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the square ball week: amateurs

the square ball week: amateurs

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Leeds United’s players have looked worse. Performing in pantomimes in the seventies. Dancing awkwardly with kids at kit launches in the nineties. Trying to defend a moderately dangerous attack from the division’s bottom team last week. Leaf through the history books, there’s plenty of damage there.

Somehow, though, when Billy Bremner dressed up as Buttons and went on stage at the City Varieties opposite Duncan McKenzie as Cinderella, and Eddie and Frank Gray as two Ugly Sisters, he didn’t attract the derision aimed when a Second Division goalkeeper is photographed for a calendar in his pants in a hammock.

For one thing, he was Billy Bremner, and in Leeds in the mid-seventies, he could do what he liked. He was captain of the champions of England, and the uniform and the pillbox hat did nothing to diminish the stature of that five-and-a-half foot frame.

For another thing, he was doing it for the right reasons. The players had been sceptical when Jimmy Armfield suggested they put extra hours in after training to rehearse a show that they would perform at a theatre in town, but they soon saw the sense in it. It would help bring the squad together after the upheaval of Don Revie’s departure and Brian Clough’s forty-four days of mayhem, so it would benefit them; and the proceeds would be split between charities and a testimonial fund, benefiting others.

Thirdly, it was done right. Billy Bremner had no reason to embarrassed, because Leeds United had brought the same professionalism to a two-performance pantomime that they brought to everything they did.

“[I had] a difficult line,” remembered Norman Hunter. “I might have got it wrong a few times in rehearsal. But on the night your professionalism came out. Nobody wanted to make the first mistake. We were word perfect, almost.”

The audiences loved it. Tickets for the two performances sold out in an hour, and the team could have filled the City Varieties for a month. The fans who packed the aisles to get a glimpse of their heroes in such unusual garb loved the gentle humour of the script, loved seeing their heroes not taking themselves seriously, loved the extra ninety minutes of entertainment they got from a hard-working team that entertained them for ninety minutes every weekend. Decades later, it’s still fondly remembered.

Decades later, what are the lessons Leeds United could learn from Jimmy Armfield’s foray into theatre? That if you do things for a good reason, and everybody understands why you’re doing them, then you can do anything and people will believe in it and support you. And that only an amateur ever thinks that what he or she has done is good enough, while a professional understands that no matter what you’re doing, you can always do better.

Decades after Duncan McKenzie donned drag and did his turn as Cinders, then, why has the sight of Casper Sloth fishing shirtless in dungarees caused so much complaint from Leeds United fans, and so much passive social media defensiveness from Terry George? Because it is exactly the opposite of the 1974 pantomime, that’s why.

The Leeds United calendar 2016 has not been done for a good reason. That’s given away by the defensive ‘you might not like it but haters gonna buy it anyway’ twists to the marketing, such as that is.

In the attempts to fathom out why this calendar has been produced, the ‘so bad it’s good’ approach has been suggested by some, but that would be a daft strategy for anyone to take with such a simple cash cow as a Leeds United calendar. The LUFC brand isn’t what it was back in the Premier League heyday, but even from sixteenth place in the Championship, it’s still a big pull; like a gravitational black hole, money flows towards Leeds United’s club shop at Christmas, as long as you keep giving people something that resembles what they want in return.

Leeds United’s last set of accounts showed that income from merchandise dropped from £5,871,890 in 2013 to £5,513,681 in 2014, and when such a solid bank begins to dry up at a club like Leeds United, it’s time to double-down on the staples, not play taste roulette with your core market.

That suggests some other reason than wanting to guarantee a successful financial reward from the club’s Christmas marketing is involved, but it’s difficult to understand what that reason might be. And when the reason isn’t clearly communicated or understood, it’s not difficult to see why there has been more ridicule than enthusiasm about the sight of Lewis Cook, stripped to the waist and oiled ready to box; or for photographs of Antenucci and Wood, lunching in the Corn Exchange in inelegant club blazers and incongruous Kappa shorts.

There is suspicion about the motives and confusion about the execution, and while the ‘this is what you’re getting so deal with it’ response to criticism might only be a failure of communication, it’s hard to think of a marketing campaign that would overcome the apprehension many fans have about accepting the 2016 calendar as an official club product, produced by people who only have a link to the club because their daddy/mate bought it with his daddy’s money.

The behind the scenes video trailer that first hipped the world to the latest from Leeds United — to gleeful tabloids, this was just the latest from Leeds United — featured some rare sightings of club officials, like board member Edoardo Cellino, earning his wage as a director of Leeds United Football Club by helping carry some camera equipment. Club officials that fans wouldn’t necessarily trust to hold their phone long enough to take a posed selfie, given they’re part of a regime that in the last four weeks has promised to sell to a fans group, had its figurehead banned from owning an English league club, reneged on its promise to sell, talked up interest in a sale to other bidders, and finally declared the club is not for sale until Steve Evans, or sundry head coaches, can guarantee the club’s place in the Championship next season. ‘Here kid, would you mind taking a photo of — oh, it’s you. Actually, is there anyone else around who isn’t going to do a runner to the beach?’

