On Saturday, should you care to, you can read my first take on Howson’s sale in the new issue of The Square Ball. Without giving too much away – so promise me you’ll still buy it, okay? – here’s how I end the article:
It seems you can fleece the fans with promises of the Premier League, but you can’t fleece Jonny Howson. If he has looked our board in the eye when they told him, “We want to match your ambition,” and he’s not believed a word – well, vale, kid, and here’s to you. It’s an inherent cruelty of football that means Howson has that option, and we don’t.
I was thinking about this again tonight, as I browsed through today’s news roundup: Howson to Norwich, we know about that one; here’s McCormack to Wigan, that’s a change from Wolves being after him; Clayton’s contract talks have “broken down,” so here are Bolton set to swoop; as well as the ever-present speculation about Snodgrass and Becchio and, more recently, Aidy White (another contract hitch, there).
In the wake of Howson’s departure, should sensible offers come in, can you really imagine either McCormack, Clayton, Snodgrass, Becchio or White choosing not to move? Indeed, I can foresee this window ending with Leeds United actually rejecting offers, while the players demand to be allowed to leave.
Is it possible, then, that the anti-Ken Bates protest that actually, finally works will be one carried out by the players?
A lot of Leeds fans feel that the club is going nowhere under Bates’s ownership, but feel powerless to do anything about it. Protesters outside the ground are dismissed by Bates as “morons.” Chants inside the ground are met with flicked V signs from the owner. Resolutions not to buy merchandise don’t hit the bottom line hard enough to bother him. Resolutions not to renew season tickets or to stop going to games might work, but to cut LUFC from our lives so drastically feels like a way of letting Bates win – it’s the one thing that might work, but it’s the one thing nobody wants to do.
Apart from, that is, the players. It was always assumed that Jonny would stay at Elland Road whatever happened, because he’s a local lad, captain of his boyhood club, a youth product with deep affection for LUFC and the local area. That dam has been breached now, so what is there to stop our other good players – none of whom can be expected to have any particular strength of feeling for Leeds – from packing it in and taking their careers elsewhere?
Bates knows that no matter how he runs Leeds United, the core supporters will keep coming – and keep paying – because they have no other choice. But a club also needs players, and the players do have a choice. They can respond directly to the way Bates runs this club, exactly as it seems Howson has, and say: No. The way you are running this football club is not going to result in successful football, so I am leaving. Whether it’s an intentional player-protest against Ken Bates or not – and we could ask Neil Kilkenny about that – the result is the same. Like Canute, King Ken is left bellowing at the modern footballer as the tide of modern footballers rushes past him on their way to a proper football club, and his corporate facilities cling worthlessly to an increasingly dire and failing team.
It’ll ultimately hurt the fans the most, of course; it always does. I don’t want to see Snodgrass or Clayton leave, let alone Howson. The team will suffer – and if players won’t stay under Bates, who will join? Not Jason Puncheon, for one – and our target will change from hoping for promotion to fighting off relegation. But levering Bates out from his new East Stand perch was never going to be easy, and however it happens, we’re likely to need serious rebuilding when it’s done – although not in the East Stand, obviously. But we know this already, and can prepare ourselves; and besides, it’s not like we haven’t been through it all before.
This transfer window, and the summer that follows, will be interesting to watch. Howson’s desire to play for a club with ambition could have finally kicked away the wedge that has kept the fans deadlocked with Ken Bates. To withdraw labour has always been an effective weapon of the worker, but the conundrum for Leeds fans has been, what do you withdraw when yours is a labour of love? The players just might have the answer.