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the square ball week: who’s hiring hadi?

the square ball week: who’s hiring hadi?


It’s hard to account for the shock involved when we discover that a footballer is not just feet and kicks, but sentient.

They have feelings! They do jokes! They’re aware of others! They’re even — gasp — self-aware!

Well, some of them. The precisely managed social media presence of Garry Monk gave his followers the impression he was an impenetrable android, programmed in platitudes. He often gave the same impression on television or radio; ‘The Group’ bingo was regular post-match interview sport.

Such calculated blandness is much normal, to the extent that managers like Ian Holloway (high-pitched outrage) and Mick McCarthy (growling menace) establish themselves as alt-manager brands simply by revealing actual elements of a personality. It gains them notoriety, if not popularity; the waxwork lifestyle of Cristiano Ronaldo is exponentially more popular than the earthy Barnsleyisms of old Mick Mack.

There’s a place for being real, though, and it’s earning Hadi Sacko a place in Leeds United’s squad for the forseeable future. “Looks like we’re gonna have some more moments together guys,” he tweeted this week. “Very excited to stay there and help as much as I can.” For good measure, he added, “#SquareItHadi”.

And with that I was sold on his being bought, not just for the internal capitalisation, but for the sentiment, too. Being excited to “help as much as I can” is already cockle-warming, but to follow it up with his own self-deprecating hashtag raised the cockle temperature to melting point.

That hashtag was already beautiful. In the hours before sleeping after United’s victory over Aston Villa — at the end of which Sacko had run half the length of the pitch, characteristically ignored Chris Wood and the open goal in front of him, had his own shot saved, and watched Wood bundle the loose ball over the line — he posted a celebratory tweet, to which one user, Ben, replied, “SQUARE IT HADI”.

Sacko’s reply was everything. “lol what do that mean ‘square it’??”

Oh, lord. That Sacko hadn’t fed Wood with a simple pass for a simple goal was frustrating for as long as it took Wood to score anyway, bewildering for much longer afterwards, and a microcosm of Sacko’s play at the club so far. Hard work, pace and balance, and an almost defiantly awful final ball. Then it turned out that he literally did not understand he key instruction “Square it”, and you could either laugh, cry, or feel for the lad. And probably feel worse for Chris Wood.

There followed a miniature coaching session via Twitter. “PASS IT ACROSS TO WOOD!!!!” clarified Ben. “I didn’t see him after running,” answered Sacko. “But it’s okay a lil kiss after and we were in good terms again.” (That comment was posted alongside a photo capturing a particularly sexy side to their goal celebration.)

Lesson learned, and a dam broken, releasing Sacko from the still, shallow waters of his football persona, into the rushing, bubbling streams that baptised him human. And a good natured a human, at that. From that point onwards, whenever a Sacko run ended without him creating a chance for his always goal-ready striker, the tension would dissolve into smiles.

His disarming self-awareness continued undimmed; after failing to create a simple opportunity for not only Wood but his other good option, Pablo Hernandez, against Sheffield Wednesday, Sacko tweeted a picture of a Playstation controller with half its buttons missing: “Me today” he wrote, adding the weight of two self-critical emojis.

Sacko is just 23, and as we learned from the first season of the Massimo Cellino era, the step from the second tier of Portuguese or Italian football into the second tier in England is steep. Joking on Twitter is one thing, but it only carried Sacko into the hearts of Leeds fans because the jokes contained promises of improvement. He was not in arrogant denial about the quality of his play — no Bellusci-style spreadsheets from Sacko — he just needed to do better.

By the end of the season, though, he wasn’t doing a great deal better, and at the end of his loan from Sporting Lisbon, there were limited expectations about a return. He might be worth another chance, at considerably less than his infamous €60m release fee, but perhaps there might be better out there, a player closer to the finished article? Someone who might not be such a nice guy, but who might be a better player.

The opinion of Garry Monk, Pep Clotet and James Beattie was presumed to be key, as they planned further building for the furtherance of the Peacocks. After a season, they would know the player, the person behind the tweets, the work done, the work still to do, the chances of achievement, and whether to persist, or look elsewhere.

Garry Monk appears to have weighed those elements of the whole damn football club and decided to move on. But in his absence, in what was presumed to be a vacuum, someone has made the decision to try to keep Sacko at the club.

Andrea Radrizzani has been 100% owner for little more than a week, his thoughts until now self-confessedly on the stadium and the land around it: he’s calling it Elland Road 2020, the kind of project it would have been great to have begun in 2010. Ben Mansford, the chief executive, leaves on 31st May; his replacement, Angus Kinnear, doesn’t start work until 8th June. Garry Monk has not been replaced by Aitor Karanka, Claudio Ranieri, Junior Lewis or anybody. But, into the breach, posing for photographs against the same murals as Benito Carbone, has stepped Victor Orta.

Orta is late of Middlesbrough, and it’s interesting to compare the Teeside Gazette’s coverage from his first day with that of his last. “They driven self-taught technocrat is hugely respected,” the Gazette wrote. A former coach, journalist, agent and administrator, as a child he developed a mental database from Panini albums, and by the time he came to work for Middlesbrough as their Head of Recruitment, his reputation was such that their manager, Aitor Karanka, was stunned he had come to Teeside and not the Champions League.

