the square ball week: wishing for itBack
Sam Allardyce for England. It’s the culmination of all Mike Bassett banter; every Dave Hockaday joke now dies on the lips. England’s greatest exports: tea, punk, and now, four four fucking two. Assuming, that is, the world will buy it.
In one respect Allardyce is the perfect manager at the perfect time, for a team that, with every generation of gold, only reveals more imperfections; whose current generation is relying on recent graduates from lower or even non-leagues, tasked with unlocking international sides who have taken tiki-taka back inside their mums’ houses for tea and won’t be out to play again until their homework — their ultra defensive homework — is finished.
I’ll whisper this, but I was a little bit bored during Euro 2016; the late goals became an in-commentary meme to keep viewers hooked, but the fact was those viewers were having to wait a long time between the moments of the excitement the advertising montages promised would pack Italy vs Sweden and Portugal vs Austria, as indeed were the nervous makers of the montages. Ibrahimovic? Ronaldo? Yeah, they were playing. But Buffon and and Pepe were dictating these games.
The expectation of Allardyce is that he’ll get England playing up to that new lockout international standard by sending out sides that are hard to beat. He can make players play better, make the defence more defensive, and if he can find a Youri Djorkaeff or a Jay-Jay Okocha and allow them to indulge themselves by feeding the modern-day Kevin Davies, Jamie Vardy, then England will 1-0 their way to the World Cup final.
That’s the theory, anyway. One question about the theory is whether all those claims about Big Sam’s abilities are actually true. Bolton was a trip, underdogs punching, sure; but it was fuelled by a combination of total faith in sports science and a big budget that meant Wanderers could attract Djorkaeff, Okacha, Iván Campo, Michael Ricketts. The Lowryesque atmosphere of duller Lancashire always gave Bolton’s exploits in the Premier League and Europe that against-the-odds charm, despite what they really cost, but since he’s struck out on his own Allardyce has never quite been able to deliver as an overdog in the same way.
The other question is about whether what Allardyce is presumed to offer is what England wants anyway. Culture is a word that has been thrown around a lot since his appointment became news, with some celebrating a return to English football cultural values that they think Allardyce represents, and others decrying a return to English football cultural values that they think Allardyce represents.
It’s a debate that crops up from time to time, but often without much thought about what the core words in the debate mean. What even is England’s football culture, anyway? It’s everything from half-backs to rattles to lads in Stone Island jackets; its icons are everything from Terry Butcher bleeding to Jules Rimet gleaming to lads in Stone Island jackets. From these things and more we weave something called English football culture and expect it to beat the world.
But we’ve been putting a lot of effort into the football side of things, too. The National Football Centre at St George’s Park opened, late and over budget, naturally, in 2012, eleven years after Howard Wilkinson had proposed it, more than twenty years after he had proposed and then built something similar on a smaller scale at Leeds.
St George’s Park is to be the basecamp of all England football’s coaching; the place coaches go to learn how to coach, where players go to learn how to play, before they go out across the country and coach and play to a consistent, excellent standard. It’s a top-down, centralised approach to building and spreading a common football culture, but even if it works, that will take years to take hold.
At Leeds Thorp Arch was roughly five years in the planning and then five years in the proving, before players like Jonathan Woodgate and Alan Smith broke through, and players like James Milner and Aaron Lennon inspired confidence that a regular tap of class was now flowing; and that was only to build one team in one city. St George’s Park is intended to build many teams in many cities in a country, and it won’t happen overnight; and not everyone has the faith in Howard Wilkinson’s ideas that Leeds fans have. Or had; even we lost patience in 1996, eight years into his ten year plan.
Hence the debates over who should sit in the dugout for England. One day, when the lessons The FA want all its coaches to learn are widespread, the appointment might come a little more naturally, but Allardyce is taking the job in a gap between the start of a project and its fruition. Nobody has an answer about what English football culture is, because it’s at that awkward in-between stage when it can’t resist peer pressure or the urge to try new, experimental things that it might be bored of in a few years, or when the next new trend hits.
