the square ball week: shez cultureBack
There aren’t enough chars, mops or buckets in all the old East End anymore to clear up after the mawkish outpourings of pearly sentimentality over this week’s closure of the Queen herself’s Boleyn Ground.
Football fans of a more stoic style were bemused. Had this happened when Scunthorpe moved from The Old Show Ground to Glanford Park, in 1988? What about when Manchester City left Maine Road, a ground at least as historic and rooted in its community as Upton Park? And what about down the road, at Charlton? They didn’t even make this much fuss when they went back to The Valley, after being locked out for near enough eight years.
For a long time it felt like football had left all its myths behind in the rush away from its pre-1992 past. In retrospect, the last twenty-some years since the start of the Premier League might come to be seen as a golden era, compared to the over-sentimentalised, repackaged and sanitised event fabrication industry that is miring us in new, false myths now, like the idea that Upton Park is a landmark of football on a par with Wembley.
On which subject, was there even this much fuss when Wembley was closed and demolished? I remember Kevin Keegan crying in the showers and quitting. If Wembley should ever be closed again I expect those moments will be performed on the pitch, Keegan played by whoever happens at the time to be playing The Doctor in Doctor Who.
It’s as if the Premier League has realised, just in time for its almost on-trend rebrand (Instagram’s gradient just ruined it all, guys), that it can make a killing by marketing the very thing it spent twenty years angering football fans by ignoring: its heritage.
It helps the Premier League that it now has a heritage of its own to market. The break with the old ways in 1992 was so severe that to even mention Tony Cottee in the same breath as West Ham United was a sin; until he went back, in 1994, to score another twenty-odd goals for the Hammers in what is now a pleasingly retro Pony/Dagenham Motors kit. At the time it was terrible, but we can build a brand upon it now; because, with nostalgic specs, the right lighting and a stirring soundtrack of bombastic commentary, can’t Ludek Miklosko, John Moncur and Iain Dowie look like legends now?
It helps to have a positive platform from which to market your heritage brand. Moncur, Dowie and co played at Upton Park with Slaven Bilic, the popular defender turned manager who has the current West Ham side edging Manchester United for a European place at the top end of the Premier League. From that lofty perch, even the lowest points of your club’s history look good, because they’re now just a precursor to the good times of today; and the good times past look even better, because now you’re getting the same rush you’re reminded what the good times were like, and if you weren’t there the first time, at last you can join in. Geoff Hurst is easier to appreciate when you’ve got Dimitri Payet to enjoy.
It’s a different and more variable equation when times are hard, as they are right now at Leeds United. For Leeds fans, the past is a place we can retreat to when we want to escape the shrieking grind of our modern football club, that can’t even release a reserve defender on a free transfer without it becoming an occasion for contractual absurdity. Only at Leeds United can a contract extension be signed and announced and never have existed, the sort of imbecilic manoeuvre that sends fans to the safety of our past, no matter how mediocre the era.
To rush from Scott Wootton to Chris Fairclough or Norman Hunter would be the easy option, but there is something about the contrast with champions that is too painful. When times are hard, football fans seek mental comfort in other hard times, romanticised. It hurts to compare our recent Wootton plight with Fairclough. But Neil Aspin? Now, there was a player who knew how to do right-back and centre-half. The 1987 FA Cup semi-final, the play-off final against Charlton? Great times. And we lost them both. Even better.
It’s not only in the top flight that club histories are being repackaged and resold to the ArsenalFanTV generation. Next season will mark thirty years from the best, crushing, Leeds season of the eighties, and if the club have learned anything from Upton Park this week, they’ll have all sorts of celebrations planned. A towering, inflatable John Stiles, rising over Elland Road like a hot-air balloon; a modern-classical composition made of contemporary recordings of Mervyn Day yelling at Brendan Ormsby played over the PA while ballet dancers recreate Ormsby vs Bennett on the touchline; a parade of fish suppers brought over the road and through the South Stand from Graveley’s, a tribute to Peter Haddock.
What we’ve got right now, though, is Massimo Cellino getting all up in our most cherished memories of Leeds United’s past, like Iain Dowie showing up in a summer sex dream. As if it hasn’t been bad enough experiencing the prolonged travails of Leeds United 2016 through the filter and filters of Terry George’s Instagram, when we try to cocoon ourselves in a mid-eighties safespace away from all the current pain and madness, we find Cellino has been photoshopped into there, too.
They were the worst of times, the darkest of days, the eighties Division Two doldrums; but they’re ours. Cellino has his own era of second division mediocrity to be going on with, so why must he involve himself in ours, that we had before him?
Nostalgic romanticism is the only strong argument in favour of John Sheridan becoming head coach at Leeds. Magician doesn’t do justice to his playing ability, when he and the ball would perform their own spontaneous dance routines on stages that resembled farmers’ fields more than football pitches; but he hasn’t been able to transfer that mojo to management. He’s still relatively young in managerial terms, and Elland Road could well be the missing rabbit from his conjuring box, but based on his track record so far, he’s not even better than the guy going through the motions in a deserted Thorp Arch right now.
Massimo Cellino did a weird thing, though, when he was asked by a reporter this week about interest in Sheridan, by claiming not to know who John Sheridan is. Weird, because he’s widely believed to have met Shez for talks twice this week, so just like Lucy Ward and Darko Milanic, he bloody does know who he is and is bloody lying. And weird because his denial was a denial of the only valid reason for wanting to appoint Shez in the first place.
It has created one of the loops of frustration that we’re forever being caught in at Cellino’s Leeds; where he seems to be about to serve up a bone fide Leeds United legend as head coach, and you’re conflicted because while you’d love to see a Leeds badge on John Sheridan’s chest again, you don’t want it to be anything except a round white rose; but where it is also possible that Cellino has no idea what Sheridan means to Leeds fans, and has just plucked a managerial name from seventeenth (that number again!) in the Third Division.
Which leaves us fans in an awkward position. Hero-worship impels us to welcome John Sheridan back to Leeds as an emblemic association that for some is as tight to the team we support as the badge, the shirt, the stadium. But events like this week’s Boleyn Ground jamboree are reminders that there are no worse guardians of football’s cultural history than 2016’s football clubs, that no corner of the fans’ shared experience is safe from being sanitised and bastardised for safe modern reconsumption.
Can we take the cultural risk of appointing Shez? John Sheridan in Kappa with a shield will never be John Sheridan in Umbro with a badge. It’s an irrational reason to reject a coach, but that’s something else Cellino has tried to claim from the fans: irrationality. That’s ours too, and he can’t have everything.