While the British government was crumbling faster than Paul Rachubka on a day trip to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Albion turned its eyes to Wembley in search of a leader, a hero, an icon to believe in.
Wayne Rooney? Never meant a thing to me. Just a straight up potato, simple and plain. I’m talking about Thorp Arch’s treasured son, Caddick Construction’s favourite invoice, Pep Guardiola’s left-back and now England’s captain, the Leeds United great we never got to appreciate, Fabian Delph.
I felt a mixture of confusion and disbelief when I heard he was getting the armband for the game against the USA. Match of The Day still delights with regular glimpses of James Milner, and depresses with constant exposure of Lewis Cook and Charlie Taylor; it’s too soon to be truly happy for Lewis, while Charlie chucked his chance the day he outsnaked Garry Monk. Robert Snodgrass still appears in the supporting cast, and I choose to ignore Chris Wood, but Delph has sadly been missing whenever I’ve caught sight of Manchester City this season. Now Benjamin Mendy is injured again, perhaps he’ll have another run at left-back.
That a Manchester City reserve can also be England captain sums up the national team’s relationship with the Premier League; it’s now the equivalent of Ireland in the late 1990s, when Ian Harte had more international caps than club appearances. Maybe if the Premier League had, say, five million quid kicking around that it wasn’t using, it could invest that in grassroots facilities to help future generations of boys and girls compete at the highest levels of club and international football. As it is, kids will just have to settle for shinning over the walls for a kickabout in Richard Scudamore’s back garden, bringing a worn out Tango with them to boot against his solid-Bitcoin goalposts.
But who cares how often Fab Delph plays or whether he was only been given the armband because he was least likely to get a massive strop on about handing it over to the American broadcasting market, sorry, I mean Wayne Rooney. It’s near enough ten years since his goal away at Brighton, back when they didn’t have a stadium to call their own, when he ran the length of the pitch and lashed the ball into the top corner, and now he’s leading the country’s best players out at Wembley. If you remember his goal at Brighton, perhaps you remember the teenage drink-driving charge that almost derailed him, or have read about the long bus journeys from his mum’s house in Bradford to Leeds United’s training ground in Yorkshire’s unattainable golden triangle, the efforts of the coaches and welfare officer Lucy Ward to help him towards a career worthy of his talent. He’s having that career and, if the glimpses of his character that Manchester City and England have given us are true — having a tea making competition in a flat cap for City’s social media team, Instagramming the progress of the England squad’s book club, making sure to give the Leeds salute after playing for the national team at Elland Road — he’s achieved it all without becoming a total twat, which is some achievement in the Premier League. We can be just as happy that he’s made it as we are unhappy that Brighton somehow made it, too.
It’s nothing personal against Brighton. But ten years ago Fab Delph was scoring for us against them in League One, where we also came up against Bournemouth, Leicester City, Southampton, Huddersfield Town; thankfully a couple of those now look like following our other League One rivals Norwich City and Swansea City back down into the Championship, but while I can watch Snoddy playing for West Ham United and be glad he’s still proving himself in the Premier League, it’s impossible to feel anything but bitter about the clubs that have left us behind over the last decade.
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Delph and Snodgrass and others left us behind too, but that’s not much bitterness there; just sadness. When I was growing up as a fan of Howard Wilkinson’s champions, I remember being fascinated by Eddie Gray’s Lost Boys of the early 1980s, who were all playing at the top level on my television and winning things with other clubs: Denis Irwin, Andy Linighan, Andy Ritchie, John Sheridan, Tommy Wright, Terry Phelan, David Seaman, Scott Sellars (although he came back). Not all of them were hits — I suppose John Stiles did a job — but as time passed the quality in that team became apparent after it was split and distributed among other clubs, leaving Leeds fans wondering what the sum of the parts might have been had the gang been kept together.
Promotion in 1990 and the league title in 1992 helped keep a calm perspective; we were dreaming of success coming earlier, rather than wishing it would ever come at all. Maybe that’s why there’s been no rush to reassess the teams Gary McAllister and Simon Grayson took out of League One and into the Championship; because we’re still thinking about what might be, not what might have been. Fabian Delph, Robert Snodgrass, Jermaine Beckford, Luciano Becchio, Jonny Howson, Bradley Johnson, Max Gradel and Frazer Richardson all made it from League One to the Premier League without us; from Grayson’s Championship team Alex Bruce doesn’t count because he only followed his dad, but Adam Clayton went to the Premier League with Middlesbrough, and Kasper Schmeichel won the whole thing with Leicester City.
