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the square ball week: what is it?

the square ball week: what is it?

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It’s not a cup final. Repeat, it’s not a cup final.

Apart from anything else, you don’t get a cup, and if that’s important, perhaps Leeds United and Huddersfield Town should review their attitudes towards the West Riding County FA Cup. It’s there if we want it, everybody.

Nobody needs or wants a cup for beating Huddersfield, but perhaps there should be some form of acknowledgement for getting through these games; a certificate for surviving the weirdness. United versus Town doesn’t have the bracket-defining edge of a cup final, and never will (even in the County Cup), but Saturday will be another day when astrological alignment, or an excess of purple, or whatever, makes the match more than mundane.

The fixture has quietly acquired that edge over the last seasons, as a date not so much for the settling of bragging rights — bragging about beating Huddersfield is like bragging about a swimming badge — but as a game that will have something more. For example Adam Clayton, the silly arse, scoring a penalty following his move from Leeds to Town and sliding knee first into the groin of Neil Warnock, the other silly arse, a gesture made irrelevant when a sixteen yard Luciano Becchio header topped off a David Norris snapshot strike.

Read that last sentence back and try to think about the artificial conditions that would be necessary for all that to happen again, in a laboratory.

Likewise the season before last at Elland Road, the morning after mad Friday, the day when Massimo Cellino got real, and got chased. The surreal details have been a little lost since, so not enough is made, for example, of the goal that Jimmy Kebe scored that day. Alex Mowatt curved a sharp pass up the pitch to Ross McCormack; he controlled, backheeled, and then skipped away in delight, anticipating what Kebe could do; Kebe, upending every expectation, flicked the ball past a defender on the edge of the box and met its descent at the perfect confluence of boot, ball and Smithies to chip it into the roof of the goal. Jimmy Kebe. Jimmy Kebe did that.

And Ross McCormack scored a hat-trick and Rudy Austin picked him up and dropped him like burning bagpipes, and Brian McDermott got his job back, and high in the East Stand, Andrea Tabanelli posed for selfies with fans and broke their cameras, with his beauty, as he broke their hearts. As regular readers will know, I still check in on Andrea from time to time, and yes, I still regret that this could be yours and mine. Of all the reasons to put Massimo Cellino’s face on a billboard this weekend, not filling out Tabanelli’s paperwork properly is definitely number one.

That game will probably be regarded by history as a watershed moment for Leeds United, but we can’t categorise it yet. It was impossible that day to know what Leeds United was to become, or even what it was, but what has been constant since then has been that: the vagueness. We’re a vague club now, with vague promises and vague results, characterised more by unease than by skill; that 5–1 was our last unequivocal, inarguable, thumping emphatic win.

Our nearest moments to clarity, since then, have come against Huddersfield. The furore of the ending of Redfearn’s second caretaker spell last season obscures the memory of the end of his first, a 3–0 win over Huddersfield in which United played as well as they had since Cellino became official owner, capped a post-Hockaday run of three wins and a draw, allowed Massimo to march across the pitch from West Stand to East in celebration and his assorted children to revel on social media; after which Redfearn was replaced by Darko Milanic.

The most optimistic moment of Redfearn’s second spell, just before he got to grips with United after Darko and United got good, came at the John Smith’s Stadium and had Billy Sharp’s nipples as its emblem. In one magic injury time moment, his nipples scored a winner, his nipples wounded a Town defender, his nipples were thrust into the hot bath of the Leeds away’s support; they were with us in the pubs of Huddersfield the rest of that afternoon, they were with us on the train, they were the trophies we carried through the streets of Leeds. (If ever there are thoughts about awarding a cup for Leeds vs Huddersfield, a plaster cast of Sharp’s chest should be the first stage of the design.)

And then there was this season. Leeds United have announced on the eve of the game that Alex Mowatt’s goal against Huddersfield is being submitted for consideration as the Championship’s goal of the season. The Football League are struggling to give it due consideration, however, as the footage melts any medium that tries to record and contain its image. Lewis Cook scored a great goal recently against Fulham. Alex Mowatt scored another good goal just before the Town golazo against Cardiff. But it was only against Huddersfield that he did something with his left foot that almost reduced him to disbelieving tears; perhaps because he’d done something great just days before, the goal at Huddersfield didn’t just inspire awe at its physical manifestation, but represented a peak of emotional whelming it remains a struggle, months later, to process. Don’t only look at Alex Mowatt’s boot when he kicks that ball. Don’t look at the ball as it hits the net. Look at his face, and don’t give him goal of the season, give him goal of the feeling.

All of which brings us to tomorrow. It’s a Saturday match, it kicks off at 3pm, it’s at Elland Road, there are no promotions at stake, no relegations (well, not immediately), no trophies. But it is attracting an unusually large crowd to watch something as mundane and awful as Leeds United playing football, which means there must be something extra to see. If Leeds United win, that would be four consecutive wins for the first time since the days of Grayson, a significant enough disruption to ordinary civilisation. Four wins in a row seem so outlandish that we can’t possibly expect them, but if that’s not the twist tomorrow, what is?

It’s not a cup final. Repeat, it’s not a cup final. But what is it?

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