing form.
Which is why I spent this week reading old Leeds Leeds Leeds magazines and watching videos of Leeds United playing PSV Eindhoven, instead of waiting for the deathly drop of the accounts.