The Square Ball Week: Knowhow

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

I still can’t quite believe that Fulham’s Stefan Johansen wasn’t sent off for hacking down Pierre-Michel Lasogga as he ran towards the penalty area on Wednesday night. There must be some sort of rule about being crazy enough to kick the tracks of a trundling stormtank when it’s at top speed.

Admittedly that’s still not very fast, but Lasogga is a big piece of artillery, and Johansen used a big kick to bring him down. The clever foul is part of the game now, since the professional foul became an automatic red card, and players everywhere — although mostly Samu Saiz — are used to having their heels nipped as they tear away from midfield towards panicking defenders.

But this was no ankle tap. It was a full on swipe across the top of Lasogga’s shins, premeditated and carried through without thought of risk of injury. Part of the acceptance of the clever foul is that you don’t hurt the opponent. I remember once putting my foot up on a bus stop bench to tie my shoelaces, and feeling a firm kick up the arse; when I turned around, a bloke was waiting to shake my hand, apologise, and explain he hadn’t been able to resist and he hoped he hadn’t left a bruise. I shook his hand and said it was no problem, because I understood the temptation and appreciated his gentleness. A clever foul is like that. Johansen’s foul was like grabbing Lasogga and chucking him head first through the bus stop glazing, under the wheels of a double decker.

Listen to this article & get it as a podcast

Click here to sign up

Johansen only got booked though, and I guess he knew what he was doing. He got away with it. It’s been a recurring theme this season; opposition players getting away with things that Leeds players have not. Only this time it’s not the usual LUFC paranoia; there’s a reason why this is so. It’s our team’s lack of knowhow.

It’s also called nous, and we don’t have any. When Lasogga was dropped, he sat straight up complaining that he’d been through on goal; if he’d had any nous, he’d have stayed down as if his leg had been broken to make the referee think, ooh, yeah, that was a bit rough actually. The aforementioned Saiz was this season’s biggest victim, or culprit; it was quickly forgotten that he’d been shoved to the floor off the ball by one of Newport’s celebrating players, because Samu got straight up and spat at him and brought the shame and the six game ban on himself. A touch of nous, and the card might have been shown the other way, and Thomas Christiansen might still have a job.

The one saving grace from Fulham was that Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips at least looked like they knew what they were doing out there; perhaps there are extra common sense lessons for the youngsters at Thorp Arch that Eunan O’Kane never benefited from. Players are supposed to have this streak if they’re bred by Leeds, but Billy Bremner and Norman Hunter weren’t born malevolent, no matter what the London press used to say; they learned quickly that soccer is a cynical game and it’s played most successfully by cynical people. Leeds United, meanwhile, have Gjanni Alioski, playing as if he’s just found out where babies come from and he’s disgusted that when he grows up he’ll have to do that with a girl. The Championship’s playgrounds have been disillusioning places for our sheltered young players.

It’s been the same in the boardroom, although that goes back years. Ken Bates, of course, knew exactly what he was doing. Gulf Finance House had an up to date copy of Football Manager, so they thought they knew what they were doing. Massimo Cellino obviously had no idea what was going on half the time, but he knew he didn’t like it, and was having the mother and father of all tantrums about it. Enter Andrea Radrizzani, rich and smooth like a Magnum, about to melt just as quickly in the heat of English football.

The risk with Radrizzani was always that, although he’d spent his business life buying and selling sports media rights, he’d never seen football from the inside. A six-month work placement watching Cellino in situ won’t have taught him much (“Is okay, I leave you Terry’s number, he fix everything you need”). But Andrea was confident and ambitious; they’d said he wouldn’t make a success of media rights either, just before he sold Serie A on the telly for an unimaginable sum. He’d got this.

Well, he hasn’t tweeted anything of substance — unless you count his attendance at the executive board meeting of The World Baseball Softball Confederation — since his Wolves-baiting on March 8th, not even an exhortation to the fans to renew season tickets by the deadline; a sign that’s he’s taking a breather outside what has become a very hot kitchen at Elland Road. That’s something else he shouldn’t have listened to Massimo and Terry about. While behind the scenes Radrizzani continues to seem like the most capable owner the club has had in more than fifteen years — for example, the latest published accounts, running to six weeks after he took full control, show GFH being adroitly dealt with, sent away with half their money — the stuff out there on the grass, the things pertaining to the team playing in the league, have been much harder for him to grasp.

