the square ball week: changes are no goodBack
This is the moment when it all goes wrong, right? The ides of march, the tides of thundersnow. January, you leave Leeds defenceless.
I mean, I can see it too, Mr New Good News touring Thorp Arch and meeting everybody; it’s right there on Snapchat, of all places. This, from the club that kicked and bawled against having a Twitter account or a Facebook page, for years; Snapchat. Do him with the dog filter, go on, just once.
I see what’s in the papers as well. £7m bids for Charlie Taylor: refused. Symbolically, we’ve sold Taylor ten times over, but he’s somehow still here, nobly sitting out the new year with an achilles injury, just to add interest to the conspiracy theories. But that money, once, would have gone a long way towards a certain someone’s hotel and nightclub at Elland Road; a certain someone whose London pied-à-terre is about to get properly demolished. And here are Leeds United, refusing it, presumably because they’d rather have the player. Or, second best, more money. Which would still be an improvement.
The league table, too, is nice to look at right now. Even if Derby County beat us on Friday night, they can’t go above us in the table, and can’t knock us out of the play-off places. If Sheffield Wednesday win and their new lad up front from Barnsley gets a hatful over the weekend, we might go below them, but we’ll still be on course for Wembley. Or better.
Or not. Because, for one thing, Friday night football. That’s not right. And the harbingers of doom, the little cracks and signs that, taken together, might mean disaster, they’re starting to appear. This is Leeds United. It’s not rational, but hearing glad tidings at Leeds is like walking past Massimo Cellino in the corridor; it’s gonna punch you in the stomach, and laugh, eh? But serious. And then laugh again.
The real problem is the Cambridge game and its results. Not the win, although that has domino’d down to the Nottingham Forest game, which was just fine where it was, by the way. And also by the way, why are we scheduling Championship fixtures for FA Cup fourth round weekend? Only half the division has to qualify to mess everything up; and lo and behold, pending replays, sixteen Championship teams are involved in the fourth round.
And all Leeds will get out of it, pending their replay, is Sutton or AFC Wimbledon; and while it’d be nice to play their first (Ian Baird is there) or the second (as a break from the club stealing fakers we’ve been up against in recent years), either tie feels uncomfortably scalpy.
The worse result was the impact on our defence. While for what seems like months United have combined incredibly good form with incredibly numerous injuries to crucial players, they’ve all been in attack or midfield, and normally staggered well enough for them to be absorbed. Things got a little light without O’Kane, Bridcutt and Hernandez all at once, but things generally held together pretty well, so that was fine.
What was holding it together, though, was the defence, which was picking itself. Luke Ayling, who arrived looking like a reserve and stinking of a day at the races, but showed more brio and bravado in his first match than pretty much any signing we’ve seen for years. Kyle Bartley, his old honeyboo from the Arsenal youth team, not the captain, and not Jansson, but who has the best qualities of a captain and a Jansson combined. Pontus Jansson himself, about whom there is not much left for us to say, apart from to compliment his girlfriend for enthusiastically buying up every piece of Pontus merchandise she can get her hands on (memo to the club: this may be the way to pay his transfer fee). And Charlie Taylor, the big want-away grumpy, who despite a touch of the ‘Why aren’t you as brilliant all the time as you were last year?’ yips that affected Sam Byram, still has the reasonable reply that Byram had: he’s still basically like thirteen. Look there before inventing problems to do with his transfer request; and then look at the fact that he’s actually settled into playing pretty well under Garry Monk, after perhaps taking more time to get used to the new season, and his first secure manager at Elland Road.
And who, of those, will play against Derby County, in their rightful positions? Bartley. If we’re lucky. Alongside him in central defence will be Ayling, if Luke is lucky. Left-back Gaetano Berardi — who I love, so that’s fine — right-back Lewie Coyle. Who is still basically like thirteen.
Garry Monk couldn’t have foreseen this, of course, although playing Jansson at Cambridge has had rune casters everywhere seeking in the stones for answers. Even if I could practice mancy, and with all the oracles in the world and a decent calculator, I still couldn’t divine the terms and conditions of the agreement to sign Jansson if I had the contract in front of me; a contract I’m not even sure exists outside of Nordic legend. So I have no idea if playing at Cambridge was anything to do with that.
But I do have the instinctive belief, innate to being a Leeds fan, that such decisions as Monk’s on Monday have the power, when we look at them in retrospect, of turning points. A decision, when going for promotion, not to sign a couple of defenders, to sell a captain instead. Like that. Or releasing a book the day after going top of the Premiership, then losing an FA Cup tie. Something along those lines. Or, winning big in the FA Cup, deciding to go out to Majestyk with no socks on. Any of those kinda January type things that you look back on, one day, and cry about.
Paranoid? Leeds fan mate. So maybe it’s actually a bigger story than a rearranged defence that we’ll tell each other one day, when we talk of the further decline of Leeds United. There’s a press conference being lined up for Saturday, apparently, to introduce new half-owner Andrea Radrizzani to the Leeds public and the expectant world of football; on a day when the expectant world of football will be mostly at football matches. Radrizzani and United will have to work had to distract the everybody from the latest score updates, and I just hope to god that if that’s their aim, they fail.
I hope they don’t even distract anybody in Leeds, or who plays for Leeds, at least not on Friday night. I could come on eyerollingly against modern football here, about how it’s made us think of a press conference with a sports broadcasting mogul — with a degree in public relations, but of course — as important to football fans as the actual game of football being played. But at Leeds United we’re justified in crossing desperate fingers and wanting to know as soon as possible, is this guy gonna be okay? Even if the only answer we’ll get is a slickly managed press conference where he’ll tell us everything will be okay, even if it won’t. But hey. Slickly managed press conference. The times they are a-changing.
But the times are January, and that’s a bad time for Leeds United to change, if there even is a good time for Leeds United to change, even if that change is good. And that’s a contradiction that I feel and that I’m comfortable expressing, even it makes me look like an idiot. Everything at Leeds, from Massimo Cellino hovering in the office suites like Trump around a suitcase full of nuclear codes, to Garry Monk’s injury list, never quite more than he can manage, has been delicately balanced, and that perfect equilibrium has brought us success. Now the balance is being messed with. And for what? For the greater good, that’s what. Well, it had better be good enough.
Change had to come to Leeds United. But change is never good. Neither is football on a Friday night. Neither is football on Friday 13th. It’s a cold world, and a cold January. Be careful out there tonight.