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the square ball week: promising

the square ball week: promising

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Massimo Cellino promised we’d be promoted to the Premier League this season. Or else.

“I don’t want to make promises I can’t keep,” he said in April 2014, after the Football League allowed him to take over Leeds United. “And I admit it will be difficult to get promotion next season [2014/15]. But in 2015/16 we will earn our way back to the Premier League, which is where Leeds belong.”

Just over a year later Massimo added a year to the promise, because, y’know, stuff. “I wish to be in the Premier League yesterday but we can’t expect to be there just because our name is Leeds,” he said in May 2015, and then, so we knew these weren’t empty words, he put his money where his mouth was and made a promise.

“If in two seasons’ time I’m not ready to take the club to the Premier League, I’m going to sell it.”

Another promise came from the club this week. Season tickets are now on sale for 2016/17, and they come with a promise to anyone who buys one before the end of May: if the club don’t make the play-offs, you’ll get 25% of your money back.

Making the play-offs would be the minimum you would expect of a club that is ‘ready for the Premier League,’ so perhaps the commitment of May 2015 still applies here, meaning the pact for 2016/17 is this: Leeds United make the play-offs, or you get a quarter of your money back, and the club gets put up for sale.

Not since 1989/90, when promotion was a shit-or-bust must, has Leeds United had so much on the line for a Second Division promotion campaign.

There is more to the season ticket offer, and the new junior pricing structure in particular is spot on. Extending under-11s pricing from the Family Stand across the stadium, and reducing some under-16s tickets by nearly half, are welcome and necessary moves for a club in a city where Rhinos, Manchester City, Barcelona shirts and worse have spread like weeds.

The refund offer shows that, while Cellino might have kept quiet about the recent atmosphere of unrest and downright protest around the club, the message has been received: the fans aren’t happy, and need to be brought back onside. I wrote after the Reading game that the thousand who marched through Holbeck that day were a walking, singing and protesting block of half-a-million pounds worth of season ticket renewals the club was in grave danger of losing; its most motivated fans, motivated to take to the streets because they care so much, lacking the motivation to take their seats anymore. If the refund offer is meant to appeal to anybody, it seems to be the long-suffering fans who have been down these roads with Leeds United for too long, and have, or are about to, crack.

The additional promise of 50% back to May shoppers if the club breaks 15,000 season ticket sales by 31st July, though, feels so unlikely to come into play it smacks of gilded the lily with more gilt than is helpful; we can barely get 15,000 into the stadium for individual matches these days. And the preoccupation on gilt in this offer is what makes it different from 1989/90, and shows that Massimo Cellino still doesn’t understand what Leeds United fans want.

What we want from season ticket prices, and what we want from a season of football, are two different things. They’re not confined to Leeds fans. From pricing, fans want affordability for themselves, and for the fans they share the stadium with. That part is going to be about as good as it can get next season; I mean, it still costs too much just to watch games of football (insert what you already know about Bundesliga pricing and fan experience here), but prices have been frozen, hopefully keeping them within reach of most who could afford them this season, and the junior pricing raises hopes of a more energetic, if more Kop Cat-fixated, atmosphere in the ground.

What we want from a season of football, though, is not promises, whether it’s of promotion, or of our money back. We want to see a Leeds United team filled with good players, playing exciting football, and winning games. And the idea that, if we don’t get that, then getting some cash back will make up for it; well, it’s kind of insulting.

I’m quite careworn and perhaps tatty in my insistence that football is not the business football fans have been conned into thinking it is, and to me, this is another contestable rope in a tug of war tournament that has been going on between commercial interests and football’s soul since the 1980s. Getting a quarter of the cost of your season ticket back if the team doesn’t make the play-offs is like getting a decent fee for Lewis Cook; it’s so far away from the point of what football is about that it might as well be about a different sport.