Which is the point at which this comes back around to Leeds United. I always felt like I could, even after everything, still identify a steady cultural thread not just inherent in Leeds United, but dominant. Until I saw a tweet last week from Tadcaster Albion, complimenting our U21 players for leaving the changing rooms at the i2i Stadium cleaner than they found them after their friendly. I mean, that’s nice. And I wouldn’t want Leeds United to go around trashing up the grounds of our non-league near neighbours. Except… except that I kind of would.
But then, this is the Leeds United that has Greenpeace on its kids’ shirts this season. It’s not that Thistle Hotels were particularly tough — thistles always make me think of The Family Ness — but football’s different now; so it’s betting for the grown-ups, whales for kids. That much, at least, is clear.
But on the pitch? There, the question of culture is even more confused than it is for England. The FA, at least, have implemented a plan based on fostering a culture. Leeds United, when we were great, implemented plans based on fostering a culture: Don Revie created a footballing family at Elland Road, Howard Wilkinson created a siege mentality at Elland Road and a ‘greenhouse for growing footballers’ at Thorp Arch.
What is the culture at Leeds United right now? Our seventh head coach in two seasons, and seventh set of backroom staff, will have his own ideas; Garry Monk certainly knows how he wants his side to play. But culture comes from somewhere deeper than that, and extends further than style of play, and delving into it at Leeds turns up — not much.
What is the culture upon which Leeds United Football Club is being built? There are statements about plans about intentions about aims for promotion, in the form of money back offers if United don’t make the play-offs; but then there are comments like these from the man who sets the tone: “I do not want Premier League football; I wish for it. I am very superstitious. If you want something in football you never get it. If you wish for something then you get it.”
Massimo Cellino said that around the same time that he was lambasting Sam Byram because he, “Maybe thinks Leeds United is too small for him.” Six months further on and Leeds United shows signs of getting its act together in some ways; that money-back offer as a statement of intent, sponsors on the front of attractive new shirts, a highly regarded young head coach in the dugout, two executives where before there were none, an end to the pie-tax and implementation of sensible kid’s prices.
And yet we remain in fundamental disagreement with a full-back. Sam Byram has gone, and now it’s Charlie Taylor who is said, by chief executive Ben Mansford, not to want to extend his current deal with Leeds United. The recriminations have started about that already, but they start so quickly these days because, if anything is ingrained in the culture at Leeds United these days, it’s the running down of young players’ contracts and the associated recriminations, arguments and, ultimately, sales.
The loss of Charlie Taylor in the current transfer window would be a different kind of blow to the sales of Byram and Cook so far (and I’m taking, as an arbitrary cut off point for a period of time to talk about, the season ticket campaign that used those three and Alex Mowatt), in that when Byram went we still had Berardi, when Cook went we still had Mowatt, Murphy, Grimes and co, but if Taylor goes, we have… Berardi? Or maybe Sol Bamba, he wears three. There is Gabriele Perico, a 32 year old ex-Cagliari trialist, but he has come after Garry Monk decided not to persist with moves for Conor McLaughlin and Reece Wabara, suggesting a conflict at the heart of Leeds United’s recruitment policies: Monk is demanding better than we have, being offered worse than we’ve got, and losing the little good that we had.
Which, extending the period back further, feels like a summary of the culture that has taken hold of Leeds United in recent years, into which Monk has stepped. We sell Snodgrass, demand better, get Varney; sell McCormack, demand better, get Doukara; sell Lees, demand better, get Bellusci; the constant erosion of quality is matched by the erosion of optimism and the constant recrimination and argument; and the template for it all is dictated now by a man too superstitious to plan.
Wherever Sam Allardyce takes England, at least there is the prospect of planning to prop up hope for the future; it might not work, but at least The FA can point to evidence that they know what they’re doing. Wherever Garry Monk takes Leeds United, it will be hard for the club to argue that anything other than dumb luck, faith and wishes in place of plans were the tools that took him there: whether that’s the top of the world, or the bottom of the league.