the square ball week: young guns goneBack
Football comes at you fast in the closing days and hours of the transfer window, so much so that Leeds United have lost and won since Alex Mowatt was sold, and his departure feels like it was a long, long time ago.
It was only last week. And it was a strange transfer, because while it was probably the right thing for everybody concerned, people only say things like that about things they don’t really want to do, like putting down a beloved family pet. It’s a shame, but it’s probably for the best.
Not everyone saw Alex Mowatt as a beloved family pet, even when you showed them videos of him onstage at the Doncaster Dome, rapping in his teens under the name MC Freestyle, with what appeared to be a hedgehog on his head but was actually his hair. People can be cold about footballers these days, damn cold, and there was no shortage of forthright opinion-holders stating that it was good that Mowatt was gone because he wasn’t good enough, never will be good enough, and was getting a free ride because his association with the Academy was causing excessive sentiment.
And what, sniff, exactly, sob, is wrong with sentiment, you cold uncaring bastards? And don’t you realise that if you don’t like sentiment, you’re following the wrong sport? Of course of course, “It’s all a business nowadays,” as the realists always say. But that’s a lie. Most of it’s a business, but not all. You might have to pay through the back teeth to buy a replica shirt, but there aren’t enough decimal places to measure the value of the attachment a Leeds United feels towards a piece of polyester, just because it’s white and Pontus Jansson is wearing it. Even if you don’t pay actual money for your own version so you can dress like them, you still make the heart-over-head decision to tie your mood to the actions of a football team just because they’re wearing white (or yellow and blue), and the other is wearing red. You still cheer when a ball goes between some posts, feel angry when it goes between some others. These aren’t business decisions. This is sentiment in action, and it’s acting on you.
It was acting upon a great many Leeds fans as Alex Mowatt headed out the door and down the M1 to Barnsley. Because if you love football, you know that’s not supposed to be the story, and this is why players from the Academy are given more ‘slack’ than others. Because the story is supposed to be about the plucky kid, his rap career in ruins after his voice breaks, rebuilding a life at his nearest football club — wait, he’s from Doncaster — his nearest good football club, getting into the team at a young age, earning the love of the fans for his netbusting goals, and scoring those netbusters all the way to Wembley where another one, in the final minute, wins the FA Cup for Leeds United against the Evil Bad Guys United FC, aka Chelsea.
If you don’t think football would be better if stories like Alex Mowatt’s, or Sam Byram’s, or Lewis Cook’s, or Charlie Taylor’s, or Kalvin Phillips’, or Dom Poleon’s ended with them being chaired off at Wembley by the adoring fans of the club where they made the grade, made their debut and made their name, then I don’t know why you like football at all, really. The whole game is setup to give us those stories, from the Academy to the top, and when it happens, we build statues to those players.
Or we did. Nowadays you can bet there’d be plenty of realists around with a solid argument for taking the money on a young Billy Bremner. Back in 1989, after drifting out of the first team towards the end of Howard Wilkinson’s first season, David Batty put in a transfer request and the club turned down sizeable offers from Bradford City, QPR, Liverpool. We never did build a statue to David Batty, although we if ever do get a new high-speed train line to and from London I hope we build one at the station, just to keep visitors on their toes; but we also didn’t have to live in a world where David Batty ended up playing for sodding Bradford just because people refused to get sentimental about a limited midfielder who wasn’t even in the team.
Whether such sentimental stuff — sentimental bollocks, if you prefer — translates into Academy players getting an easier ride — I’m not so sure. As Charlie Taylor struggled for form at the start of this season, his Academy past didn’t protect him from a barracking from parts of the East Stand about his transfer request and perceived lack of effort. Kalvin Phillips’ mates have done well to keep inventing reasons to borrow his phone whenever he’s been about to open Twitter after a game.
Does Ronaldo Vieira have a line of t-shirts in the club shop? He does not. But Pontus Jansson does, and he’s not even a fully signed and sealed Leeds United player until the coming summer. If you look at the heroes of the season so far, it’s Jansson, Bartley, Ayling and Hernandez that have had the fans singing this season, players brought here just a few months ago. He spent all of his young adult life playing for Leeds, but did we ever have a song for Sam Byram?
Yes, there is a special place in the hearts of fans for players they see as one of their own; but it’s never so vastly preferential as to shut the doors of our hearts to others. Football fans are so excessively sentimental they can almost seem fickle, staggering weeping from favourite to favourite, as quick to clutch a Pontus Jansson from Malmo to their bosom, as they are to cast an Alex Mowatt from Doncaster back to Doncaster, and miss, hitting Barnsley as hard as Alex hit that player when he got sent off on his debut.
Mourning Mowatt is not the same as wishing we’d kept him. To wish he’d stayed is not to claim he should be in the team, or that he’s ever going to score that cup final goal, or to say footballers shouldn’t move on when the time, money and opportunity is right. To regret his sale is only to regret that another football story, in this increasingly unlovely world with its increasingly harsh followers of football, hasn’t come to the happy ending that would restore faith in the romantic, sentimental and unbeatably glorious side of a game we love, for some stupid reason. It’s because another hopeful chance has been frittered away, that might have made us feel less stupid for feeling this way about people kicking a ball.