By the end, only Karanka seems to have had anything good to say for Orta, while the rest of the club may have felt they’d uncovered the reason why he was working at Boro rather than Barca. Of ten summer signings, the Gazette gave charitable post-season passes to perhaps three, while dismissing the club’s January signings out of hand. More concerning is their description of a Karanka-Orta club within a club that put them and their new staff at odds with everyone else, and allowed Orta influence in excess of his recruitment remit, illustrated best by the tale of him being forcibly removed from caretaker manager Steve Agnew’s dressing room, after Karanka had been sacked.

Orta’s remit at Leeds is already broader than recruitment: Director of Football. Radrizzani says he is excited by Orta’s knowledge, “extensive” scouting network, and desire, and he has placed the future of Leeds United Football Club, and its objective or returning to the Premier League, firmly in Orta’s hands.

At this point, let’s return to a point I made last week: that while Andrea Radrizzani’s track record in public relations and sport broadcasting rights is exemplary, his experience of football has always been that of an outsider looking in. His business may have granted him a certain amount of access to top clubs over the years, but the inner echelons of a football club can be as culturally impenetrable as the nuances of its support. The club, once you’ve bought the right to sit behind the big desk in the biggest office, will look like a very different club to the one you negotiated with, when you enjoyed a glass of Chivas Regal before heading home and forgetting all about it. And the first thing you see once you’re behind the desk? That’s your head coach, heading out the door.

It’s no disrespect to call Radrizzani a football novice, and his own awareness of that is manifesting not in hashtags but in recruitment to United’s executive levels: Ivan Bravo to the board, Angus Kinnear to the club offices, Victor Orta to the training ground. Kinnear and Orta, in particular, as day-to-day employees, are the key people at Leeds United now, with long term responsibility for commercial success, football success, and for interpreting the particulars of English football for Radrizzani. He’d better hope he’s got his appointments right. And he’s better hope that whatever Garry Monk was feeling in his bones about the future course of Leeds United does not carry more than mystical weight.

Which us brings us back to Hadi Sacko. Until last week, Orta was working at Middlesbrough in the Premier League; it’s doubtful that he has much up to date information on Sacko. And yet, unless Garry Monk left a prominent Post-it note on his desk instructing his successor to sign Sacko at all costs, we have to presume that our new Director of Football is the person promoting the deal.

Which is fine; Directors of Football, managers and coaches inherit playing staff, and have to begin by working with what they have. Ronaldo Vieira is as relevant to the discussion as anybody — who sanctioned his four year deal? (Let’s presume it wasn’t only a product of his Master’s Degree in PR from the University of Milan.) Vieira, though, was already a contracted players. Although his loan deal gave Leeds options to sign him, Sacko belongs to Sporting Lisbon.

Victor Orta has an “extensive scouting network” at his beck and call, is the owner of a “weapons grade contacts book”, and yet, in all the wide, wide world of sports, he doesn’t appear to have been able to produce the name of a better winger at the price than Hadi Sacko. Which is, perhaps, realistic. Even his most frustrated observers will grant that Sacko is a decent prospect at the right price, and that at the price Leeds are supposed to be paying for him, ‘decent’ is perhaps all we can expect. Marcus Antonsson cost more. Besides, squad building has barely begun; if Orta is working on bringing in top quality wingers that would give Sacko a reserve’s lot, to yearn and learn, and the first team levels up, then the business is sound all round.

But Orta might need to check, at some point, that the team’s new manager/coach will play with wingers. Or perhaps that’s Orta’s decision? If he’s responsible for player recruitment and overall strategy, is also responsible for the pattern he’s recruiting to? That would be beyond the bounds of a Director of Football’s normally understood role — selection and tactics remain the preserve of the coach, along with heavy input into transfers — but perhaps Middlesbrough’s backroom staff have something to say about Orta’s respect for boundaries.

It’s not unusual for a coach to inherit a playing squad, but it is unusual for him to inherit a playing style. Many modern coaches talk in terms of “identity”, “philosophy”, “principles”, and they believes in those concepts to a greater depth than their shallow public profiles might suggest. If a coach’s principles and philosophy don’t align with those of the Director of Football, it introduces friction to the machine, especially if the Director is not naturally respectful of his coach’s remit, and/or his coach is suspicious of interference from above.

The fractious edges could be smoothed, though, if the Director of Football is also responsible for recruiting the coach; perhaps someone who, when they worked together before, described Orta as “amazing”, even as the club they were jointly and mutinously overseeing was plunging towards relegation, the pair standing on the sands at Redcar, yelling at the North Sea and the football club it was swallowing like a crazy two-headed Canute.

Speed, balance and decision-making are key elements of Hadi Sacko’s game; two out of three isn’t bad. We can’t tell yet whether those elements come naturally to Andrea Radrizzani, but we can be sure that he doesn’t have Sacko’s latitude to tweet his way out of mistakes. It’s June, and Radrizzani has to mak decisions quickly. And he has to get the balance of power right, else he might be storing up more problems than he has the prior knowledge to solve.


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