Birmingham City 1-0 Leeds United: Want to play

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Luke Ayling at Birmingham in the new rhubarb and custard kit, with his arms spread wide in appeal, looking around and shouting at teammates who may or may not have bothered getting on the bus to the game

One day, in 2014, the stands at Elland Road were ringing with fans singing about a Leeds player who ‘don’t wanna play’. The fans were from Huddersfield, the player was Ross McCormack, and to shut them up he scored a hat-trick. As he told our Rob Conlon recently for our Summer Special, he did it all with a headache so bad the medical staff wanted to sub him off. Ross played on because playing on mattered.

That weekend McCormack had been caught up in the web of transfers, contracts and administrators Leeds United are plunging into again now. On the last day of the January transfer window he’d been sitting in Noel Hunt’s house waiting to find out his fate. It sounded like Leeds were going to sell him to Cardiff. Then it sounded like someone who didn’t own the club had sacked the manager, Brian McDermott. Then it sounded like fans were chasing this person, Massimo Cellino, around Elland Road as he tried to escape in a taxi. As captain, McCormack felt like this was the sort of thing he should talk live to Sky Sports News about, and as a footballer trying to exert some control over his future and his employers’ future, this was interpreted as ‘forcing his way out’. McCormack was a rare and, to many, unwelcome thing: a footballer out of his lane.

If McCormack floundered a little on Sky Sports News, he was back in his element in United’s 5-1 win the next day. That was a neat illustration of how when footballers have something they want to say, the pitch is the place where they can say it best. If they use their opportunity, that is.

This weekend Wilf Gnonto decided he didn’t want to add anything good to his reputation by playing for Leeds at Birmingham City, and apparently Luis Sinisterra felt the same way. Gnonto had already opted out of playing in the Carabao Cup in midweek but rather than put a wrong right he doubled down and doubled his troubles. Perhaps Ross McCormack could tell him that the best way to deal with a transfer headache is to lash in three goals and make the fans either want you to stay or miss you when you’re gone. Gnonto chose migraines, disciplinary meetings and damage control on social media when the time comes. And Leeds United got more problems.

It has made for an angry weekend. In football, loyalty is becoming more highly prized as it becomes rarer, and so fans’ increasing expectations of players are being met with more extreme disappointments. I think part of the problem is that fans’ relationships with players are increasingly strained because they’re based in a nostalgic fantasy that is impossible to live up to. Football has had a transfer market for as long as any of us can remember, and players have always made decisions based on the prospects for their careers and their bank accounts — when they’ve been able. The cornerstone of the Bosman case in the 1990s was that footballers were only able to change clubs when and how their ‘owners’ decreed. Players’ loyalties, before the Bosman ruling, were always a little more enforced than freely given.

The false ideal of the devoted professional has been inflated by the status that has come to footballers with their new money, when if anyone involved with football was sensible, the opposite would have happened. It’s only since players’ relationships with their clubs have become more temporary that people have begun discussing them in terms of their ‘legacy’, a question I saw being asked of Jack Harrison as he left Leeds United this weekend for Everton. ‘What legacy will Harrison leave at Leeds?’ I mean, why are we even asking? Harrison has been one of my favourite players, a real pleasure to watch at times, a skilful and dedicated pro working hard for the team. He played for five seasons, scored 34 goals, helped win promotion, then after relegation went to play for another club. What greater ‘legacy’ does a footballer need to leave at a club than playing well in the games they were picked in? Yet it seems like the more they earn, and the more likely players are to change clubs, the more we search for a greater meaning to make it all make sense: a legacy of some kind, to make us feel like this meant more than just someone being paid to play football.

