the square ball week: the football peopleBack
Leeds United beat Birmingham City 2-1 in midweek, and some people say that’s all that should matter. Two goals for, one goal against, three points added to a total of fifty-one.
Even in a normal week, they’d be wrong about that.
This is, in its way, a normal week for Leeds United, which might be the worst thing about it. A player banned, for biting, and unrepentant. A director facing FA sanctions for using offensive language to a fan. A court case lost, amid national media attention and widespread condemnation; an an owner, unrepentant. Another player banned unfairly by The FA. A protest march planned before the weekend’s home game. A former manager bringing the opponents to Leeds for that game, who was among the first to have felt the effects of this new normality at Leeds United.
In fact, the only unusual thing this week was that Leeds United won a game of football. That’s what stands out; everything else has become so drearily routine.
Perhaps in that case it does make sense to concentrate on the football, and certainly we should discuss it, particularly the sublime second of Stuart Dallas’s two goals. Perhaps worse for Alex Mowatt than the undeserved sending off and awfully upheld ban was seeing his goal of the season contenders, scored against Cardiff and Huddersfield, so stiffly challenged. I would still give Mowatt the edge for the Huddersfield goal, which benefited from being scored just a matter of minutes after the goal against Cardiff, creating a cumulative moment that combined the extraordinary velocity and trajectory Mowatt gave to the ball with defiance to the senses that fought to resist the nerves’ news that he’d done it bloody again.
Dallas’s was a different goal, crafty and creative; Mowatt scored with the power of a steel foundry in his boot, Dallas with the wiliness of a jewellery maker. With a moment’s thought, he bent the ball like steel wire over the stranded Birmingham keeper; the jewel came when it struck the bottom corner and rolled as if forever along the bottom of the net.
To talk about football this way, though, we have to accept that Alex Mowatt and Stuart Dallas are not just robots, rolled out on to a pitch twice weekly to secure or not secure three points. They’re humans; people. They think and feel and, then, they do.
It’s one of the most exciting things about football; the tension of expression. The individual with the ball takes on the individual without, within the complicated mechanics of two competing teams, constantly readjusting forces to find a way to score and win. The constant calibration and application of individual and team tensions for ninety minutes is what makes football the most fascinating dance, and its moments of release — a goal, a sending off, the final whistle — moments of such all-consuming emotion.
There’s so much more to football than just 2-1, so why would anyone who loves football want to reduce it to ‘we won, the end’?
‘The boat sank. So no, I don’t want to look at Leonardo Di Caprio or Kate Winslet, no matter how their beauty and performance might stir my soul. Because my soul is as dead and stripped of feeling as a skeleton on the bottom of the ocean.’
And you don’t want to hear about Lucy Ward, either, because — as I saw one person tweet this week — she wasn’t even a coach. So what part can she have played in developing a footballer? Did it matter that, as she told Josh Grainger in her recent interview for The Square Ball, she supported a sixteen year old Fabian Delph through his struggles with injuries, driving him on to his ultimate aim, of buying his mother a house? Or that when teenage goalkeeper Alex Cairns lost his brother in a car crash, Lucy was there to support him and his family through the tragedy? How did any of that help the youth team get a win that weekend?
When cleaning staff were cut from Thorp Arch, did it matter that players became ill, and the building had to be deep-cleaned? Aren’t modern footballers paid enough not to get ill, and not to care? What bearing could a stomach bug have on the team getting three points in their next game?
And what about the removal from post of Lucy Ward, or Neil Redfearn, or even the brief tenures and departures of Dave Hockaday, Darko Milanic, Uwe Rosler, their assorted coaches and staff? So what if those people were popular with players, others not; what did it matter if the working relationship Steve Thompson built with Luke Murphy by talking to him at training every day had a positive effect on the player, and the team? Shouldn’t everybody just be professional, and not let personal relationships built in dressing rooms and on training pitches from Monday to Friday affect Saturday?
Shouldn’t fans shut up about high ticket prices, as long as the team win? And about segregation in the home stands, as long as the team win? And about what club directors call the fans, as long as the team win? And about how the club treats its employees and ex-employees, as long as the team win? And about the way the behaviour of the ownership damages the club’s reputation, as long as the team win?
Because that’s all it’s about, right? Leeds United winning football matches, like they did under Don Revie, because all it’s about is winning football matches. Because it’s not about people.
Wrong. Don Revie’s Leeds United won football matches because Don Revie’s Leeds United was about people. The Lads of Leeds, sung by Ronnie Hilton in 1971, makes the point. The players made the team supreme, but we must remember the others about who are all along down Elland Road way: the reserves, and the juniors, and the coaches, and the physiotherapist, and the doctor, and the groundstaff, and the office staff, and the laundry staff, and the bar staff, and the policemen, the disc jockey (“if he plays this”).
All great lads, including the lasses, and the players were nothing but lads themselves, with Uncle Don Revie and all. It might be fashionable nowadays to sneer at the idea of football as a family sport — to say that money and business have put paid to all that — but the money is only made and the business is only kept going if people play football. And the circumstances in which people play football — putting them into changing rooms and canteens (when they’re open) and on pitches together, day after day, where relationships and understandings and misunderstandings take place, day after day — haven’t changed since Don Revie’s day.
Don Revie understood that, and Don Revie wouldn’t have let Leeds United treat people the way Massimo Cellino’s Leeds United have treated Lucy Ward, among others. Don Revie was a winner, and he made Leeds United a winning club, because he made Leeds United a family.
Because if football isn’t about people then football isn’t about anything. And then beating Birmingham 2-1 doesn’t matter at all.