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the square ball week: charlie says

the square ball week: charlie says


Last to leave and least lamented, Charlie Taylor has spoiled everything at the last moment. Of all the bowling balls aimed at the ten pins of Leeds United in recent seasons, I didn’t expect the last of the Cellino era to be rolled by one of our own.

Charlie Taylor has made his own bed, and he’ll have to lie in it, no doubt very comfortably, between 100% Egyptian cotton sheets he’ll soon be able to afford from the John Lewis at the Bullring. If any Birmingham based Leeds fans spot our Charlie bemused among the bedding, reading the labels out to his agent on the phone as he tries to choose new linen, be sure to give him a Chinese burn from all of us.

Charlie Taylor has been badly advised, according to Garry Monk, although not entirely. As with Sam Byram, as with Lewis Cook, it’s hard to interpret, ‘Take the millions of pounds you’re being offered to play football in one of the world’s highest profile leagues, young man, while you have the chance,’ as bad advice, as such.

It’s not always been the player’s choice; young lads are still traded among club owners like performing cattle. For example, folk close to Cook claimed he would have been happier spending another season playing for Leeds, living at his family’s home. But the fallback position of an enormous pay rise and an opportunity every young footballer dreams of no doubt softened the move he was forced to make. ‘Make the best of a bad situation, lad.’ More good advice.

Somehow Charlie Taylor was advised to make a bad situation as bad as it could possibly be, and for some reason, he listened. It’s hard to understand how Taylor came to the point of refusing to play for Leeds United against Wigan Athletic. His commitment had been questioned all season, since he put in his transfer request, but there was never enough evidence to convict: for every photo of him looking glum as the tie-winning penalty was scored at Fleetwood, there was a video of him wildly celebrating a goal just half an hour earlier; for every suspect-shirked tackle, there was a lung-busting run to the byline. If Taylor was only acting interested, he was doing it so well it should have been easy to keep up the pretence for one last ovation in the sunshine at Wigan.

Nobody else in the gang went out like this, and perhaps it is his longevity that cracked Charlie Taylor at the end. Taylor made his debut for Leeds in 2011, and the fates of our Players of the Year and Young Players of the Year since then do not make cheerful reading. Jonny Howson was flogged off by Bates as part of a bluff about Simon Grayson’s transfer warchest, that was exposed a week later when Grayson was sacked. Tom Lees was released on a free, deemed not up to the standards being set by Dave Hockaday and Junior Lewis. Sam Byram was publicly vilified by Massimo Cellino for wanting to play football in a team where he could make overlapping runs past Dimitri Payet, rather than wait forlornly on the wing for Scott Wootton to trundle forward past him. Lewis Cook was sold with indecent haste to the first club that expressed an interest. Alex Mowatt tried and toiled and dissipated his talents, until he was cast out to try again at Barnsley.

Leeds United has not, during Charlie Taylor’s time at the club, been a happy place for young footballers, and no player still at the club has seen more of their misery than Taylor. His roommate was Alex Mowatt, until suddenly he wasn’t, and I can’t imagine the group chat of Charlie’s Thorp Arch generation has been a pinging stream of positive notifications over the last few years.

Sympathy for these rich young men with the world at their feet, playing the sport of all our dreams, can only stretch so far, but these players have been viewed after departure with a mixture of fondness and regret. Most fans saw through Cellino’s wedge-driving work on Byram, and sneak televised glimpses of Sam’s West Ham appearances with interest. Despite a tough season of injuries and Wilshire, there’s still hope of seeing Cook in an England shirt, and reminding people where he started. Last season’s Lees-for-England shouts were confusing, but a credit to the lad. Mowatt’s debut red card at Oakwell was extra entertainment, from a player whose long ranges strikes were among the most fun we had in recent sour times.

