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the square ball week: in focus

the square ball week: in focus


The past few weeks have generated comparisons between the Leeds United of today and the Leeds United of twenty-five to thirty years ago.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone of that, what with writing a film and a book about those years, tempting fans and pundits into comparisons (and available to buy here, by the way); but Garry Monk, Pablo Hernandez and Pontus Jansson have to take some of the blame too, for reviving the roles of Howard Wilkinson, Gordon Strachan and Vinnie Jones and pushing Leeds towards promotion, like a new cast interpreting an old script.

Add others: for Kyle Bartley, see Chris Fairclough, the no-frills no-hype central defender dipping assuredly under the headlines; for Chris Wood, read Lee Chapman, the tall, blond, chuck anything at him and he’ll score centre-forward. We can’t be sure if Ronaldo Vieira or Kalvin Phillips will bloom into rereadings of David Batty and Gary Speed, but we can at least be hopeful.

The revival has carried from the pitch, to the stands, to the city. Often, over the last few years, I’ve written about Elland Road as an island of desolation that felt like a place apart from the city; how, as I huddled into winter coats, ready to end my Tuesday with an evening trip to Beeston, even Leeds fans would wonder, sadly, why I was putting myself through it.

That’s changed this season. People are interested, and people want to come. You could call it gloryhunting, but if you’ve been one of the 17,000 at some of the dour, dire nights we’ve endured at Elland Road in recent seasons, you may, like me, have begun to feel glad that the majority of the city was being protected from exposure to such a toxic football club. For the betterment of humanity, it’s better that people come when it’s good. And now that it is good, people have come, and the interest in the Burton game brought back memories of Bournemouth, 1990; a loyal few thousand at the game, thousands more watching screens in Leeds.

It was the same in 1989/90. Elland Road had a reputation as a semi-derelict arena of hooligan disorder — as did many football stadiums at the time. An improved team brought curious fans along — Strachan, Fairclough and Shutt were credited with adding more than 3,000 fans to the gate for their home debuts near the end of 1988/89 — but it took time for momentum to truly build. Defeat to Newcastle, and a series of underwhelming draws, caused crowds to dip at the start of 1989/90, until the 4-0 win over Swindon Town — watched by the lowest league crowd of the season — kickstarted the campaign. From the game on, the terraces were packed.

It looks unlikely, now, that 2016/17 will end as well as 1989/90. Looking back, it’s turning out closer to 1988/89, Howard Wilkinson’s first part-season, which is still a useful comparison. After Billy Bremner was sacked at the end of September 1988, expectations for the season were recalibrated to survival in the Second Division, but as soon as he was through the door, Wilkinson was overachieving; as the season entered its final third, a flurry of club publicity advertised a play-off push, generating big crowds even before Wilkinson’s big signings. Ultimately, as in 2016/17, that promotion attempt fell away in the closing weeks. “I have said for a long time that talk of us getting promotion was almost irresponsible, taking into account the start the team made to the season,” Wilkinson said, recognising that without a preseason he could only have done so much, but secure in the knowledge that the club would be better prepared next time.

Garry Monk could justifiably say the same thing now. He did arrive in the summer, at the start of June, but despite Steve Evans’ claims about preparing for the next summer, he was essentially starting from scratch at a club that had done nothing to be ready. That showed at the start of the season, and it might be showing at the end, too. Monk has been evolving the team on the fly as the season goes by, but the bits between the games haven’t been enough to prepare the team for every challenge they’ll face.

We can only hope that Monk can talk about the impact of a reduced preseason last summer with the same confidence Wilkinson had of being better prepared next time. Amid all the comparisons between this season and the club a quarter of a century ago, the roles that haven’t been reprised by today’s actors are those in the boardroom.

One thing Gordon Strachan made clear to me in the interview for Do You Want To Win? was that success at Leeds in 1992 started from the top, in 1988. Leslie Silver was chairman, Peter Gilman the vice-chairman, and Bill Fotherby the managing director. To stop messing about and do whatever it took to get Leeds United back into the First Division was a deliberate decision they made before they hired Howard Wilkinson, and when he outlined his plan for promotion and beyond, another deliberate decision was taken to hire him and back him with everything the board had.