No amount of money can replace the sight we saw on Tuesday night, of Lewis Cook dribbling through the Wolves midfield. Bouncing the ball from his right to his left, his right to his left, then tapping with his right until he found a gap to skip through at pace; he left four Wolves players behind him and then bamboozled two more as he bore down on goal, before he played a through ball between them that took them both out of the game. Half a team dealt with, and if Jordan Botaka had been a little more fortunate, United would have scored.

But some Leeds United fans will still tell you that, if we get £10million for Lewis Cook, it’d be good business, as if that’s what we all go to football for. Not thrilling moments when creativity meets ability and agility, and acts upon a football; but to talk about £10million being transferred from one bank account to another, and the person who contains all that creativity, ability and agility being removed from our view.

This time next year — or several months earlier, if the recent seasons of league form are any future indicator — I will not be watching my bank account in eager anticipation of a ninety quid bank transfer, I won’t break into a spontaneous rendition of Leeds United Calypso when the payment is confirmed, I won’t keep a copy of the bank transfer displayed on my wall the way I have had the 1991/92 squad photo up there since, well, 1992. All I’ll have is ninety quid, ninety quid I won’t want.

What the club — and presumably Massimo Cellino — have misunderstood with this offer is that Leeds United fans will happily pay the price asked for these season tickets without any offer of a refund, and that season tickets would be an easier sell if, instead of the offer, the club proved that they were going to be worth it.

Leeds United didn’t make any financial offers to the fans about the 1989/90 season, because the team Howard Wilkinson assembled spoke for itself. Chris Fairclough, Gordon Strachan, Vinnie Jones, Mel Sterland, John Hendrie, Carl Shutt, John McClelland; it was worth paying the price of admission just to watch them play, and the knowledge that the club had signed them because Sergeant Wilko was giving to give promotion a bloody good go was the only extra incentive anyone needed.

What incentive is there to watch the Leeds United of 2016/17? Right now, we don’t even know who the manager will be. Steve Evans is no Howard Wilkinson, but even his planning for next season looks as if it will be swept aside after the last day at Preston, to be replaced by — what? “I cannot work with English managers,” Cellino told The Telegraph in a long interview published this week. “I never want to learn. I give up.”

That unwillingness to learn is Cellino’s response to the difficulties of adjusting to the English game: “I never want to learn. I give up.” Well, he’s given it, a chance, kinda: “I thought I knew everything about football but here I have had to start from zero again. Until now I’ve only spent about five per cent of my time looking at the playing side.”

That, essentially, is why Cellino’s initial promotion promise — remember, we should be up now — was put back a year: English football is too hard, he’s not had time to deal with it anyway, and now he’s giving up and going back to what he knew before. On such platforms a play-off position next season is being promised, or we’re getting some money back, and Cellino might sell the club (depending on him changing the terms of that promise again in the meantime).

The play-off refund promise might have grabbed the headlines this week, but it’s the least important promise the club could be making. The season ends on May 7th; the cut-off date for fans to buy into this “unique commitment” is three weeks later, on May 31st. Normally it takes the rest of the summer for it to sink in that Leeds United are going to fritter away another opportunity to build a promotion challenge, but three weeks in May is the window in which Massimo Cellino has to make a play-off position in 2016/17 look viable.

The team on the pitch is more important than the refund for underperformance, but who, after May, will want buy a ticket for another season of directionless mid-table football, after the offer of the refund has even been taken away?

That’s just over five weeks from now. Five weeks to hire a head coach the fans can believe in, and believe that the club might support and keep. Five weeks to secure the futures of Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt, Charlie Taylor. Five weeks to show some intent in the transfer market in the key areas the team needs to strengthen: central defence, strikers, perhaps a Bridcutt or similar. And five weeks not to be banned by the Football League, or convicted of being in contempt of court, or to pour cash into more indefensible court cases.

It’s five weeks for Massimo Cellino to get his act together and start running Leeds United not only in a manner that befits its history, but in a manner that will make the fans believe in its future. A promise of a refund is just another promise; a promise that’s no substitute for football. Now isn’t the time for promises, but for real commitment.

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