There’s no bitterness, because they did it all so sweetly. Thinking about advice, I wonder what sort of emojis filled the group chat screen when Charlie’s old peers heard about his Wigan decision — none of them took their problems with the club that far, and you can’t imagine them encouraging him. But it’s the nature of a gang that its members are all different. If they were the Famous Five, Tom Lees would be Julian, the serious eldest sibling; Lewis Cook would be Dick, cheerful and witty; Sam Byram would be George, the fearless tomboy who can do anything the other kids can do, better; Alex Mowatt would be Anne, waiting timidly at the back, but brave when required. For Charlie Taylor, that leaves Timmy. George’s dog. And I guess since George moved away to the city, the formerly faithful animal’s dumbness has turned to beaten down mistrust and anger.

The behaviour of a dog is influenced by its environment, and while the human four of the five were exemplars of good upbringing and fine manners, the swarthy men bringing suspicious looking boats into dock at the caves presented a menace: and an allure. Luke Varney and Giuseppe Bellusci were just the types to pet a stranger’s dog, perhaps feeding it a tidbit of steak so the animal would react peacefully when they came thieving in the middle of the night. The simplistic split between ‘The English lads’ and ‘The Cellino mercenaries’ was always lazily drawn, and neglected overlapping elements like ‘The Warnock wankers’, and the influence they held around the club, that will have pulled members of the various social groups towards them.

The assumption was always that, in the tussles between good and evil at Thorp Arch — think Sol Bamba, allegedly chasing Bellusci around the car park — that our Academy boys would side easily with the good. But we forgot about the allure for good boys of being bad. It ought to have been clear that Bellusci was no role model, but then, Bellusci was one of the highest paid players at the club, as was Steve Morison, who at least confined his piss-taking to the pitch, while even relative non-entities like Varney or Mirco Antenucci were paid many thousands per week more than the diligent Player of the Year Taylor. Mediocrity was rewarded, and malevolence made you untouchable, and all the good guys were made to leave.

Leeds United has, for several seasons, been a working demo of how to act the twat without repercussions, and with reward, and perhaps it was inevitable that culture would end by claiming one of our own. Charlie Taylor’s first football shirt was a Packard Bell-sponsored Leeds shirt, and wearing that glorious jersey for real at Elland Road ought to have made him feel bulletproof. Rather than learn from Lucas Radebe or Andrew Hughes, though, he’s learned from players and management for whom the Leeds United shirt has been nothing more than a temporary costume behind which they hid their inadequacies, until the logos peeled off in the wash.

Ultimately, though, the decision not to play was Charlie Taylor’s. “He’s a young lad, not very experienced in these situations, and you need proper guidance. You need people around you to help you do things right,” said Garry Monk, but even after all the influence and all the advice, it was after (hopefully) sober reflection that Taylor himself, and not his agent, informed Garry Monk that he wouldn’t play against Wigan. “We’ve tried to guide him and help him. He’s a young lad and a very good lad but he’s a bit naive,” said Monk, and I imagine he explained the implications of the decision to Taylor, so the lad had both sides. He made his choice.

That choice has unexpectedly switched the expected ending, like a misprinted novel. In a way I had come to look forward to Taylor’s departure because it would draw a line under an era; yes, seeing Lees, Byram, Cook and Mowatt leave has been painful, but there was no use prolonging it with gloomy Charles moping miserably around. But in the manner of his leaving, Taylor has drawn a line under a different era, of associations between our club and likes of Bellusci, Varney, Michael Brown, players who took all the benefits of being at Leeds United, but refused any of the responsibility.

There’s a chance that, with Taylor gone, and Cellino going, that attitudes like theirs are a thing of the past at Leeds. Garry Monk and Pep Clotet’s modest professionalism, Pontus Jansson and Gaetano Berardi’s commitment, Chris Wood and Robert Green’s performance, Hadi Sacko and Ronaldo Vieira’s willingness to try harder, Kyle Bartley and Luke Ayling’s cheerful leadership. To watch some of those lads buying ice creams for the squad from a van outside the DW Stadium last weekend was to feel like actual nice people play for Leeds United these days.

Charlie Taylor wasn’t there, so Charlie Taylor didn’t get a share of the ice cream. If being fined two weeks’ wages doesn’t teach him, perhaps that thought will. Or perhaps he won’t learn until he realises that being able to afford the whole dairy is nothing, compared to getting a 99 from Luke Ayling.


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