the square ball week: leeds united on trendBack
Always remember that Andrea Radrizzani has a master’s degree in public relations from the University of Milan. Every move is out of a playbook, every public statement is backed up by theory.
Remember, too, that they don’t write textbooks about Leeds United fans. They should; any analysis of the current bot-enabled ‘fake news’ era that doesn’t mention the Twitter accounts that relentlessly promoted the fake rich-list website that claimed Massimo Cellino was a billionaire (and one of the ten richest rappers in the world) hasn’t been thoroughly researched. But they don’t, and Leeds United’s contribution to recent critical thought has only been studied in business schools, not on culture or media courses.
So remember, thirdly, that while Radrizzani might think he’s an expert in public relations, he’s bought himself the pilot’s seat of a craft with a very particular set of controls, and no manual. He’s up in the air and flying, but he hasn’t noticed yet that the button for the landing gear isn’t where it should be.
“White smoke from ER!” tweeted A-Radz, and he didn’t mean the asbestos billowing from the refurbishment of the West Stand’s 1950s roof. No, this was a tease; Leeds United were finally ready to announce a manager, and because the club has been incapable of stating anything clearly since it sold Dom Poleon, the news got a set-up, when all the fans wanted was a punchline.
The fans had already, in the three weeks since Garry Monk resigned, teased themselves sore and then teased themselves numb, without any help from Radrizzani or the club. There were two prominent attitudes towards the silence about replacing the manager: it was either a sign of desperate cluelessness, a limbo into which next season’s chances of promotion were sucking away to nothing; or it was a spell of quiet necessary for the wisdom of Radrizzani, Angus Kinnear, Ivan Bravo and Victor Orta to express itself in the form of the right, long-term appointment. Either way, we would only know when we would know; we could only hope the punchline wouldn’t turn the last three weeks, and the next three years, into a joke we’d heard before.
Should we laugh now the white smoke has cleared and Thomas Christiansen has been revealed? I have no idea, although this was actually what I wanted. Whenever I’ve been asked who I wanted to replace Monk, I’ve stuck to saying that I’d like it to be someone I’d never heard of, mainly because it was hard to find a name in the betting that didn’t at best whisper “dickhead” in some small way, and because I quite fancied some of that Bundesliga reserve coach action that has been so in vogue.
Leeds have taken that vogue and absolutely demolished it, and that right now is the most exciting thing about Thomas Christiansen. Not even the most hipster British football fan can pretend in-depth knowledge of the Cypriot league, and that’s where Christiansen has been doing his work recently. Doing it well? I’ve no idea. Would it prepare him well for the Championship if he had? Again, I’ve not a clue, and neither have you. Has Radrizzani? Uh, let’s hope so.
On paper this appointment is a disaster. Yes yes Europa League last 16 with APOEL yes yes. But Cyprus to Championship sounds like an even more bizarre leap than Forest Green Rovers to Elland Road, or wherever Darko Milanic came from to wherever he went. But that’s only one sheet of paper; the print-out of Christiansen’s now much-vandalised Wikipedia entry.
There are other pages. Glossy pages. Pages with photos. Photos of Thomas Christiansen as a young player, with the fortunate genes of a Danish father and a Spanish mother, wearing the fortunately and eternally stylish blue and garnet (and recently in-again fluorescent pastel shades) of Barcelona FC as they crossed the nineties fashion frontier with Meyba and Kappa. The bowlcut is charming, the cheeks are rosy, and the challenge he faced as a kid at Barca is the pedigree we hope to benefit from: trying to get into a team that included Hristo Stoichkov, Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup, Pep Guardiola, Miguel Angel Nadal, Romario and Gheorghe Hagi.
He never played, spending much of his time once he was a senior player out on loan, but he impressed his manager Johan Cruyff enough to get a personal recommendation for a transfer to Manchester City — although he never played there, either (in the days of Michael Brown and Jeff Whitley), deepening the mystery. And he spent enough time on the training pitches with those legends (Stoichkov, I mean, not Kit Symons) and enough time looking exemplary in the kind of Kappa training kit that would make kids swoon over adverts in the back of Match and Shoot magazines that those photos can now switch one’s soccer spleen to its most romantic and nostalgic setting.
