I was introduced to the notion of Leeds United’s left-back curse in February 1991, when Peter Haddock sustained a knee injury in the Rumbelow’s Cup semi-final that eventually ended his career.
Two months earlier a disgraceful foul by Sunderland’s John Kay had left Haddock looking “As though he’d been run over by a tractor,” as Howard Wilkinson put it, and his place was taken by Glynn Snodin, who had been struggling with glandular fever. He lasted a month, until Haddock’s brief comeback and new serious injury, then Mike Whitlow, one of Wilko’s earliest signings from non-league Witton Albion took over. He had missed several weeks of the season due to a blood clot behind his brain, then was injured in April, when Snodin took the number three shirt again.
The season had begun with the shirt being swapped between the three of them, none playing more than two consecutive games, until Chris Kamara returned to fitness and settled into the role. That lasted four and a half games. Long term absentee Jim Beglin was fit enough for the reserves and one run out for the first team in the Zenith Data Systems Cup, but not risked in the league, while Dylan Kerr’s misfortune was that one of the players ahead of him in the pecking order was always just about fit enough to play. Even then, so fragile was Snodin’s fitness towards the end of the season, that Kerr was being named on the bench in the days when only two subs were allowed.
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The player many people thought could solve it all was Motherwell’s Scottish international Tommy Boyd, continuously linked in the papers. But in the summer, he moved to Chelsea, and United bought the player he was replacing at Stamford Bridge, Tony Dorigo, who had grown sick of working for Ken Bates.
Within a year Leeds United were the champions of England, and the players who had battled the curse of shirt number three were almost all gone. Beglin retired; Kamara, Snodin and Whitlow were sold; Haddock was fighting to repair his knee; only Dylan Kerr remained, as diligent and well prepared in the reserves as ever. He just couldn’t get a game in the first team, because Dorigo was too good.
It was a privilege to watch Dorigo, and because Stuart Pearce took precedence for England, we hoarded his brilliance at Leeds. Until 1997, when George Graham inexplicably downgraded to David Robertson, teams would arrive at Elland Road thinking they had a quick right winger who could cause Leeds some problems: Dorigo would overtake them, tap the ball off their toe, turn around and run away with it up the field, and make that quick right winger look like an old oil tanker.
That hasn’t meant, though, that Dorigo’s predecessors have been forgotten. Peter Haddock is still remembered for his central defensive class alongside Chris Fairclough in the 1989/90 promotion season. You can’t forget Chris Kamara or Jim Beglin, because they’re always on the telly. Glynn Snodin was more than a left back, more than Ian’s brother: he was the player that popularised the Leeds salute, who came back with Simon Grayson to get Leeds out of the League One nadir, winning at Old Trafford along the way. With Boxing Day approaching, memories rewind to 1990, and the incredible thirty yarder Mike Whitlow lashed in through the rain in a 4-0 demolition of Chelsea. Dorigo was the best. But other players were popular for different reasons.
“He was better than me, simple,” Whitlow told Dave Simpson in The Last Champions, Simpson’s book about the people who won the league for Leeds United. “Howard Wilkinson wanted to replace a hard-working player with a quality player.” Whitlow had taken the long way round to professional football — rejected by Bolton as a youngster, he dropped into non-league and was working in a builders’ yard when Leeds signed him and trained him up into a player Wilkinson trusted to mark Paul Gascoigne. “You should have seen him running rings around me,” says Whitlow. “But for me from non-league it was an honour to play against these guys. I knew they were better players than me, but I worked hard because I didn’t want that chance taken away from me again.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Gaetano Berardi said something very similar this week. “It’s not my normal position [left-back] but like every year I try to do my best — every week and every session. I know probably this team needs a better player than me but I just want to play and do my best every Saturday.”
Berardi was already flavour of the week, as the footage from the Norwich match of him charging like a bull at assistant manager and unprepared matador Julio Banuelos had delighted social media. Choreography has robbed goal celebrations of some of their charm, and as Leeds United stumble towards the modern era after fifteen years of lagging, Berardi’s piano plays a tune for the old school when he expresses his joy for a Leeds United goal by headbutting whoever is near. There was nobody near him when Lasogga scored at Bristol City this season, so Berardi ran from the halfway line to crash his right boot into the electronic advertising hoarding between the pitch and the Leeds fans, an attitude to modern football I hope the insurers of Elland Road’s new virtual hybrid perimeter LED technology have taken into account.
But the quotes about Leeds United needing a better player at left-back didn’t only melt hearts because they came from the scruffily handsome and often bloodied hero with the Nick Heyward fringe. Unwittingly, Berardi’s realism and selflessness tapped into one of the strongest seams of Leeds United’s identity: that Elland Road is a place for teams, not individuals, and that players can become heroes at Leeds as much for sacrifices as for talent.
