the square ball week: the groupBack
“The group is the group,” said Garry Monk at his press conference this week. It is what it is, and we are where we, and here we go, again.
This feels like, what, the third or fourth time Leeds United have attempted to start the season, this season? QPR didn’t work out, we know that. I suggested using the first home game, against Birmingham, as a fresh go. It was anything but fresh. It was mouldy, very old boots.
The game against Fulham was a continuation and then there was the trip to Hillsborough and, at last, a clean new apple from the top of the grocer’s special reserve. Spit on it, polish it upon your breast, and let’s go beat Luton and Nottingham Forest. Part one was done, with a reservish kinda team. Part two? Well, let’s just start the season again, again, from part one, again.
Garry Monk has said that he’d prefer the transfer window to close before the season starts, but I wonder where they would have left him. He was already on a rescue mission when he joined in July, so far had things been allowed to drift while Massimo Cellino toyed with Steve Evans like a cat with a weeble, and the last thing he needed was to be acting in more haste.
That might have focused his mind, though, which is part of the point when people argue for the window and the season to coincide. You do your planning in summer, your testing in pre-season, and put it into action from the first game. If then it doesn’t work, then Cellino will waste no time finding someone else to let you know about it.
The start of this season and the extra month for squad building has meant grace for Garry, because comparing his formations against QPR and Fleetwood against those in every game since, his summer of planning and testing does not look like it worked. Monk has been able to do several things since that first week: change his plans, find players to suit his new plans, and point to an unfinished squad as an additional reason why he needs more time. (That it was only bloody August ought to have been a good enough reason on its own, but we are where we are and our owner is who he is.)
The post-QPR signings are Luke Ayling, Liam Bridcutt, Pontus Jansson and Eunan O’Kane, and all four are expected to be significant first team players (although so was Matt Grimes), and that’s what gives the game against Huddersfield it’s starting over feel, and it’s appeal. It’s nice to be going into the game with Jansson and O’Kane available, new players we can be hopeful about. That’s what was supposed to be so great about the first game of the season, until Robert Green went and spoiled it all by doing something stupid like Silvestri.
Sol Bamba is gone, which is the other big change from the first few games of the season, a change big enough to have taken place in the summer, and a change that have been better if it had. Monk says he doesn’t regret naming Bamba as captain for this season, but he must feel at least a little bit daft; although feeling daft for letting Sol go might be less shameful than feeling daft for letting Sol out on the pitch with the armband on to play as if he was a drunk mime trapped in a fairground haunted house.
What Monk might regret most is the loss of the qualities that led him to keep Bamba on as captain. Whatever the ‘personal reasons’ really were for letting him go — and I suspect the size of his personal take-home pay packet and the scale of Cellino’s beef with him had a lot to do with it — his personality will be missed at Leeds United. Because he’s pretty much the only player left who had one.
That’s what stood out about Sol from the start, compared to the milk in the rest of the side. Grinning and laughing in his post-match interview at Middlesbrough, getting serious about Cellino when the reckoning came, Bamba stood out from the crowd because there wasn’t a language barrier like with, say, Bellusci; there wasn’t a dickhead barrier like with, say, Bellusci; and he wasn’t too young to have developed self-confidence beyond kicking a ball like, bless ‘em, little Sam, Lewis or Charlie (Alex Mowatt, who as I always love to mention was a freestyle rapper before he was a footballer, is an exception in this case).
In between were a bunch of players who were okay at football but all much of a muchness as characters; indistinct accents, bland opinions, cliche dictionaries close at hand; I can’t have been the only one to have clicked to watch an interview with Scott Wootton, reach the end, then click to watch it again because I felt like I’d blacked out for four minutes.
And in the squad right now is that same mixture of kids (mostly newer, even younger and even shyer ones), milquetoast, and new signings yet to assert themselves, and no obvious captains. Garry Monk says he knows who his new captain is, and will tell the players and let us see when the team is named to play Huddersfield, and if we’re looking for indications of the character of the new start we’re hoping to make, a start that will hopefully leave to a middle and a successful end along down the line, that will be as good a place to start as any.
The group is the group, now, and Garry has to work with what Garry has got. It might not be enough, and that might be on Cellino and Ben Mansford, for not backing him or doing the right deals. But that’s a conversation for another day. Whatever’s lacking and whatever the reasons for it, Monk’s job is to coach it in and make it right. It’s his job if it isn’t and the recriminations can come then, if they have to. But usually if a coach gets four fresh starts from Cellino, it’s because he’s hired them four times and sacked them three.