That was then for Thomas Christiansen, but it’s very now for football, which is why one of those Meyba Barca shirts you can see him wearing will cost you a cool £150 second hand — when someone could have brought you one back from a holiday to Majorca for a cool tenner back in the day. That era, those players, those brands, that club, and Christiansen’s subsequent and more successful playing career, as a not-quite deadly striker for unglamorous Primera and Bundesliga clubs like Oviedo, Villareal, Bochum and Hannover 96, not to mention memories of impact performances in early editions of Championship Manager, place Christiansen exactly in the crosshairs of soccer fashion’s zeitgeist. The thirteen year olds who longed for a Kappa Barca shirt when Christiansen was being megged in training by the best Laudrup on the regular are now in their thirties with the disposable income and the eBay accounts that can make those teenage dreams come true, and as the first generation to have grown up with no memory of how football used to be before the Premier League, they’ve no hangups about embracing the romance they find in the Champions League’s first years of stumbling commerce.
And neither do I. In retrospect, the years of PSV turning up to Elland Road in the mid-nineties to hammer Leeds look great when viewed as Nike vs Asics, Luc Nilis vs Tony Yeboah. Abundant live football on television was a novelty; live European football still an exotic treat. PSV’s rivals Ajax were a foreign football team with a red bibbed shirt, but it was also a brand of detergent, until suddenly it was Jari Litmanen, Nwankwo Kanu and Marc Overmars, and it was ridiculous to watch. There was something special about the Champions League in the nineties, that ended in circumstances of total dismay in 1999, before a brief revival in 2000/01, and the YouTube videos and retro shirts are all there for us to enjoy it again now, now that football has moved from freshly abundant to oppressively omnipresent.
Out of nostalgic fashion and into Elland Road steps Thomas Christansen, and it’s unusual for Leeds United to be so pleasantly on trend. Peter Lorimer may have had his thick wonky bowlcut revived by Stephen from Glaswegian band The Pastels in the 1980s, while Eddie Gray copped George Best’s bearded winger template a little too late, but Leeds in the glory years compressed all the dazzle onto the pitch: the sparkling white shirts, the sock tags, the pre-match warm-up/dance routines. Glamour was associated with decline — Duncan McKenzie and Frank Worthington — and Howard Wilkinson did little to change that, exchanging Eric Cantona for John Pemberton before too much double-denim could get hold of his title-winning squad. At the turn of the century the club’s magazine — Leeds Leeds Leeds — forced Martin Hiden and Ian Harte into some fairly intense photoshoots, while Lee Bowyer was going sockless and commando — but we found that out in Hull Crown Court rather than GQ.
Fashion has resided elsewhere from Leeds United, whether it was King’s Road, Chelsea in the sixties and seventies, or flippin’ Huddersfield and Norwich since the Bundesliga became a thing. Can Christiansen get LUFC back in fashion for the first time since the smiley badge? Recent photographs of Christiansen show genial youthfulness and happily mid-length, scrunchily unkempt hair, refreshing after the out-of-the-book sleeve tattoos and severely kempt strawberry blond Monk, and promising that Christiansen hasn’t left every remnant of his stylishness behind him in the early nineties. He’s not just a retro sticker come to life, although at this point I want to make it clear that I’m totally down with it if he is.
This punchline might not be an occasion for laughs, but it doesn’t seem like an occasion for tears, although Radrizzani might have shed a frustrated few if he expected his Twitter notifications to be full of the kind of fulsome praise they told him about back at uni. The unveiling is actually an occasion for more teasing, because Christiansen won’t be fully unveiled until a press conference on Monday, giving us the weekend to hunt down YouTube videos of his APOEL side, or seek out replicas of his classic Racing Santander shirts, as appropriate.
Hopefully we’ll find out more about what Thomas Christiansen’s appointment means for the future of Leeds United on Monday. Knowing the length of his contract would be a start. Hopefully, too, he’ll appear before the press dressed in brand new retro-Kappa LUFC gear and announce Ronnie Ekelund as his assistant.
Do You Want To Win?, a 364 page hardback book and DVD, are available to order here now. You can watch the trailer below.