the square ball week: leeds united, day after tomorrowBack
The Olympics have barely started, so I really don’t know what business the 2016/17 season of the English Football League Championship has beginning already.
I don’t feel ready. I don’t feel like it’s real, either. Starting away at QPR, a day after everyone else, doesn’t help; nor does being drawn away to Fleetwood, making it feel like an awful long time before Leeds will actually play at Elland Road and start things properly. That first home game, against Birmingham, will be quickly followed by another, Fulham, and very soon the season will be four games old and the world of Leeds United will look very different.
To put that into context, pre-season only started five games ago; two of those were practically a double header, on consecutive days against Guiseley and Peterborough. Pre-season has flown by. The new season hasn’t crept upon Leeds United so much as leapt from the bushes like a cat attacking a toddler.
United have been busy this summer, but so much still feels unsettled. Leeds have not, in any of the friendlies, played what could be described as a first choice first eleven; against Atalanta we had a trialist in what I quaintly still think of as Sam Byram’s position, and since then we’ve made a legitimately exciting signing, Pablo Hernandez, and not signed a player who is included in most fans’ preferred line-ups, Liam Bridcutt. Against Atalanta Sol Bamba looked eminently replaceable, if we can find someone fit we can afford; and since Atalanta Charlie Taylor has submitted his request for a transfer and been refused, throwing the defence further into doubt.
There are plenty of clubs in similar positions, or even worse (hi, Hull City and Charlton Athletic, commiserations on the continuing toxic impact of your incompetent owners; there but for the grace of oh, yeah). There are no rules that say you have to do your transfer business early in the summer — the window stays open for another month, after all — but there probably is something in the coaching handbooks about getting your preferred first team organised as soon as you can.
But there is certainly something to be said about pressing home any advantage that you can find, and so it’s frustrating to find Leeds United dwelling among the herd when there was a clear and present opportunity to force ourselves if not into the spendthrift echelons of Newcastle, Norwich and Aston Villa, then at least into the tier of the properly prepared.
Instead, and this is the source of the frustration, Leeds United spent months toying with Steve Evans and trawling for replacements, rather than identifying Garry Monk early — he was out of work, and said (they all say it) to have been up for the challenge immediately he was asked — and giving him a full summer’s run at the season.
That refusal to make the best of an opportunity, for reasons that defy common sense, feels like such a Leeds United way of going about things that it’s hard to see us doing anything but continuing it. The transfer dispute with Charlie Taylor is a prime example; with four of the best young talents in the country in the first team, Leeds United have contrived to fall out with two, selling one of them so far, and to sell another with only the faintest gesture at trying to keep him out of Bournemouth’s clutches. How did all that actually happen?
Perhaps it’s history now, although Taylor is not quite; but it’s history that will cast a shadow, as history tends to do. Ex-players don’t disappear, and every move Leeds United make for the next decade or more will take place in the shadow cast by the players we let go. Lewis Cook has already started, with an exquisite pre-season goal for his new club that was tweeted and replayed repeatedly for the benefit of his former fans; it was nice, meanwhile, to see Kemar Roofe open his account against Atalanta, but it wasn’t the stuff that Vines are made of — unless Atalanta are mounting a social media campaign to get rid of their goalkeeper.
And this season will being in the shadow of the last. A large part of that darkness is due to Steve Evans persisting to be out of work, despite claiming while he was still at Leeds last season to be fending off clubs of every calibre, meaning he has more media work than any viewer should be subjected to, meaning more of his claims will find their way into the conversational streams of Leeds fans than we ought to endure. This week, it’s been about how Evans would have signed the same players Monk has signed — pushing some fantasy Swansea connection for Bartley, Grimes and Hernandez, it seems, stealing Pep Clotet’s PDA to find out about Antonsson — then tipping a Championship top six that doesn’t include Leeds United, despite claiming when he was here that if he were allowed to manage the club this season and manage it his way, he’d guarantee the play-offs. “If Steve Evans is the head coach at Leeds United, you can put the kettle on for the play-offs,” is what he actually said.
Well, let’s be thankful he’s gone from here, at least. And let’s be thankful that Monk and Clotet are here, even if it’s only for the dead-behind-the-eyes barrel of unlikely optimism that is Pablo Hernandez at no.10. The annual cries that Leeds fan ought to be feeling great about the ‘best transfer window since year X’ have rung in earnest even as the best young player we’ve produced since Fabian Delph has been transferred out for a song (we never even really had a song for him in the first place), but I can’t get myself excited about Bartley (for a year), Grimes (for a year), Sacko (for a year) or Green (for a year); at the other end of the scale, £3m and four years for Roofe seems like too much for not enough.
But five months of Pablo Hernandez? That, said Goldilocks, is just right. A season spent twinkling through La Liga ought to be more than adequate preparation for blasting flame emojis across pitches from Barnsley to Burton, and the exoticism of a 31-year old Spanish winger being converted to play at no.10 elevates Leeds United, if only for this one element, into the club of clubs at least doing the minimum about getting promoted.
Hernandez represents either a Fernando Forestieri style talisman for a side with a genuine chance of going up, with the ability to either tee up Wood and Antonsson for goals they never suspected they could score, or to bypass them completely and do the hard work himself, like McCormack in his Varney-ignoring pomp; or he’ll represent a much needed distraction from the agro-industrial toil associated with a classic Leeds United struggle to 15th. Or he’ll be Tomas Brolin and Steve Stone rolled into one and be causing more arguments than either by Christmas; this is Leeds United, after all.
That much hasn’t changed, even if what that is has changed a great deal, and not much for the better. I greet new seasons now with a mixture of determination and pessimism that comes from Leeds United’s persistent existence, and its refusal to exist the way it possibly, brilliantly could.
With a little more care over the last twelve months, Leeds United could have begun this season with Byram and Taylor as full-backs, a midfield of Cook, Mowatt and Bridcutt, Hernandez in attack supporting Wood, with Dallas and yeah so shoot me I still love him Botaka on the wings; with a bit more sense in the summer, Leeds could have let Monk use game after game for that line-up to practice crushing non-league times, ready for opening day.
Instead we’ve got something that’s a bit like that but not quite as good, and a sense-defying will to be more optimistic about it than prior experience makes wise. Drag the dads off the beaches, all around the Med; football is back already, and Pablo Hernandez is ready, and Leeds United are playing, ready or not.