In a way it’s weird that it hasn’t worked out better. To Radrizzani’s credit he doesn’t seem to have had any illusions that this job would be easy, plainly stating that promotion could take five years; and he did the most sensible thing he could do, by surrounding himself with people who know what they’re doing. Or, oughta know what they’re doing (geddit?). Victor Orta had been inside a promotion to the Premier League, joining Middlesbrough for the second half of their successful season, after many fruitful years working for Sevilla. Angus Kinnear is a Luton Town fan who has worked at a high executive level at Arsenal and West Ham, so nothing in football business should faze him. If Orta is the Wikipedia of football, Ivan Bravo is its JSTOR, a one-man repository of the most up to date academic thinking in sport.

Between them, you’d think they’d have a clue. There’s no need here to go through all the ways this season has gone awry: whatever about what has gone right, we’re thirteenth, and that tells its own story.

Part of the story, at least, is a lack of nous, a failure to link all their knowledge and experience, through common sense, to the task at hand. Just as what worked in Albania for Caleb Ekuban won’t work without adaptation at Craven Cottage, so what works in Qatar or Seville is not guaranteed to work in Beeston without applying some local knowhow. Intelligence is great, but it has to be relevant, and how can you be sure it’s relevant if the two things you know least about are the two parameters with which you’re working: Leeds, and The Championship?

Here’s where this week’s update from Leeds Fans United, the organisation fundraising to buy a stake for supporters in the club, provides some hope for the future. Angus Kinnear attended their recent shareholders’ meeting, and outlined the discussions between the club and LFU since last summer. He said he understands how positive fan involvement can be, and how fan ownership is one way of doing that; he set up an attempt to expand fan ownership while at Arsenal and found the input valuable. LFU have set a deadline of the end of the year, when if they don’t feel like anything meaningful is achievable, they’ll close; asked if significant progress towards fan ownership can be made by then, Kinnear said, “Yes I do, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”

Exactly what fan ownership might mean at Leeds United is the next stage of the discussions, and much the hardest, encompassing things like how much money needs to be raised, how the funds invested might be spent, and how supporters might be practically represented at boardroom level. Input into day to day decisions like which player to sign or coach to hire sounds unlikely. But the theme tends in a valuable direction: of fans buying into the club in order to have a meaningful say in its long term future.

That’s valuable, because Leeds fans have a meaningful understanding of the club’s past: when it comes to Leeds United, there is no greater source of nous, knowhow and cynicism than its supporters. This season, when the best minds of Radrizzani’s generation have been destroyed by the madness of Neil Warnock hoofing to promotion with Sol Bamba in midfield, has shown how urgently some local experience is needed at Elland Road.

As I wrote back when the Salute Crest was revealed, the reaction to that was the new board’s roughest exposure to Yorkshire logic: that we didn’t like the salute we were always doing, not the way they’d done it, anyway. They need that dour, perplexing common sense on the inside, working with them. If you’ve been doubtful about whether supporter ownership can be a good thing, consider this: with a Leeds United fan speaking on behalf of investor-supporters at an executive level, that salute crest ought never to have got off the drawing board.

The other thing the published accounts do is to underline, again, that what Radrizzani has been saying about the unfair playing field in the Championship is true: one parachute payment to a club relegated from the Premier League is larger than our club’s entire income. The £1m profit that Lewis Cook left us with means a rosier Financial Fair Play situation than I had feared, but again, the £39m three-season limit is roughly equal to one parachute payment, and the limits are bigger for the relegated clubs, to boot.

The best budget Leeds can practically put together will still only be the best of the rest in this division, so the club has to make the best of what it has — every pound has to go further than every other club’s pound. This season, they may have understood that to mean higher, in Jay-Roy Grot’s case, and next season they’ll have to do much better. That means leveraging every advantage the club has and getting the most out of it. And that includes the supporters, but lip service isn’t enough.

“We don’t deserve those fans,” Pontus Jansson said this week, and at the moment he’s right, and the club arguably doesn’t deserve more of our money in the form of investment. But if that’s what it takes to get inside the decisions at Elland Road and bring some nous to a bunch who have been left looking naive, so be it. Football supporters have so much more to offer than season ticket renewals and holding up cardboard signs to spell hashtags. And sometimes football owners need all the help they can get. ◉

(feature image by Paul Kent)

NEW THING ON PATREON

Give Moscowhite a quid a month, and he'll email you every day

Click here to sign up