There’s something beautiful about leaving a legacy at a football club. Some clubs will retire a shirt number in your honour, others will refer to you as ‘King’ or ‘Chief’ until the world stops turning. Fans will speak with reverence in the stands of a particular goal, or a particular moment that typified your time at the club. Songs will be sung, merchandise will be made and (in rare cases) stands will be named after you.
Then there’s the kind of legacy that we’re far more used to in recent years. One that allowed a backup goalkeeper to become the poster-child for such catastrophic mistakes and inability that his very name became synonymous with career-ending errors.
Paul Rachbuka is, on paper, fine. He has represented England at U16, U18 and U20 levels, trained at Manchester United and was Blackpool’s first-choice goalkeeper in their League One promotion season. At Leeds, however, he looked incapable of any of the qualities expected of a goalkeeper, racking up mistake after mistake until his crowning achievement was being the only goalkeeper in my memory to be substituted at half time without being injured. He never really played for Leeds again.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]Rachubka’s spirit has not yet departed[/x_pullquote]
His time at Leeds may have been brief but his memory lives on in our screaming nightmares. Sadly, his spirit has not yet departed Elland Road because whatever demon slowed his brain and turned his wrists to biscuits haunts us still. Leeds United are haunted by Rachubka’s ghost and no one is safe.
There’s a long and illustrious list of players who break apart like the Challenger Space Shuttle when playing for Leeds. Most never truly recover.
Marius Žaliūkas joined Leeds and, in the absence of Scott Wootton (try not to have a stroke re-living some of these memories), firmly cemented his place in Brian McDermott’s back three. He was a no-nonsense centre-back who enjoyed a bit of casual violence — which is often how Leeds like their defenders. But a sequence of performances that included two straight-red cards in successive games concluded with his own Rachubka breakdown against Sheffield Wednesday. A game I’m not emotionally over, as Leeds succumbed to a 6-0 drubbing in a performance so incompetent and riddled with individual mistakes that I’m still receiving therapy. Žaliūkas’ performance was so poor that rumours abounded about him being incredibly drunk prior to the game. This rumour lives on four years later. In terms of legacy, that’s quite impressive.
Giuseppe Bellusci has a place in Rachubka folklore too. Despite a hilariously poor debut (a red card and a penalty), his early days at the club showed promise. He scored an audacious free kick against Bournemouth, a volleyed equaliser against Wednesday and he (along with Silvestri and Bamba) kept a rampant Middlesbrough side at bay despite constant pressure. But his legacy is a sour and unpleasant one as his performances turned to red cards, own goals and game-ending mistakes. His propensity to selfishly demand to take free kicks (trying to recreate his one moment against Bournemouth) combined with his abject inability to make sensible decisions (attempting overhead kicks when a simple header was sufficient) and unrest with the crowd… Bellusci is a player that the majority of fans were delighted to be rid of. Strong rumours of him walking out of training because he wasn’t due to be in the first team show the kind of character he was, and despite some good performances, he had career ending Rachubka moments that book-ended his time at Leeds.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]It’s perhaps not everyone else’s fault[/x_pullquote]
Marco Silvestri suffered, too, going from a Man of the Match performance against Boro to feigning injury and defensive mistakes. Often a solid shot-stopper, he was still someone whose inability to command his area caused chaos in front of him. Silvestri was often touted as a future Italian international goalkeeper and heir to Buffon’s legacy, yet his time at Leeds showed that League Two was more likely a suitable level for him. I personally ended up in an argument with his dad on Facebook (randomly, as the Italian took issue with my scathing statistical analysis of his son’s performances). Papa Silvestri was insistent that his son’s poor form was due to the shambles in-front of him, which is fair, but given he has barely played since leaving Leeds it’s perhaps not everyone else’s fault.
Felix Wiedwald is one of the more recent hosts of Rachubka’s demon, since a strong start to the season gave way to fear, mistakes and ridicule. Professional goalkeepers shouldn’t be misjudging bounces and allowing uncontested balls to bounce over them and into the goal. They shouldn’t be failing to make simple saves or making risky decisions in possession. For all his occasional ability, his all-round play carries many similarities with Rachubka. All Felix needs is a Blackpool game; a single game where his mistakes are so numerous and so obvious that his career ends. I admire his tenacity to keep on trying, but it’s clear when you’re removed from the starting squad in favour of a 21-year-old who hasn’t yet impressed on loan that perhaps your time is over.
The last illustrious recipient of Paul Rachubka’s great curse is Laurens De Bock. A player who in his opening few games was synonymous with the term ‘he looks a player’ and left fans rejoicing that Leeds had finally signed a natural left-back. Then he demonstrated the fierce turnaround in form that this curse is capable of causing. From one game where he looked competent and imposing, he suddenly looked entirely out of his depth. Continually out of position, unable to pass, unable to mark and eternally exploited. It says something when after your opening few games for the club you’re removed from the first team and replaced with someone out-of-position. When senior players are being replaced by others who don’t naturally play where you do, or a teenager is given his first chance at the first team… it’s not good.
I debated including Paul Green in this sickening trip down memory lane, troubled as I still am by his performance in a defeat at Derby. His failed Marseille turn before one of their goals hurts my soul in the same way that remembering a family member has died does. You know when you’re just living your life, happy, and then you remember? That sinking feeling in your stomach as all the blood drains from your skin? That’s what Paul Green’s footballing ability does to me.
Consider Rachubkaism as something similar to the potion used in Asterix and Obelix. Some men are fine until they take the potion, at which point their abilities change. That’s how it is for most players at Leeds — they’re fine until Rachubkaism strikes and then they’re finished. Paul Green is like Obelix (who fell in the cauldron as a child and permanently has its effects), such is his legacy at Leeds. A player who could be described as bland at best and a car-crash at worst.
But the thing is, every season we have at least one. We sometimes have one every few games. When Cellino got a priest to bless Elland Road it obviously didn’t work because we’re still being haunted, so perhaps we need something stronger? Does anyone have Constantine’s number? ◉
(artwork by James Clapham)
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