the square ball week: dead weight descendantsBack
There’s a deal of sensitivity around trigger warnings these days, to protect sufferers of post-traumatic stress. With that in mind, the Football League might have been kind enough to excuse Leeds from their trip to Brighton.
Or at least, Sky Sports could have resisted the urge to televise our club’s every move. The club, too, could have arranged for us to be wearing some other kit than the Kappa yellow that, against the Amex Stadium backdrop, will send minds flashing back to that night in February. Everybody, please, look out for each other tonight.
Looking back at my report on that night, there was more of weariness than anger; and some frustration that Brighton had taken the foot off. It felt that night like the only thing that would have done any good was for Brighton to beat Leeds by six, nine, ten; but then, Massimo Cellino had left the ground at half-time, and it was really he that I wanted to see it. To feel it. To understand what it was like, what an absolute state we were.
Cellino’s exit — when he left instructions that Steve Evans was not to speak to the press after the game — seemed like a sure sign that Evans’ days were numbered. So was the club’s form: two wins in thirteen games, and ten goals.
What’s astonishing, looking back now, is that by the time of the Preston game, there was genuine hope that Steve Evans would be given the Leeds United job for this season. What’s even more astonishing is that even I thought that should happen, and I hated Steve Evans even before he walked in the door, and only hated him more for becoming Leeds United manager; and yet, even after Brighton, even a dark winter that brought a goal every two hours, even though I knew deep down Evans was just Dave Hockaday with a criminal record, I still thought it would be a good idea for him to have the job.
That’s how desperate I and others were for any sort of stability at Leeds United; and that’s how hopeless the club had become under Cellino. I couldn’t imagine a worse manager for our great club than Steve Evans; but I couldn’t imagine that Cellino would come up with anyone better, either, so it seemed safer to stick with the guy who wasn’t, by the end of the season, making an absolutely terrible fist of things.
As a route to not being completely rubbish, Evans seemed like the only dinghy we could cling to in the storm, especially when Cellino began trawling the lower divisions for — and being turned down by — the likes of Karl Robinson, Darrell Clarke and John Sheridan. All this before he’d even told Steve Evans he wasn’t keeping the job.
To get from that to Garry Monk was a shock, and a leap; and to get from last February to this December, when we face Brighton again, just two places behind them in fourth, is a shock and a leap beyond imagining. I certainly wasn’t imagining it when I was staring morosely at Steve Evans in the Leeds United dugout and sighing to myself that, well, he’ll just have to do.
That leap forward ought to have rendered trigger warnings unnecessary; Monk and the brothers have transformed the first team, and where Bamba and Wootton struggled so… well, they didn’t even struggle at Brighton, they just gave up; where Bamba and Wootton were, now Jansson and Bartley and Ayling are, and while the test ahead will be more Newcastle than Aston Villa, there’s every reason to be optimistic that this staff and these players will pass it.
The trigger, instead, comes from the other news; the ‘Massimo Cellino has been fined and banned…’ news; the not-even-confirmed-before-being-answered news, the news that threatens to put Leeds United right back in the frame of mind that brought us such famous nights as when Cellino put a statement on the club website declaring he wouldn’t come back after his Football League ban until The FA had reviewed his disqualification, hours before United kicked off a game away to Brighton. That United lost 2-0.
We’ve seen Garry Monk under pressure this season, when defeat to Huddersfield and murmurings of Cellino’s swinging axe concentrated Adam Pope’s microphone and the public’s microscope on Monk, and he didn’t react well; at first. After picking up his dummy, United picked up form, and only four of thirteen games since have not been won.
But we haven’t seen Monk under this unique pressure, the ‘Cellino at Leeds United’ pressure; and we haven’t seen the players play with this pressure, either. And it’s not only the reported impending eighteen month ban for Cellino, for being found guilty of making illegal payments to an unlicensed agent. The 50/50 to 100/0 to 0/100 takeover talk about Andrea Radrizzani now includes actual talking from Radrizzani himself, which is destabilising no matter how good the intentions or the potential outcomes; we’ve been here before, in fact we’ve been here for most of the last four years, and we know what happens.
The rumours begin to stir and names begin to float. Buried in the lower paragraphs of the reports of Cellino’s ban is the name of Ivan Bravo, former head of strategy at Real Madrid, who the club is claimed to be about to “bring in”; at whose behest? Is he Cellino’s man? Radrizzani’s man? Is he Garry Monk’s man? Given Monk and Clotet’s work in the transfer market so far, will the work of a ‘sporting director’ — if that’s what Bravo will be — be necessary, or welcome, no matter his pedigree? Will Monk welcome the meeting with what will effectively be a new boss, when Monk has been bossing things perfectly well so far thank you, and when Monk’s personal stock has never been higher since he was being talked about for the England job; when Monk only has a contract for the season, and while offers from clubs with owners that are not banned, that are already in the Premier League, that offer higher wages, higher profile and better chances of sleeping at night, will no doubt be coming his way?
And lo, the finely calibrated airship that Garry Monk has been steadily navigating skywards begins to have that touch of gravity about it. Suddenly, you realise how absurd such a massive structure as an airship seems up there in the sky; how absurd such a creaking, Cellino-owned entity as Leeds United looks so high in the league table.
Leeds have gone much further, faster, than anyone imagined in February, 4-0 down at half-time, a malevolent owner prowling from the stadium, a jokeshop manager our only hope. But Garry Monk has a new challenge, starting now; how do you keep Leeds United in the sky, when it’s still carrying so much dead weight?