To retrospectively justify watching a Premier League club’s reserves toiling against a League One team in the Carabao Cup, we can ask, who from the fringes earned something like a place in the first team?
But unearned rewards were being handed out before the game, when Kiko Casilla was given the captain’s armband, so let’s ask ourselves about that first.
Two questions come to mind. Later, did Casilla make a good captain on the night? But first, what has Kiko Casilla ever done in his time at Leeds United to make anyone think he would?
You’re looking for a player who can handle pressure. Cast your mind back to Griffin Park, last season’s lowest ebb. We usually point to the defeat at Nottingham Forest for that, and Luke Ayling’s shell-shocked post-match interview, and then the turning point: Marcelo Bielsa ripping up the script at a team meeting, inspiring the senior professionals to get a grip on the promotion campaign. Well, most of them. Senior professional Kiko Casilla’s response was to let a simple pass from Liam Cooper roll under his foot, giving Brentford an early lead with arguably his most ludicrous mistake yet.
You’re looking for a player who can inspire those around him. Take Kalvin Phillips, talking about that mistake after the game, as your guide: he said that on the pitch he was thinking, “Oh no, here we go again.” Or think about Tyler Roberts, whose good friend Jonathan Leko was so ground down by the investigation after he reported Casilla for racially abusing him that he said afterwards he regretted saying anything. On Tuesday morning Roberts posted a link on Instagram to a new interview with Thierry Henry at Bleacher Report, talking about racism he has experienced in football, adding his own comments: ‘Listen — We STILL need change’. On Tuesday evening, as Roberts knelt at kick-off as part of this season’s ‘No Room For Racism’ campaign, was he glancing over his shoulder to the goalmouth, wondering how there is still room for Kiko Casilla not just in the team, but leading it?
You’re looking for a player who sees a picture bigger than ninety minutes, who can think tactically and responsibly, be aware and involved with the implications of actions in the match and beyond it. Think about the part of Casilla’s defence against his racism charge in which, despite evidence that the referee told him about the complaint after the game; despite evidence from the team bus home from Charlton that Roberts, after getting a text from Leko, asked Casilla outright if he’d called his friend the n-word; despite a month to prepare to speak to The FA about the serious charge being made against him; despite all that, Casilla told the FA a month after the incident that he did not know, as he sat in their interview room, what the n-word meant. Casilla’s claim was that in the four weeks since being accused of calling Leko ‘You fucking n—-r’, he had been so incurious about the situation that he hadn’t even asked one single person what the word meant, or why everyone was so angry about the idea he’d said it. Not even one Google search.
You’re looking for a player who can uphold the values and enhance the reputation of the football club in the public eye. I can’t think of any ways Casilla has done that in his time at Leeds, on the pitch or off it. And whatever the get-out ‘yeah-buts’ say about the FA finding him guilty on the balance of probability, the image the public has is that Leeds United are giving the captaincy of a first team fixture to that rubbish goalie who called someone the n-word and never said sorry. Whether that public image is fair is one thing. But the club shouldn’t ignore it, because the image is a fact. Among a large number of fans who the club would like to attract to watch Premier League football at Leeds, I think that image can be enough to decide, nah.
Casilla’s captaincy of the team for the Hull game is also a fact, so as with everybody on the pitch last night, we were looking to see what he would then do to justify his presence. Casilla did not inspire the team to a good performance, or help an inexperienced defence cope with Hull’s enthusiastic attackers. He didn’t even front up to the post-match interviews to explain or apologise for the result, because he is essentially uninterviewable at Leeds. In Spain, outside the influence of the club’s media department, Casilla has had no problem denying his guilt to any journalist who’ll listen, but he won’t be allowed in front of the press here, because they will inevitably ask about the racism charge. Ezgjan Alioski did the talking instead; maybe he should have led the team?
It’s hard to see what was left for Casilla to contribute as captain. He did the coinflips for the kick-off and to choose the ends for penalties, I suppose. Apart from that, all his ascent to the captaincy did was attract the negative energy of articles like this one.
I have some sympathy for people who don’t like mixing political or social issues with football. I don’t agree with them, because I think the way football can be entwined with the world beyond itself is a big part of its attraction and value. But I get their urge for sport to be escapism, for the game to be left to provide pure thrills. What would quickly stop players taking knees before matches, though, is not removing politics from football, but removing racism from society, and then there would be no need to kneel. A society without racism sounds absolutely mint to me, so that seems like a good thing to want to happen. And after kneeling, another good way of starting to bring that closer would be to make ‘No Room For Racism’ not just a slogan on a sleeve, but a reality that means there is no room for Kiko Casilla in Leeds United’s team, and no question of him wearing the captain’s armband.
Unless and until he apologises, that is, because redemption should always be possible. If he won’t accept The FA’s guilty charge, that’s his prerogative, although I maintain, from reading the 62-page report, that an innocent person would have come up with a more credible defence than anything Casilla offered. But he must realise that Leko didn’t make the complaint for a laugh, and that while he may feel victimised, his actions at Charlton and during the investigation and through his refusal to apologise have caused trouble, stress and angst for an awful lot of people. It would be easy for him to get the number from Roberts, and then harder to call Jonathan Leko up and say, while still thinking what happened at Charlton was misheard or misunderstood, for his part in a shitty situation, he’d like to say sorry, have a conversation about it, and move on.
The hard thing is what a captain might do: to confront a difficult situation and take responsibility. But it doesn’t seem like sitting on Real Madrid’s bench for three-and-a-half seasons did much for Casilla’s leadership skills. And yet, there he is.
And there was the rest of the team. Ian Poveda played brightly until he tired himself out trying to invent an equaliser. An equaliser was needed because, in the fifth minute, Casilla had passed the ball to Hull, who then set up Mallik Wilks to score. Pascal Struijk calmed midfield down when he came on after half-time, and there was enough from Rodrigo to suggest his football intelligence will be a big asset in the first team, even if this side wasn’t working on his wavelength. Alioski gave Leeds an unearned chance to go through to the next round, when Hull didn’t realise Barry Douglas was keeping his cleared corner in play, and his second cross was headed into a scramble where Alioski won. Then Jamie Shackleton was the unfortunate player in the shootout, showing why he delayed his turn as long as possible. At least his miss meant the night was over.
Leeds don’t have another cup fixture until the FA Cup third round on 9th January. The current transfer window is open until 5th October, or for deals with EFL clubs until 16th October, and another opens on 1st January. I’d like this to be the last report I write like this. ◉