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the square ball week: levels

the square ball week: levels

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This week I watched a video of Scott Wootton running in a straight line.

It was posted on Twitter by his current employers. There were at least two; the second was of Wootton changing direction. In an empty field, running alone; first in a straight line, then in two lines. My, I thought. How he’s really come on since he played for Leeds United.

I wasn’t bemused for too long, I promise. I had actually missed the news of his ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, because I try to ignore the fake team he plays for as much as possible, due to them stealing their league position from Wimbledon; as with many things, I go with Vinnie Jones on this matter. But it turned these videos weren’t evidence of a sudden uplift in Wootton’s playing standards, rather a way of notifying the few gloryhunting club-thieves who care that he’s back in training and getting ready to play football again. Or something close to it, anyway.

Scott Wootton became an easy target at Leeds, and I’m aware that these pop-shots I’m taking are aimed at a static target from about two yards. But then, the only times Scott Wootton ever hit a static target from two yards, it was his own goal. Ba-dum tish.

He was so, so poor, though. And in his brief time at a good football club, on his journey from a Salford PLC to England’s least Corinthian-spirited team, we had every reason to expect much, much more.

It’s good to feel like players like Wootton are in the past, and they are, but sometimes the past isn’t very long ago, its dwellers not very far away. Scott Wootton was a Leeds United player as recently as last season; now he’s only down the road, or a retweeted tweet away. And the only reason he isn’t still a Leeds United player right now is because he apparently never signed a contract extension, despite giving cheerful interviews to say how happy he was to have signed one. The mystery persists; if it wasn’t a contract extension, what did he sign?

The reason it feels like years since Scott Wootton left is that the football Leeds United are playing under Garry Monk feels like it’s years ahead of what Leeds United were playing while Wootton was here. And what interests me about that is how football fans can, for so long, kid themselves into thinking something is acceptable, when all it takes is six months and Luke Ayling to reveal that no, it was never acceptable, never all along; not when people first claimed Wootton would be a good enough replacement for Sam Byram, and not now.

We tell ourselves these things though, because one thing we seek through football is reassurance. If things in life are going badly, then as long as Chris Wood scores a goal, Pablo Hernandez nutmegs someone, and Pontus Jansson disembowels someone, then at least we can return to work on Monday knowing that the weekend was as good as it could have been. Although we might have made dark jokes about going to Elland Road feeling mock dread, it was only really under Neil Warnock and the worst points of Steve Evans that the dread became truly constant and real. Otherwise, even the fiercest sceptic would have to admit, we were all going to Elland Road with a tiny part of us hoping, deep inside, that Scott Wootton would be really, really good today. After all, why else would you pay money to go and watch him play?

As this weekend brings Sheffield Wednesday to Elland Road, this is a good moment to cite a peer of Wootton’s, and arguably a better example: Marius Zaliukas. For how many weeks, even after I dedicated a morose morning to making gifs of his many, many mistakes in the 6-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday (and his teammates’, but that’s not important right now), did I keep returning to the video of his heroic goal-saving tackle against Watford, that happened just a few weeks earlier? He couldn’t be as bad as he seemed, because that had happened. So I had to keep going back, to check, and hope that he’d be great. “He’s a good defender,” I’d say. And while all about me stayed silent, the beating of their hearts was a morse, rather than morose, “We hope so, we hope so, we hope so.”

The other prompt for these thoughts, apart from Wootton’s straight line and the Zaliukas collapse, has been some looking I’ve been doing into Howard Wilkinson’s arrival at Leeds United. “You’re third from bottom of the Second Division,” he told the players on his first day. “Which means I’m the third worst manager in this division. So let’s do something about it.”

What history (in this case the physio, Alan Sutton) hasn’t recorded him mentioning was that, just a few weeks earlier, those players had been tipped as joint second favourites, with Leicester, to win the division in 1988/89; only Chelsea were given a better chance, and they ended up winning it. And several of them — Mervyn Day, Peter Haddock, Ian Baird, Bobby Davison, John Pearson, Glynn Snodin, David Batty — would go on to be an integral part of the sides that not only won the Second Division, the next season, but went right to the top of the First Division, in just a couple of seasons.

“Beleaguered,” they were called at the start of 1988/89; “dismal … poor … United’s lack of effort damned them.” After the first game after Billy Bremner had been sacked, caretaker coach Peter Gunby had a long discussion with his fellow coach Norman Hunter, and then told the press, “I was shattered at the way some of our players went about their work.”

Was there a lack of pride, a lack of passion, a lack of desire and fight? Not in theory. The players had bee devoted to Bremner; in fact some argued that, after he was sacked, some of them played poorly because they were pining for him. But then, they’d played poorly when he was managing them. While there were some enigmas, like John Sheridan, who needed special consideration, there were too many other players, who Wilkinson soon got rid of, that simply weren’t up to the task of getting Leeds United promoted.

And yet so many had thought they were; those players were part of a team, remember, that was second favourite to win its division; and optimism, when the season kicked off, had been high that subsequent events would prove the odds to be correct. They were thought to be a very good squad of players; they plunged quickly to 21st.

By the start of the next season Howard Wilkinson had bought at least one new player for every single position expect goalkeeper and striker; and he used John Hendrie in attack to shake things up there. And while he’d actually turned the remnants of Bremner’s team into a decent side, it was only once he’d replaced them all that Leeds United’s team became an excellent side. The betting didn’t change much; Leeds went from second favourites one season, to favourites the next. But the changes were more than the odds could calculate, and more than the fans, some of whom couldn’t see why, say, Neil Aspin had been moved on, could see at the time.

Because you become attached to certain players, like Aspin; you become use to others. Like, I guess, Scott Wootton. We got so used to Wootton, in fact, that his name is still shorthand for ‘poor Leeds defender’, months after he left, months after he even kicked a ball for his new fake team. At Leeds we’ve applied the Stockholm Syndrome to our attitudes towards chairmen; Wootton was our Stockholm on the pitch. There was a point when, bad as he was, it was hard to imagine any better.

It took a lad from Malmo to start changing that idea. It was a bloke from Sheffield back in 1988. He did a thorough job of it, that a guy from Bedford — via Swansea — has us dreaming of emulating now. That sort of thing’s a long way off. But levels are always with us. Running in a straight line is one level. What we need, and what we deserve, is another level, and it’s good this season if we’ve at least remembered that.

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