Perhaps if we stopped thinking in those terms we wouldn’t always feel so disappointed by footballers. There is a gap, I think, in the way relationships in football are working. Fans resent players for putting their careers above clubs. But fans always put clubs above players. And as the game markets itself on anger and disappointment — look at these mistakes, look at how much this player is earning while playing this badly, what a disaster when a team finishes 2nd — players are regarded like enemies acting to the detriment of our club. It wasn’t enough for Harrison to score thirty-odd goals and win a title: he was supposed to leave a ‘legacy’ and never leave, too. Instead he’ll be remembered severely for his wayward final ball, and that always dragged on Harrison while he was here, the feeling that every mishit cross was somehow an insult to club history rather than a thing that can happen when you’re running fast and trying to kick a ball onto the head of (checks notes) nobody. For his wages he should never be missing with a cross, and now he thinks he can go back to the Premier League? Even with our best players — and Harrison has been one of our best players while he’s been here — the antagonism is barely contained because the expectations are impossible.

The best Leeds United team will only exist in nostalgic memory, and you can always guess a football fan’s age by their reference players. Choose your favourite from Allan Clarke, Ian Baird, Lee Chapman, Mark Viduka or Jermaine Beckford, then use them to complete this phrase: ‘Pat Bamford isn’t fit to lace the boots of…’ When we talk about a legacy, is that really what we even want — for a new player to replace our childhood heroes? That feels impossible anyway. What we’re really saying is that what the football club represents to us is so entwined with nostalgic memories of our best lives that the players who come along to play for it now are threats to an institution we rely on for more than we should. Footballers aren’t celebrated for how they perform because even at their best they chip away at the institutions we’re devoted to: they rob their wages, steal a living, if they concede or miss they are letting the club and all its history down; then they don’t stay quiet and take it while we yell at them for all of the above but react and object. And then, worst of all, they leave.

Fans love the idea of a devoted player who will die for the shirt with blood all over their boots, but the game at Birmingham, such as it was, suggested two things. First, that individual motivations are impossible to gauge. The team at St Andrew’s all went to work, but how many played through doubts? What was Dan James thinking as the game ended with him as villain, for giving away a decisive penalty in the 90th minute, given that last season he was elbowed out to Fulham to make way for Cody Gakpo in theory but Wilf Gnonto in reality? James could raise an eyebrow about notions of loyalty now we’re seeing how Gnonto is turning out, but nobody will notice that while they’re screaming at him for his daft foul that lost the game. That leads to the second idea: that, laudable as James’ dedication is, a lot of fans would still trade that in for having Gnonto back in the team, scoring loads of great goals and not giving away penalties.

The ideal team, in our imaginations, is Leeds through and through and giving it all for the cause. The best team, though, is the one with the best players, even if they’re playing for their own reasons, led by their own motivations. That has always been the case, really, but we prefer it to be unspoken, because the fantasy is so much more attractive. (Is now the time to mention that Billy Bremner was around Gnonto’s age when he, wanting a big money move from Leeds back home to Hibernian, kept disappearing without permission to Scotland?) But like most unattainable fantasies, the effect is destructive.

Saturday’s match hardly made a ripple to last beyond the weekend, another game reduced to nothing more than a ninety minute inconvenience to be gone through before Daniel Farke held another press conference. Of eleven questions, two were about the game, and one of those was disguised in pursuit of information about Cody Drameh’s future. It’s true that the game was dull, barely worth losing, but maybe Gnonto had a point that it wasn’t worth dragging him to Birmingham where whatever he might do on the pitch would only throw more dead leaves on the burning narratives that surround football clubs, and starve football games of oxygen.

But no, Gnonto was wrong. Among the distortions I’m trying and probably failing to make sense of here is the way football pitches have changed, from a player’s point of view, from their field of free expression to the prison of their future careers. Gnonto probably doesn’t want to play because he’s worried about getting injured and missing out on a transfer. He didn’t feel like he could control what happened on the pitch against Shrewsbury or Birmingham, so he stayed away from the grass. The opposite was true for Ross McCormack in 2014, when his future was being decided by Massimo Cellino’s whims, and the only place he could be in control was on the pitch at Elland Road, rattling three past Alex Smithies while his head was pounding with stress. I’ve often thought that must be the best thing about being a footballer: that all life’s tensions can be channelled into leathering a ball past some hapless oik. Everybody seems to be losing out in the attempt to make football into more than that, thinking more about legacies and narratives and impossible futures than about just putting on a shirt, playing football for a team. ⬢


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