the square ball week: this happy since…Back
Where’s Massimo? Where is he? Maybe we should write him a letter. It was all the rage last summer. But, that was last summer.
This is this summer, and it’s nearly over; the start of the football season and the end of summer. Leeds United are back, the ritual trips to Elland Road are back, the players are back; Sam Byram, Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor are back. Massimo Cellino? Well, where is he?
There might be some disappointed reporters at the ground on Saturday if Massimo continues to keep his late low profile through the FL72 boom crash bang this-curtain-is-on-fire curtain raiser (on ???). Imagine watching that press conference from back in May and travelling to Yorkshire to see the circus, only to met by stern Uwe Rösler and affable Adam Pearson. “Where’s uh, the funny guy? You know, the crazy one?” It’s like going to see the Rolling Stones, and them not playing Satisfaction.
Sky put Leeds United on the TV because they know our games will have an audience; the papers send their top journalists because they know they’ll get a story. The story they want, though, is not the one Leeds United are currently telling. A quick trawl of media predictions has Leeds tipped to struggle, if not go down, but if the media are descending on West Yorkshire on Saturday expecting to find huddles of gloomy Loiners on street corners, some swift rewrites will be required to get grins rather than gurns into the story.
There hasn’t been a feelgood factor like this at Leeds since, well, actually I’ve checked. An effective board clearing up the problems of the past? A respected coach at the helm? Major investment in promising young players? Outreach efforts to reconnect the club and the city? Savvy marketing boosting opening day ticket sales?
It’s like the start of 2013/14 all over again. There was even talk then, as there has been from Adam Pearson this week, of buying Elland Road back sooner rather than later; although to be fair that kind of talk hasn’t ever been uncommon. Genuine preseason positivity has been hard to find as recent years have rolled by, though, which is why I still hold happy memories of that sunshine-stroked game against Brighton on the first day of 2013/14 — the full stands, Luke Murphy’s winner, the outbreak of fun and delight — even though I know what happened next.
History doesn’t always have to repeat itself. That’s football’s eternal promise, and its tricksiest spell; take four-fifths of the football clubs in the world, and you could never build a viable sport based on what happened last season. It’s always about the next one, so things that happened in 2014 — GFH things, Rochdale things, Jimmy Kébé things, Cellino takeover things, Hockaday and Milanic things, all the things that followed that bright day against Brighton — they’re none of them relevant now. Football promises you that.
Football, this time around, is even promising more. A glutton for punishment, I went back and read what I was thinking in this column this time two years ago, and found that positive preseason mood right there, just as I remembered it. There was one thing holding my giddiness back, though, and that was the team.
Spending a million pounds on Luke Murphy was very nice, at the time, anyway. Mathieu Smith hadn’t yet become the Great Dane we didn’t have space at home for but wanted to keep anyway, and Noel Hunt — well, it was nice for Brian to have some company. Scott Wootton was but a distant gleam in a Lancastrian reserve team, and as for wingers? “Brian McDermott has often been seen frowning,” I wrote. “He hasn’t got the wingers he wanted, so can’t use the formation he would like; he hasn’t signed the leader he says we need, so will be less confident in his team. Well, it’s not even his team yet – these are still pretty much the same players from last year.”
And now, just look at us. Wingers? They’re everywhere. There’s Stuart Dallas, for one. And, um, Sam Byram, Charlie Taylor in a pinch, and Gaetano Berardi for a laugh. But whatever, if the question is, do we have the wingers the manager wants, then the answer is yes. If another question is, does the club have the on-pitch leader it’s been crying out for since the McDermott days and before, then the answer is right there on the mantelpiece, a framed photo of Sol Bamba pulling on the armband over the sleeve of his crisp white shirt.
I’m still too much of a Smith fan to say Chris Wood or Lee Erwin are an upgrade from our half-French fancyman, but compared to Noel Hunt? Steve Morison? It’s practically Pele in his pomp territory. In midfield we’ve finally had something like payback from Luke Murphy, and he’s being joined there now by Tom Adeyemi, who after Michael Doyle, Amdy Faye and Michael Brown, must have had Simon Grayson flinging his arms across his desk in Preston in despair: ‘Oh, now they sign a good one!’
It’s still easy to see where the weaknesses are; the lack of depth anywhere but goalkeeper, Bellusci, possibly Berardi (who can ever tell? His neighbours said he was always a quiet chap who kept himself to himself), Doukara, Bianchi, Antenucci if he gets a mood on — pretty much anyone we bought with the McCormack money, basically. Except Sloth. Nobody has a bad word to say about Casper Sloth.
But the weaknesses seem to matter less. Bellusci still looks to me like a chronic, spineless, witless liability; but Bamba’s there, so that’s okay. Berardi might still carry a risk, but he’s got Byram’s experience — our most experienced player since Aidy White left — for times of trouble. And if Stuart Dallas gets injured, we’ll — er. He just won’t get injured.
There’s more confidence in the team, and less concern about the weaknesses; and more confidence off the pitch, too. Although, like Bellusci, the weaknesses are the still the same; they just better because of who they’re stood next to. In Bellusci’s case it’s Bamba; in Cellino’s case, it’s Adam Pearson.
It might not be in the spirit of optimism and happiness and charity to point a preseason finger at Cellino and whisper, ‘weakness’, especially after he’s been being so good lately. But if things are going to fall down 2014 style this season, it’s Cellino who remains man most likely to bring it down upon us. After all, he caused a lot of what went wrong in 2014 in the first place.
The fear is still there, that one strong whim and it’s over; Pearson gone, Rösler excommunicated, Lewis Cook a Liverpool player. And if it won’t be whim, it might be circumstance; if Cellino is anywhere, he’s likely to be with his lawyers, working out the details on who owned Tavares anyway, and what was paid to who in the Ross McCormack transfer, never mind the tax on all those Range Rovers and boats.
But we can’t approach the start of the season in fear. To do that would be to neglect one of the few fruits that football offers to a starved fan. Not many of us will celebrate winning a trophy or promotion at the end of the season; that’s reserved for the select few that support clubs with good players and sane owners. But everyone, no matter what the club, can allow themselves a bit of happy anticipation when they wake up this Saturday morning. Well, except Blackpool fans, the poor bastards. But then, in previous seasons, Leeds fans would have been the punchline to that gag. The smiles are on us this August. Sorry everyone. I’m sure we’ll pay for it eventually.
Sign up here to get new articles by Moscowhite by email. The start of the new season also means a new issue of The Square Ball, an 84-pager that’s on sale at Elland Road before the game against Burnley, or right now from thesquareball.net/shop.