That was literal. Since the Peter Ridsdale era, we’ve been used to analysing the club accounts, trying to work out where the money has gone. Looking through the accounts from 1989 to 1992, you see where the money was coming from: Bill Fotherby, out in the city, was extracting sponsorship cheques from any local business he could, while Leslie Silver and Peter Gilman were personally underwriting the club’s overdraft. By 1992, £3m of their own money was supporting Wilkinson’s team building.

As important as their money was their focus. The aim in 1988 was clear: get Leeds United back to the top of the First Division. Every effort from the moment was concentrated on delivering that aim. Money was provided for players, agreements were made with the council — Elland Road’s owners — that would allow new stands and facilities to be built, plans were drawn up for a new training ground. The board were building the infrastructure of a top club, and giving the manager the means to build a top team. Without distractions, they achieved success.

This season? It’s not even a question of competent or incompetent ownership; it’s a question of who actually owns Leeds United. In retrospect, we can all see that the January transfer window hurt the team. In fact, in advance, most fans could see that the wrong decisions in the January transfer window would hurt the team. In December, when plans should have been made, final negotiations were underway for Andrea Radrizzani’s partial takeover from Massimo Cellino; in January, when those plans should have been put into action, it was instead a time of reorganisation and upheaval, and all the confusion you would expect when a club suddenly has two bosses.

The football team, I suspect, was a little forgotten. After all, it was going well, and when things are going well, it’s hard to understand the need to improve. “I don’t let him [Radrizzani] invest anything yet,” said Cellino in January. “We are 50-50 and I told him, don’t spend anything. We have too many players, don’t get in a mess because sometimes we want to help too much.

“As the owners, we want to participate in the winning of games, so when the team is playing good, we just have to wish no-one gets injured. We have good players and they are growing, it’s a young team. They should get better and better.

“Sometimes buying players does not mean you make the team stronger. It’s not because I don’t want to spend money. That is not true. Andrea would love to help. We cannot play football, we can just spend money, but sometimes spending money can hurt the club.”

While the sun shines, let it shine, was the attitude, and don’t worry about the sun going down and the moon rising. When things are going well, it can be hard to understand the need to improve, but then again, it’s simple to understand that when things are going well, the way to prolong the good is to get even better. Or, to put it another way, just because you’ve already spent £650,000 on Vinnie Jones, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t spend £1m on Gary McAllister.

Those sorts of decisions do come down to the competence of the people making them, and you’ll have to pardon me if I just add it to the list of judgement calls Cellino has got wrong. With that in mind, the addition of Ivan Bravo to the club’s board feels like a positive step. The former director of strategy of Real Madrid might be working long-distance from Qatar, but it should mean that experience and good football sense is only a Skype away this summer and next season.

But competence is only part of the equation. Monk is more than competent, but this season, he has only been able to do so much. The missing part of the picture is focus. Or rather, the picture is still filled with too many unnecessary elements: takeover talk, threatened FA bans, Terry George. Time and energy this season has still been diverted to stuff that has nothing to do with putting the ball in the net, and that’s a crucial lessen the club has to learn if it’s to follow its emulation of 1988/89 with a successful rerun of 1989/90.

It’s not necessarily about a long contract for Monk; that would help, but hardly anybody gets a long contract these days, and if they do, they’re soon broken. Rather, it’s about putting everything in place that a manager needs to make Leeds United good on the pitch, and then not doing anything to distract or detract from that work. It’s about a season with one owner, who isn’t working on a sale or part-sale of the club, but entirely on its improvement.

Massimo Cellino is a restless, antic character; anyone can see that. He hardly seems to have taken a breath since arriving at Leeds United. What we need now is an owner who will take a deep breath and take in everything that Leeds United needs. And then provide it. That, after all, is the job. And as Gordon Strachan says in Do You Want To Win?, if you’re surrounded by people who you know are doing their jobs and are not going to let you down — well, then anything can happen. Then you can win.


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Read more about Do You Want To Win? and order here; and watch the trailer below.