I say ‘unwittingly’ even though ‘Side Before Self, Every Time’ is now written above the entrance to the East Stand where you can’t miss it, because I’m remembering when Berardi did a pre-match press conference earlier in the season, sporting a cut under his eye after the game at Burnley. One questioner started down a line of getting Berardi to name Leeds United players from the past that he would compare his game to.
“I’ve heard, but I don’t know,” said Berardi. “Because I started to hear about Leeds just ten, fifteen years ago, when Leeds was in the Champions League. But I saw a few things about years ago, about Leeds was a very hard team.” Which players from Leeds’ past do you admire? insisted the questioner. “When I saw some games, I remember Viduka,” answered Berardi. Maybe the older ones, Bremner? Johnny Giles? “No…” Do you know about them? “Yeah, I know now, because I am here in Leeds, so when I speak with some friends, they told me something about them.” But Berardi wasn’t about to claim some inspiration or kinship from players he never saw playing: he grew up admiring Paulo Maldini and nineties AC Milan, because he’s 29 and grew up near the Swiss-Italian border.
Although it’s a shame Leeds United’s history isn’t taught in Swiss secondary schools, Berardi’s haziness about our club’s past is not a mark against him. Asking him about Bremner and Giles, or Hunter or Charlton, is fair, because Berardi plays for Leeds as if he was born to embody the values of toughness and commitment that were part of the Revie team’s legacy. But it’s not something he can answer for. None of it is posed, or adopted to appeal to Leeds fans. He doesn’t know enough about our history to put on an act: this is just the way he is. Side before self is something Berardi learned before coming to Leeds. That’s why he’s been such a match.
Which is why nobody wants to see him out of the team, even if Leeds do sign a new Dorigo. Imagine the excitement of getting a brand new puppy on Christmas morning, then looking across the kitchen at the long-beloved family dog, wagging his tail and still eager to play (or play fight) as always. They’re both part of your family for life, even if one runs faster than the other.
A new high quality left-back would make Leeds United a better team, by improving attacking options down that side and easing some of the defensive burden against the best wingers. It’s highly practical, and tactically important, but also sounds kinda boring. It’s like being given the choice of any player in the world and picking Lionel Messi. Sure, he’d be great, but would he be as much fun as Luciano Becchio? I know deep down, though, that we’d get used to seeing a Dorigo 2.0 pretty quickly; that’s the nature of the game, just like Berardi called it.
But at the moment we have a right-back putting in better performances at left-back than anyone ought to expect, bridging the gap between his ability and the job being asked of him by putting in extra effort to minimise the impact on the team of not having a specialist in the position. If Leeds don’t sign a new high quality left-back, the team will still be good, because Berardi isn’t letting anybody down. If Luke Ayling were to get injured or suspended, Berardi wouldn’t let anybody down at right-back either. I doubt he’d let us down if he had to play in goal.
That’s a big part of what makes a Leeds player, which is worth remembering as and when Leeds — hopefully — return to the Premier League. The left-backs weren’t the only players to fade from the first team the last time Leeds won promotion to the top flight. Carl Shutt was replaced by Rod Wallace. Mervyn Day and Vinnie Jones were replaced by million pound signings John Lukic and Gary McAllister. Jones had himself replaced eighties fan favourite John Sheridan en route to promotion, and it was the same with Lee Chapman and Ian Baird.
In every case Leeds got a better player, and the team improved, but it was done respectfully and carefully. Respectfully, because the fans never forgot what the previous players had done to get Leeds United back where it belonged; the winning goal against Stuttgart in the Nou Camp was so much sweeter for being scored by Carl Shutt, back in the side from behind not just Wallace but Eric Cantona too.
And carefully, because the players brought in couldn’t only be better, they had to fit with the ethos, to read the seams of what Leeds fans want from a player, beyond diamond quality. Tony Dorigo got that; Eric Cantona, not so much. Mike Whitlow and Gaetano Berardi, definitely. Who knows what future transfer windows hold, whether in January or summer; we’ll find out soon enough. What we can know, though, is what our history tells us, and this Christmas our history tells us that, far from being cursed, the Leeds United left-back position is very, very blessed. ◉
P.S. — and yes, we are biased, and yes, you should bid a fiver to win one of five exclusive limited edition Berardi x TSB 2018 calendars, featuring a full year of illustrations and photographs of Tano. They’re signed by the man himself, they will never be on sale or available again, and all proceeds will be donated to the Leeds Children’s Hospital Appeal. Click here to get involved.
(feature image by Lee Brown)
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