“Remember, we’re looking for the closest thing we can find to John Wayne”
— Gil Scott-Heron – B-Movie
Even when Beckford and Becchio were scoring fifty goals between them in League One; even when Becchio stepped up to the grunt work in The Championship while Somma added the gloss; even now, when his departure from the club is “99% certain“, there are Leeds fans who will tell you that Mike Grella is the best player at Leeds United Football Club, and that one of the game’s great talents has been wasted during his time in Yorkshire.
It’s hard to find the basis that justifies such faith in Grella. He arrived from the college system in the United States with only incomprehensible scouting reports and rumours of youthful indiscretions as his pedigree, and while there have been some eye-catching headlines for Mikey at Leeds – a debut-hat-trick, a game-changing brace in the FA Cup – those moments came in the reserves against Barnsley in the case of the hat-trick, and against a tiring Kettering side in the FA Cup. Part of his status can be attributed to a Soccer AM interview with Beckford and Kilkenny, who didn’t hesitate to name Grella as the most skilful player at the club, and that soon translated to wistful dream teams that turned Grella into either a wily Roberto Baggio type in the hole behind the strikers, or a pacey striker-cum-winger, a Yank Arjen Robben. Mike Grella, it seemed, just needed one shot at first team football to reveal himself as a superstar.
Personally, I was never too keen. I dismissed his Kettering performance as the logical result of putting fresh legs up against amateur players and a thirty-eight-year old goalkeeper in extra time, and I shuddered at the way Grella took three touches to score into an open-goal against Oldham – it hardly displayed a predator’s touch. Reports since of his loan spells at Carlisle and Swindon have backed this up: Decent, but League One is his level. But I could understand where the will for Grella to win came from. No matter how good the guys in the first team shirts might be – and the Beckford/Becchio partnership in League One was unbreakable – fans will always root for the underdog, look for the little guy to come through at the last minute and be a hero. It’s no fun if it’s too easy; as any Hollywood scriptwriter will tell you, it just ain’t a movie.
For me, the movie was always Carl Shutt. I grew up at the time when Howard Wilkinson was restoring Leeds United to its former glories, a relentless upward curve as first the Second Division and then the First were reclaimed by LUFC. The main man up-front at that time was Lee Chapman, who did it all and had it all: twenty goals a season, many of them spectacular diving headers; a glamourous actress wife; a night-clubbing lifestyle, including his own members-only bar, Teatro. For a ten year old boy choosing his favourite player, Chapman was an obvious choice, only really run close by local lad David Batty (Gary Speed had a lockdown as the ladies’ choice). But although everything was in Big Lee’s favour – we even have the same surname – for some reason, as I chose my Subbuteo team line-ups, as I diligently renamed the players on Sensible Soccer, and when I decided who to pretend to be in the playground, I always found room for Shutt. Asked to paint a picture at school, I didn’t think of McAllister or Strachan or Fairclough: with a pot of bright yellow and a picture to work from, I did a portrait of Carl Shutt.
He’d been cast to the sidelines a bit, had Shutty. Like Grella, he’d announced himself at Leeds (as at all his clubs) with a debut hat-trick: this one in the first team, against Bournemouth. But once promotion was sealed, he’d been part of a rotating crew partnering Chapman: Davison, Varadi and Shutt all took turns, sharing the no.8 shirt until record signing Rod Wallace made it his own. Shutt even spent time on loan in Sweden at Malmö, and you sensed the game was up; yet he still fought his way into the team in the title season, notching a winner against Chelsea and the goal in a 1-1 draw at Everton. He didn’t have the skill, and he didn’t have the glamour, but he had the determination, and an appealing desire to succeed that translated into committed on the field performances when Wilko chose to play him. I used to urge Howard to bring him on. It would be a bit boring if Chapman scored the winner, yet again; but imagine if Carl Shutt got the winning goal! That would be a story!
Eric Cantona should have finally seen Shutt off; his outrageous talent, his flamboyant arrogance, his confessions of love – alright, his damned lies about love – even put Chapman in the shade. But Ooh-Aah’s arrival was just the final plot point in the build up to Shutt’s big finale. An abject away performance had cast Leeds firmly in the role of underdogs in the European Cup tie with Stuttgart, a role redoubled when, after a magnificent fightback at Elland Road, Leeds clawed their way into the next round draw. Not only had Leeds overturned a 3-0 deficit to a 4-4 aggregate score, but they had had to contend with ‘Cheating Germans’ – really, an administrative error with a substitute – and the dithering of UEFA to get a one-off shot against Stuttgart in the Nou Camp. It was a perfect script, just looking for its leading man. Cantona, brooding, elegant, but not quite right, turned his back and strode away from the limelight; Wilko had a feeling about Shutty. And Shutty delivered. A run from the halfway line, a confident turn: “He had a chance to find Strachan… but he finds the net!” It was a magnificent moment for the underdog, for the uncomplaining team-mate to take the mantle, to be the hero. It was in many ways the crowning moment of Howard Wilkinson’s philosophy of honesty and hard work, as the pinnacle of Leeds’ achievement was reached not by the star-soaked Chapman, or the fly-by-night Cantona, but by the bloke who worked hard in training and gave his all in the reserves and stuck around even when he wasn’t getting near the team: Carl Shutt.
