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the square ball week: identity

the square ball week: identity

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Garry Monk’s prickly interview with the BBC’s Adam Pope after the defeat to Huddersfield Town made identity the word of the week, for a couple of days.

Beating Blackburn Rovers altered the terms. After that match Monk loosened up, defrosted, and admitted that at Leeds we haven’t seen much so far of what Monk sees as, in a gentler mode, his football philosophy.

That admission, and the reversion to the formation and tactics of 2016/17’s pre-season and opening week, feels like an explanation for Monk’s rancour last Saturday. He’d been caught out. Questions about Monk and his team’s identity or philosophy are perfectly valid; he spoke a lot about that kind of thing when he arrived at Leeds in the summer, and the club’s official YouTube channel even hosts an edit from his first press conference entitled ‘Garry Monk’s Football Philosophy.’ And the manager that bested him at Elland Road, David Wagner, had given a deep interview to The Guardian in the build up in which he discussed his version of the same thing.

The subject was in the air, but not on the pitch. A key comment from Wagner, not given to The Guardian but to Huddersfield Examiner after their opening game win over Brentford, is: “We spoke about our togetherness, but we said we had to show it. We spoke about our identity, too, but these are only words – we had to go out there and give our identity life.” That’s what Monk has not done, yet, and that’s probably why he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Before any of this folk out here in the world of terraces and fanzines have been preoccupied with the disintegrating identity of Leeds United for years. Crisis moments of my adult life following Leeds United have included Peter Ridsdale’s move away from Elland Road to Stourton Grange; the Chelsea Mafia years of Ken Bates, Gwyn Williams, Yvonne Allen and Dennis Wise; the plunge to the Third Division for the first time in our history; the mysteries of offshore ownership, of the club and the stadium, not resolved by GFH; the bubbling rumours about Red Bull, ready to dissolve our club’s heritage like rust off a penny.

Those of us who have been here through some or all of that have had the identity of Leeds United on our minds the whole time. It’s the sound of a carnival carousel of criminal clowns screaming ‘We Are Leeds, The Past is the Paaaaaaast’ as it spins ever faster and faster like a descending moon-shot from Danny Pugh. We are Leeds, and we sing it enough, but who are we?

I’m not here to answer that question for you, quoth Garry Monk, and I’m nicking that.

The identity of Leeds United is, after all, subjective, and dependent on your biases and preferences. There will have been fans, brought up in the 1950s, for whom the Leeds United in the all-white strip that won things was never quite a Leeds United they could identify with. Some struggled to come to terms with watching a side that contained neither a Sheridan nor a Baird, even if it went on to win things. And those were the ascendancies; as United have fallen from grace, the parts played by Rod Wallace, Tony Dorigo and David Robertson in shaping my understanding of the team I support has been lost beneath a wave of time. (Robertson, in case you’re wondering, taught me about hate.)

Over the summer I wrote about those generational bends to what I chose to call the culture of Leeds United, and how the eras when Leeds have been most successful — under Revie, under Wilkinson, even under O’Leary — have been the eras when the club has had a discernible direction from top to bottom, led from the top, even if that direction was away from what had come before. The O’Leary/Ridsdale era commands an asterisk, but there’s no denying that, on the way up, the team, the club and its dizzying commercialisation were all one expression.

Leeds United as owned by Massimo Cellino doesn’t have any of that. Even Massimo Cellino doesn’t have any of that; single-mindedness, there, is a temporary state. And that’s what Garry Monk is up against on his quest to give Leeds United ‘his’ identity and ‘his’ footballing philosophy; Leeds United currently exists in a vacuum outside its own culture, and before a new culture can grow, Leeds United needs an atmosphere.

The uncertainty, otherwise known as Cellino’s callous disregard for his coaches’ job security, makes that difficult for Monk; in retrospect, so does the season ticket refund offer. “I have signed a one year contract, that’s my commitment to the club and the club’s commitment to me,” said Monk on Thursday, and if within that year he doesn’t deliver a play-off place it’ll cost his employers upwards of two million quid.

That’s the kind of pressure that can hinder progress. Progress for Leeds this season would be to finish tenth or above; that’s underwhelming, true, but it would be progress. And it’s progress that could still cost Monk his job at the end of the year. If, refunds aside, Monk had been set the top ten as a target, we’d have a measurable against which we could judge Monk: for as long as a top ten finish is possible, Monk has a job, and if it’s achieved, he has a job for next season and a new target — maybe then it’s the play-offs. If a top ten finish soon became impossible then it would be watermelon time.

That’s how you progress, and create the time to create a culture, and an identity, by sticking around long enough for people to get used to hearing your name.

Shortcuts do exist, though, just not for coaches. Consider, if you will, your new favourite player: Pontus Jansson. In two games Jansson has not imposed an identity or created a new culture, but his blood-ridden style has revived the best aspects of Leeds United’s existing, dormant culture and brought them back at full force. Tall and torrential, Jansson tackles and screams in the rain, and it’s a howl of protest against everything that is not Leeds United, including Leeds United.

“We have to focus on playing more football than we did,” said Jansson after the Huddersfield defeat. “More players have to want the ball. We have to believe and play from the back. We have a lot of good players.”

Honesty and bravery, and words that came to life on the pitch against Blackburn; like something out of Huddersfield Town, or even better, out of Leeds United’s past. Jansson feels like a product of that Sheridan and Baird, blue-and-yellow United, the United that was not the most successful but the one that felt most like us.

Garry Monk can’t get away with the guttural antics that swell from deep within Jansson; he’s a trim young coach in a smart pullover, tie and slacks. But maybe he could learn something from Jansson, from his arrival and impact and the way he’s been taken not to heart at Leeds, but to spleen. There are deep currents of identity, philosophy and culture that still run within Leeds United, the way Wortley Beck runs beneath the Elland Road pitch. Dig a well, Garry Monk, and dig it well.

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