It feels absurd that a club that had so much Premier League quality couldn’t go straight through from League One to the Premier League, but there are two obvious reasons for that: one, the lack of defenders on the list, although Tom Lees has come close, and I’m still refusing to count Bruce; and two, the redecoration of the East Stand, paid for by Delph’s transfer fee and a mortgage on our season ticket money, that Ken Bates was gleefully building while Grayson’s team missed the play-offs by one league place. Grayson had Snodgrass, Howson, Becchio, Johnson, Gradel, Schmeichel and Clayton that season; if he’d been allowed to use the Delph fee to sign better than Bruce at the other end we just might have made the play-offs or higher. But then, spending that money on defenders wouldn’t have got Bates’ motel through the planning process.
Not all of those players had the quality of a James Milner, who should have been England captain; Fabian Delph, who is; or Lewis Cook, who will be. But they, and several of their teammates, had something. They just needed help, when all they got from being at Leeds were hindrances and happy memories. Some we can be proud of; some we can be bitter about. Some we can despise. I mean Alex Bruce there, in case you’re not sure. Maybe, if we get back to the Premier League — when we get back to the Premier League — we can crack out the old League One DVDs and enjoy Max Gradel — now captain of Toulouse, by the way — all over again.
How we’ll get back to the Premier League is a related question. I wrote earlier this season about the wisdom or otherwise of Marcelo Bielsa’s choice to stick with the team he found at Leeds, rather than ship in new players from all over at high prices. For one thing, that has never been his style, and looking at his career so far, I don’t expect many incomings in the January transfer window, if any. But the other thing is that the team has more experience and quality than we sometimes realise. Players like Ezgjan Alioski and Samu Saiz have got over their first season’s shock in the Championship, and are among the top players in the division for creating chances. Pablo Hernandez manages to combine being terrible against West Brom with being one of the most productive players in the Championship. Pontus Jansson captains Sweden; Adam Forshaw has played in the Premier League.
Then there’s Kalvin Phillips. In all of last season he made 875 accurate short passes, at a rate of about 25 every ninety minutes. Already this season he’s done 689, a rate of 45 every ninety minutes, and his accuracy has improved from 78% to 89%. Much as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have looked at Fabian Delph and James Milner and liked them and used them, Marcelo Bielsa has looked at Kalvin Phillips and made him the most important player in his team, so important than when the team runs faulty he has to take him off to fix it. Phillips is 22, and while I’m not saying he’ll captain England one day, I am saying that there is more in these players than we could imagine back when Paul Heckingbottom was staring at them, frustrated and perplexed, like a dad trying to get his kids’ new toys to work on Christmas Day.
There’s a practical streak in me that hopes Leeds sign reinforcements in January; but the romantic streak, that makes me weep to think of little Fab Delph wearing the England armband, hopes we get through the six weeks to January unbeaten, with Jamie Shackleton a revelation at right-back, Bailey Peacock-Farrell discovering his inner Nigel Martyn in goal. Marcelo Bielsa’s loyalty and trust in his players is calculated to bring the best out of the locker room he commands, not the transfer market he doesn’t. Bielsa wouldn’t have swapped Becchio for Steve Morison, he would have invested all his energy into turning Becchio into Batistuta, and my, what a dream that would have been.
We’ll never know what dreams we lost by not keeping McAllister and Grayson’s best players together, or what we could have ended up with if those three or four seasons had been years of building on the pitch instead of building on Lowfields Road. Leeds United broke up a team that, kept together, could have been special. Now Leeds have to strike a balance, between mending while the sun shines but not breaking what doesn’t need fixing; between taking the best chance of promotion in years, or blowing it; of making Kalvin Phillips captain of England and Leeds United, or England and Manchester City reserves. We could remember this team with bittersweet appreciation, or glorious celebration, or just go on gazing at Brighton and Fabian Delph, wondering when football will work out that way for us. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)