“The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse – or the man who always came to save America at the last moment – someone always came to save America at the last moment – especially in B movies.”
— Gil Scott-Heron – B-Movie
Mike Grella, of course, has an extra element to his underdog’s arsenal: his nationality. America may have been the preeminent world superpower throughout the 20th century, but in all that time it has retained a fascination with the underdog hero. Hollywood films rarely depict a winner winning; they show a loser getting his day in the sun, a rough diamond coming good at the last moment. And so dominant is Hollywood culture, that when your team signs an American footballer, you expect something glorious to be snatched from the jaws of your side’s usual mediocrity. Landon Donovan’s cameo at Everton, although dictated by the circumstances of the MLS calendar, was greeted at Goodison Park like the United States’ late entry into World War Two: here comes the American hero, nylons, bubblegum and teeth, to save the day. Hollywood has produced so many underdog sports movies that the template is familiar worldwide, and we all knew the script Mike Grella was supposed to follow: plucky rookie turns down a chance of an easy career at Toronto in the MLS to make it in Europe; after proving himself in the rough and tumble reserve leagues of Yorkshire, he earns a contract, and, after receiving a tear-stained letter (or a saucy internet chat, whichever) from his girl back home, he scores the winner in the last minute of the cup final. Except, amidst all the baseball, gridiron and NASCAR movies, only two American films really deal with the role of the underdog in ‘soccer’; only two movies set the standard for Grella to aspire to: Soccer Dog: The Movie, and Soccer Dog: European Cup.
Soccer Dog has all the ingredients of the archetypal underdog movie – even down to the literal, actual dog. A forlorn former soccer player yearns for the sporting successes of his youth, and, adopting an orphan boy, tries to mould him in his own image. But the boy doesn’t enjoy soccer, and his team is lousy; until he finds and befriends a stray dog, Kimble, who turns out to be an exceptional soccer player and helps the team win the championship. So far so good. But what is clear here is the status of ‘soccer’ – it’s a game for weak kids and stray dogs. Kimble may go from being a foundling stray to a successful sports star – in the sequel, he wins the European ‘Championship’ – but he’s not a sportsman, he’s a dog; and the film isn’t really about the glory of association football, it’s about a soccer-obsessed man being taught to forget sport and love his adopted son instead, by a dog. Kimble may be small, stockily built, and ash-blonde; quick and tricky with the ball at this feet; but he’ll never be a real footballer, and he’ll never be a real Hollywood hero.
Which bring us back to Mike Grella. It was no surprise to learn that, having been transfer-listed by Leeds, Grella spent his summer training with the newly revived New York Cosmos. The Cosmos were once the most exotic club football team in the world, bringing together Pele and Studio54 in a whirlwind of publicity and cheerleaders. That was in 1977, though, and today the New York Cosmos franchise are just a consortium’s dream of a football club: under new ownership, the brand has appointed Eric Cantona as Director of Football, given Mike Grella somewhere to train, and resumed selling the iconic green shirts; but as yet has no league to play in and no teams to play against. Its first match is expected to be Paul Scholes’ testimonial, where Cosmos will be represented by guest stars. It isn’t, in short, real. Yet as a venue for Mike Grella to live out his own Hollywood movie, where could better? Discarded by Leeds United, the under-appreciated Grella could team up with that great enemy of Elland Road, Monsieur Cantona; together they could swear revenge. Having beaten all comers to win the MLS, they face Leeds United in a World Club Championship: Grella and Cantona’s date with destiny. That is, until the eve of the match when Grella, suffering with a persistant wrist injury, overdoses on painkillers prescribed by a doctor with a suspicious Yorkshire accent, and is found unconscious in his hotel room by Eric. Is the dream over for Grella, or can he recover in time for the big match?
It’s an idea, anyway. At the moment, Mike Grella is back in Yorkshire having reported for pre-season training with Leeds United but expecting to leave for pastures new before the season starts, and no nearer to becoming a soccer hero. If it’s ever going to happen for Mikey – and Hollywood dictates that one day, it will – you get the feeling he’s going to have to do something radical first. Maybe the MLS will grant Cosmos a franchise, and he’ll go there, and he’ll have it made; maybe he’ll turn his nose up at lower league clubs again while waiting for the perfect opportunity. Or maybe he’ll suck it up and take the hard road. Grella’s professional career so far has been in stasis, waiting to get started: he seems to be waiting for the stars to align just so, so that he can take to the pitch and instantly become a hero. But if the examples of Carl Shutt and Soccer Dog can teach Mike Grella one thing, it’s that sometimes you have to go down before you can go up. You have to go so far to the fringes of the squad that you’re sent to Sweden while your club wins the league; you have to be an orphan, a stray dog in the gutter, before the wheels can begin to turn on your rise to glory. It might be written in the Stars and Stripes that one day Mike Grella will win, and win big; but perhaps he’s going to have to lose a little first.