After Leeds trounced Huddersfield on Saturday there was a contrast in front of the South Stand. Daniel Farke has quickly made celebratory fist swinging part of his crowd-work repertoire, but he has to be careful – total abandon is a bad look for a football manager, and the previous weekend he’d felt the burden of his affection for Norwich so heavily that he forwent the fun altogether. Against Town it was simple decorum restraining him, but after once telling Georginio Rutter not to use his skills to embarrass opponents, Farke must always self-police his body language.
The contrast was supplied by Rutter himself, wrapped up in a big coat after fifteen minutes on the bench. He went galloping across the grass, flinging his arms with a big grin on his face, leading and receiving the cheers. Here was someone having what Farke can not: fun at the football.
It can be depressing sometimes to think about how few people actually derive pleasure from playing football, so I’ll try not to dwell on that here, except to wonder why more players don’t just do what Rutter is doing this season, and Crysencio Summerville and Dan James, and play at a level where they can frolic. Perhaps James has a slightly different reason: after a few seasons of getting faffed about, he wants to live in Yorkshire and play for a good team and not be stuck on a Premier League bench somewhere or get shoved into being a striker. But watching them play, what Rutter and Summerville are realising is that, as artists, the freedom of Division Two can help them express themselves and fulfil themselves in ways that their agents and advisors might not help them to reach.
Footballers are supposed to be ambitious and driven, striving to test themselves at the top level. And if we bring Kalvin Phillips into this, I respect his attempt to usurp the best player in his position in the world, trying to take his place in the best team in the world by impressing the best coach in the world. What that has got him, though, is tears, and mockery, and it’s got me wondering, who was asking this of him? At what point, on his rise from Ronaldo Vieira’s shadow – from Eunan O’Kane’s shadow, at that – to England international, did someone ask Phillips to test himself against the elite? And how does that person feel since Kalvin has been sob-texting Marcelo Bielsa, asking for advice, searching for a smidge of self-confidence? It’s possible that person might be Kalvin himself. But that only makes things worse.
Perhaps he should have done what Rutter and Summerville are doing. They are making Leeds United a joy to watch this season and having a good time doing it. Forget that it’s the Championship – the first half on Saturday was a full giggle. It’s entirely possible, particularly when we think about last season, that Rutter wouldn’t have half this swagger in the Premier League. It’s great news for us, then, that he was playing against Tom Edwards this weekend. From a spectator’s perspective, it’s about what we want from a flair player – to watch them getting chopped down and neutralised by full-backs who are too good for them, or to see them given the space to create moments of wonder that thrill? And from a player’s perspective, do you want the frustration of every brilliant idea being snatched away before your feet can carry it out, or do you want to go on the field feeling like you did as a kid, when every new thing you wanted to try felt possible? The first goal on Saturday was thought up by Rutter from inside his own penalty area, and after he watched Summerville and James make his ideas reality at the far end, he didn’t run to celebrate with them, he just pumped his fists on his own near the benches, until the ball bounced to him and he grabbed it like a friend. He looked happy, and no wonder, because he’d just seen a dream come true.
The pressure on top level footballers is insane given this is supposed to be a sport. But rising wages at all levels mean riches are becoming relative and some players can think in terms of enough, rather than always more. At their level there should be a way of balancing money, ambition and happiness, but football has a way of enforcing the influence of the first two above the importance of the third. The pressure, when you break it down, is not really created by the players, many of whom seem like nice pals to each other despite club divides. It’s not even from fans, who want their team to be good and the players to play well. The players inherit the pressure from above. The furious grind towards results at all costs is driven by owners, and there was an intriguing subplot at Elland Road on Saturday: Leeds United, owned by an investment group formed by the San Francisco 49ers, against Huddersfield Town and their new owner Kevin Nagle, chairman of Sacramento Republic FC, who but for Covid would have put an MLS expansion team a two hour drive from the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium in northern California, and still might. It’s these kinds of guys, and their need for returns on investment, who are the makers of misery as expressed through the euphemistic weapon of ambition. See also Andrea Radrizzani, sacking Marcelo Bielsa because it was going to cost his business a lot of money if Leeds got relegated. Leeds still got relegated and it cost his business a lot of money anyway, and I realised when reminded of this at the weekend that I am still far from over how much not just the football club but the city of Leeds lost from that decision. The realisation I had when Bielsa was sacked was instant: Leeds football could only be about results from that point, but since Bielsa, it no longer felt like wins were enough.
Which is where we can meet Rutter and Summerville with open arms, because most every team in the Championship is going to get results against Huddersfield Town this season, but will they do it with this much style? Or will the style, the joy, the pure fun of it be all ours, our thing beyond wins, the idea that pulls us to Elland Road out of more than just duty and sustains us if results don’t go our way?
And part of the thrill is how illicit this feels. We’re not supposed to be enjoying this. When the Manchester derby kicked off on Sunday afternoon, Peter Drury declared on Sky that ‘battle’ was commencing. Battles aren’t fun, but over the next two hours, the televisual aim was to raise everybody’s blood pressure, the reds’ in anger, the blues’ into glorious rage. It didn’t seem permissible that anyone might just have a normal good time. Fun, or playing without pressure, are taken as signs of an immature lack of ambition that is incompatible with the serious business of professional football, but I dunno, maybe I’ve had enough of angry people in brightly coloured polyester tops with their favourite player’s name printed on the back telling me that football is serious stuff and I should grow up and suffer with them. Maybe it’s just the Premier League. Over in the Bundesliga, after years of making himself miserable by trying to achieve something so stupidly ambitious as winning a trophy with Tottenham Hotspur, Harry Kane was looking pretty happy to have given all that up for a new life of scoring from his own half in 8-0 wins.
Ambition is supposed to be everything, and choosing a fulfilling life at a lower level is disdained for lacking it. But it seems to me like few things are as difficult to achieve in life as happiness. Amid modern pressures, what could be more ambitious than trying to be happy? And in a results business, what could be more like self-defeat than turning away from enjoying watching players who are enjoying playing football because, for some undefinable reason, enjoyment isn’t enough of a result? What I’m saying in the end, is, if Pat Bamford was as happy as Georginio Rutter right now, he would have scored that penalty at Stoke and made us all happy too. Before that match, Bryn Law said to Rutter on LUTV, “You play a lot of games in this league, don’t you, very quickly?” and Rutter replied with a contented smile, “Yes.” “Do you enjoy that bit?” asked Bryn. “Yeah, I enjoy of course! Because – I like to play football … I can’t be angry if I play, I’m very happy to play.” He’s in the right place for that, and I’m glad. ⬢