As an aside, when we were at Elland Road to go behind the scenes on the season ticket promotional video at the end of last season — created and organised by an unbowed hardcore of Leeds fans working within the club — we were standing like schoolkids in awe as David Batty posed on the steps of Billy Bremner’s statue. David Batty! Then, striding through the crowd, wearing flip-flops and green plastic sunglasses, came Edoardo Cellino, straight past Eddie Gray and Norman Hunter, not even glancing at David Batty, oblivious to who that was, on his way to wherever he and his small gang of hangers on felt the real action was in LS11 that lunchtime.

The third reason why this calendar has not struck the popular chord of a pantomime comes down to what Hunter, Bremner, McKenzie, Armfield and the rest brought to it, and brought to everything: their all, and their professional best.

What stands out about the scene in the behind the scenes video where Lee Erwin and Casper Sloth are stood awkwardly by the canal with a fishing rod and a football is not the mundanity of the idea, or the absurdity of their outfits, or the way Erwin holds a ball over the water as if it were a fish-attracting magnet, but the looks of confused, bored disdain on the players’ faces as this guy, who is not a photographer, who doesn’t work for Leeds United, who isn’t a football fan, who had never been seen at a match at Elland Road until Cellino took over, takes photos of them, the sun not sinking rapidly enough behind them to bring the fiasco to a speedy end.

‘Light must be gone by now, Mr George! Maybe we should call it a night?’ Not while there is breath in this body, Casper. ‘Okay. By the way, what is it you do at the club? I know you’ve got a security pass and a blazer and a club email address, but are you just Edoardo’s mate, or —’ Be quiet, Casper. You’re being paid to look sultry, not to talk. ‘Actually I’m being paid to play football and I’m not doing a right lot of that…’ Sultry, Casper! Give me that pout!

The Leeds United 2016 calendar has not been created by a professional, but handed to a hobbyist like a school project, because that’s how the people who own Leeds United are running it. No amount of expensive camera equipment can turn an amateur into a professional, no matter how many times you insist Edoardo watermarks your cheesecake shots of him on his Instagram account, no matter how many years you’ve spent standing awkwardly close to minor celebrities to take photos that have no reason to exist, that nobody would ever want to see. Led by an amateur the results are, obviously, amateurish; and the results have been, obviously, rigorously defended by the amateurs involved in making it, who lack the professionalism to know that when they seize a platform like Leeds United and use it for a hobbyist project, they have to do better than this.

The giveaway words will have echoed around the corridors at Elland Road since the trailer was first aired: ‘People just don’t understand! They don’t know what they’re talking about! There’s bugger all wrong with it!’ The last refuge of the amateur who is in over their head. ‘There’s bugger all wrong with it! Tell me what’s wrong with it!’ No. You made this, for reasons nobody can understand, for people who don’t want it. You tell us what’s right with it, and why we should be interested.

‘Bugger all wrong’ was the weasel squeal of the end days of the Ken Bates era, as the sins of seven years become too great for that regime to justify. “We’ve all taken our share of the criticism,” said Peter Lorimer, in his own Peter’s goldfish moment. “I’ve been criticised, Ken Bates has been criticised and Shaun Harvey’s been criticised. That’s totally out of order because we’ve done bugger all wrong.”

Peter Lorimer still has that column, and a role at the club, and that amateurish whine can still be heard at the top: ‘What more do these people want? Why are they booing and chanting? We’ve done bugger all wrong!’ There’s another photo by Terry George that shows the current source of this amateurish attitude. Some of the kids from the calendar shoot also had their photo taken with the current owner of Leeds United at his desk, and what a desk it is. The ice bucket. The carton of cigarettes and the lighter. The wallet stuffed with cash. The two-thirds empty bottle of Chivas Regal. The large tumbler of whisky, the nearest thing of all to Massimo Cellino. Three pairs of glasses strewn across piles of documents. Stacks of breath mints — kids are coming into the office, after all. A book of Yorkshire dialect. On the shelf behind him, for decoration perhaps, two empty vases; and two more bottles of whisky and a plastic bottle of water.

And what’s wrong with any of that? Bugger all, if that’s what Cellino wants. There’s bugger all wrong with Terry’s calendar either, if that’s what Terry wants to do. But there will be bugger all progress at Leeds United for as long as the corridors are filled with amateurs doing what they want and then complaining when people wonder why they’re doing it. The 2016 calendar is out today; if Marco Silvestri gets injured and is out tomorrow, by the way, Leeds United don’t have another senior goalkeeper. Perhaps that’s just a minor detail.

Those three crucial reasons again that made Jimmy Armfield’s pantomime a success: a good reason for doing it, clear communication about why it was happening, and utmost professionalism. Without those things, you’ll never do any good at anything. Because you’ll never convince anybody that doing bugger all wrong is enough.

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