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the square ball week: right about now, 50/50

the square ball week: right about now, 50/50

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The magic of the League Cup. It’s not a phrase much used by football romantics. Even if you win it — in February — it will have to take its place between whatever league fixtures are pressing at the time; you can’t even celebrate properly with more games ahead, instead of the endless summer that follows a league title or FA Cup win.

Leeds’ own relationship with the League Cup is variable; the first top honour the club won, in 1968; the last cup final the club reached, in 1996; those two matches represent the extremes of pleasure and pain that come with following Leeds United. Most memorable in between was the deflating drama of the Rumbelows Cup semi-finals against Manchester United: Lee Chapman straight hulking from his hospital bed to play in the first leg, the gravel barely cleaned from the deep cuts to his face sustained crashing first into Steve Sedgley’s boot and second into White Hart Lane’s running track; Peter Haddock suffering a career-ending knee injury in the second leg, and the final indignity of Lee Sharpe’s last minute winner.

Leeds threw absolutely everything at those two games, hammering Les Sealey’s goal at Elland Road; Carl Shutt headed the ball at the goal so hard he hurt his neck. It had that in common with United’s performance at Anfield this week; a team that gave it everything, but ultimately came up short. Well, Leeds United.

We haven’t been able to make such positive comparisons between a contemporary Leeds side and the treasured glories of 1989-1992 for a while now, but they’re starting to creep back into the conversations. Not so much on an individual player by player basis, although Chris Wood has certain Lee Chapman vibes, Pablo Hernandez could become a talismanic Strachan, Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips are vying for that homegrown Battyesque cockiness, and Pontus Jansson is a Fairclough in the streets and a Jones in the sheets (or vice versa).

It’s more that there’s a togetherness forming at Leeds that is uniting the players, management and fans and making things like the Anfield performance happen. When everyone at a football club is pulling in the same direction, momentum and unity can increase the power of ability. A 7/10 player like Ayling or Cooper can become an 8/10, boosting from the buzz.

It’s something Leeds fans have wanted for years, and has been at the roots of protests against Ken Bates, Gulf Finance House and Massimo Cellino. In the full transcript of his conversation with Simon Austin for FourFourTwo magazine, Neil Redfearn offered what seemed like a counter view on Bates: “People might not like me saying this, but my experiences with Ken Bates were always good. I know how he is, that he has a ruthless side, but he was good, supportive. I can’t say bad about someone I’ve not had a bad experience with.”

Simon Grayson used to say similar things. Until, at least, a couple of years after he’d been sacked and had the last of his pay-off through, when he told a dinner in Leeds that “Twat” was not a strong enough word to describe Bates, and described some of what he’d been up against while manager; Ken’s eyes and ears, Gwyn Williams, hiding in the Thorp Arch toilets to snoop on conversations; players lined up that could have got Leeds over the play-off or even automatic promotion lines, like Gareth McAuley, Kaspars Gorkss, Keith Andrews, only to have the deal pulled at the last minute; a Bates-and-switch over the Howson deal, when Jonny was sold against his will and Grayson was promised the fee for new players, then unpromised it, then sacked.

Grayson and Snodin kept the peace while working for Leeds because peace is a component of unity, and unity was what was required if Leeds were to get back to the Premier League; Redfearn displays the same diplomacy, that ‘He ain’t harming me’ schtum stance. But the League One promotion wrote itself into history for its spirit; Andy Hughes and Michael Doyle were in the top five appearance makers, pushing their ability and that of the players around them beyond previous limits in order to achieve, as Hughesy put it, “Something for Leeds United.”

All the while, though, unity and common purpose were being eroded from the top. The East Stand additions in summer 2011 were an iron-clad and cream-clad demonstration that Ken Bates’ preference was for property developments before Fabian Delphs, and before the players that might have replaced Delph if the money had gone into the football club rather than the building fund.

The East Stand became a focal point for LUST’s Time For Change protests that eventually led to Bates selling up, protests that, at the time, were seen by some as divisive, spreading disunity, distracting fans from their core purpose of supporting Simon Grayson and his team. But that was very much the point. Grayson wasn’t being supported from above, and the protests weren’t aimed at further disrupting his attempts to get Leeds promoted, but at getting for him a boardroom atmosphere that would recognise the value of Gorkss before executive boxes, that wouldn’t cash in on the captain against his will. They were protests for unity.

It didn’t, ultimately, turn out like that. Grayson was sacked before Bates went, Neil Warnock was a self-interested disaster, GFH were worse. The unity of 2009-2011, that if only for some better defenders could have got Leeds United into the Premier League, was gone. But while Bates had been at the club, unity had only ever been an illusion; amid the good times, the first discordant notes were struck in the Chairman’s Suite, where Ken Bates was working to a dramatically different agenda to the rest of the club. Ken Bates was never, ever, singing from the same hymn sheet; he was growling something horrible, in egotistic imitation of The Three Tenors, off-key from the players, management and fans.

Howson, Grayson and us; Jansson, Monk and us. Football works on harmonics and subliminals; while the crowd sings, the manager and players have to communicate their intentions and positions, a symphony of common feeling that is instinctive before needing thinking. Everybody knows their part, and how to move and play, in concert.

Which makes the great, gulping, blatant silence from Massimo Cellino troubling rather than pleasing as Leeds United prepare, united, to meet their Christmas fates. Players, management and fans are all pulling in the same direction, edging up closer to the Premier League, and all we know of Massimo Cellino’s direction is what Andrea Radrizzani told us this week. It’s the opposite direction to ours: half out as soon as possible, the other half out in the summer.

We can speculate plenty about why the proposed deal is being structured that way, but the nearer need is to understand its impact on the club and the season. Players, management and fans together are exceeding all expectations and making Leeds United feel like, well, something like the club it once was. But then, in the boardroom, the 100% owner could soon be 50% out, sharing space with a newcomer in a situation that creates 100% more doubt, even if the newcomer’s intentions are 100% unifying, because he can only exert 50% of his will. When you want everybody to be ?, that’s a lot of division.

And that’s why this is, more than ever, Massimo Cellino’s time to go. The team is doing better than at any point during in his ownership. Crowds are up, atmosphere is improved, players are better, management is better — on and off the pitch. And he wants to go. Or does he? A greater uncertainty than the proposed half-sale to Radrizzani has always been the uncertainty of Cellino’s own mind, and that’s strike two for getting him gone: can we ever trust someone to come with us in one serious direction, who has such a long record of petulant 180s?

Another Cellino spin about Radrizzani wouldn’t help now. A full Steve Thompson on Pep Clotet wouldn’t help now. To let Pontus go, like Howson was forced to go, to Snodgrass and Grayson’s and everyone’s chagrin; that would be unhelpful. And there Cellino — or someone — has to deliver.

Leeds can deliver, either this season or, with momentum and stability and focus on the football, in the next. And unity: players, management, fans, and boardroom. The last is what has always let us down before. With Massimo Cellino in it, in whatever frame of mind, we’ll always risk it letting us down again.

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