The Square Ball Week: No Payback

In 2018-19 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

The last of these was after the Brentford game, lamenting that nothing has ever gone Leeds United’s way and nothing ever will, and we’re right to be angry about that, and let Pontus Jansson tell the world so.

Now that something has gone Leeds United’s way, it falls to me as a football fan — which is synonymous for ‘hypocrite’ — to explain why nothing has changed after we got one poxy handball decision in our favour to save one poxy point.

Exhibit A: the reaction. I’m glad we don’t have to call our striker Roofey anymore and can switch to Kemaradona, but while I think the original Diego could safely take any number of Robin Hood tours he wants around Nottingham — although everybody knows they should really be touring Wakefield — I imagine Kemar crossing the Forest boundary for the away game will be greeted like a miner crossing a picket line the other way. The people of Nottingham were not happy. Here’s former Forest captain Kenny Burns: “Kemar Roofe clearly thumped the ball in with his forearm and then his sheepish celebration said it all … There’s always needle with Leeds and that goes back years. Like Derby County, they always choke and they won’t get promotion so I wouldn’t worry.” Kenny Burns also played for Leeds United for several seasons, but you wouldn’t know now.

If knees had only jerked in the Midlands that would be one thing, but with Sky desperate to hype up their coverage of the EFL now that a certain Eleven Sports has taken everything else, and the whole nation desperate to have a pop at Leeds, Roofe’s goal took on the proportions of a diplomatic incident. Marcelo Bielsa is here, too, so in Argentina Olé reported that, ‘Bielsa Was Given A Great Hand’, ‘a controversial and rude goal with the hand of Kemar Roofe.’ They did note, however, ‘With the sincerity that characterises him … the Madman added: “To say that a player cheated, we need to be sure. But the violation of the rules of the game is not something we should praise.”‘ Olé concludes: ‘What a mess!’

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The difference is that whereas only Leeds and Brentford fans took any real interest in Ollie Watkins’ dive or Serge Canos’ headbutt, and only Leeds fans are making chalk marks on their wallpaper to count off the days since we last had a penalty, the whole world saw the Hand of Kemar, and soon the whole world will have its revenge. It will be a brave referee who awards a handball to Leeds in the next few weeks, and there are very of those in the EFL. What we have instead are egotists, so it will be a race among the same shower to award a handball against Leeds first. Preferably in our penalty area, so there can be a red card and a spot-kick to boot.

This is a historical problem for Leeds; the club is too famous and too scrutinised to ever get away with anything. We’re not quite at the level of Barcelona or Real Madrid, where lip-readers translate training sessions that are pored over in slow motion on television every night, but outside the Champions League or Premier League, there are few clubs that get the attention Leeds United do. This isn’t arrogance; in fact, when you tune in to watch the Manchester derby and hear ‘We All Hate Leeds Scum’ played at full pitchside volume through your TV speakers, it’s kind of humbling.

But it’s also a kind of pressure that has not been helpful to Leeds since the Champions League days. Elland Road’s crowds, the travelling support and the club’s international status have all survived wonderfully intact over the last decade and a half, but our team’s likelihood of choking has, most of the time, been higher than ever. It’s been a natural consequence of the leagues we’ve been playing in and the players we’ve been able to sign, plucked from wherever we could get them for what little we could afford or were willing to pay, and thrust into a boiling cauldron when all they were used to were lukewarm baths. Billy Bremner could always hold his nerve; David Batty never had any. Billy Paynter looked terrified; Tommaso Bianchi never had a chance.

That’s not going to get any easier this season. As media outlets scramble for clicks and views to get money from the few advertisers they have left (and remember, to avoid adverts and clickbait you can just pay me to write directly if you like what you read) the desperation for stories that can be hooked onto a big club has never been greater, and Leeds United falls squarely into that category. Then there’s the Bielsa factor taking the attention global, and then the heaviest burden of all: a promotion campaign. Leeds United are second in the league in November, so a race for the title is very much on, and very much not going to contribute to a calm and relaxed atmosphere around Elland Road.

Players deal with pressure in different ways. Pontus Jansson is adapting to fatherhood and being chastised for swearing by the ghost of Mary Whitehouse, who saw television as one big watershed being broken and probably even thought Abba were unnaturally filthy, by livestreaming his games of Counter Strike for hours on Twitch.tv (again, not something Mary would have approved of). Samu Saiz, whose voice had something of a ghostly presence of its own until Salim Lamrani got his ouija board out the other week, told us how he likes to relax: he likes playing football, so he likes playing football. I suppose Kalvin Phillips taunts barbers on his days off, and Pablo Hernandez tries to forget. Marcelo Bielsa does what he can by keeping the players as busy as he can, but if their dreams are not already haunted by his glaring face, they soon will be as promotion nears — or doesn’t.

We have reasons to be positive, though, because the late equalisers in both the Brentford and Nottingham Forest games proved that there are no Kevin Nicholls’ in this team, desperate to get back to the safety of Luton Town. That early season splendour has dimmed a bit, but in its place we’ve seen something that might be even more valuable. Backbone. Tenacity. Desire to keep the pressure on until the final whistle, rather than wilt beneath it after the first.

This might not be all Bielsa’s work, although he deserves credit for allowing it to happen, and perhaps for recognising that it would. Liam Cooper signed in the same summer as the aforementioned Bianchi, and only one of them is still here. For all his faults, Cooper has been in fine form this season, respected by his teammates as captain, and steady on the teamsheet while fans who might once have wanted him out debate whether Jansson should start, or Gaetano Berardi. There were fans who wanted pretty much all of our players out in the summer, wanting top new signings and lots of them, an understandable reaction to another season of disappointment, and the way Howard Wilkinson did it in 1989. But beyond the improvement in performances under Bielsa, we might end up benefitting this season from the lessons learned under — well, Cooper had too many managers to list here, but let’s just say he’s been through the mill with Leeds.

As have many of the others. I’m cool about Stuart Dallas but he’s been here long enough not to be surprised by anything, and he was very good in the closing stages against Forest. Berardi has been here so long he might as well stay for ever and ever (please). Phillips, Jansson, Roofe, Hernandez and Luke Ayling are having their third try at getting Leeds up, and Ayling will be missed while injured; Bailey Peacock-Farrell has been here for years, on the sidelines, staring and glum but learning. Victor Orta seemed to be trying some sort of bizarre Big Brother style experiment at Thorp Arch last season, throwing loads of twenty-something blokes in a building and seeing who doesn’t break down, but those who have graduated to Bielsa’s dorm-rooms, video-rooms and round-the-clock attention are not the headlit rabbits we watched freezing last season. When we equalised at Millwall Saiz celebrated like a seasoned campaigner burying a long held grudge; he’s not playing against abstract names he can’t pronounce this time, he’s playing against those bastards, and that bastard, and him, the bastard, and all the rest.

The longer we’re at the top of the league the more attention there will be, as the clickbait Twitter accounts wear out the keys typing ‘burnout’ and ‘falling apart again’ on their keyboards. Some of it will be real: you don’t win promotion without pressure, you don’t play for Marcelo Bielsa without it becoming unusually intense. But you don’t play for Leeds United without pressure whatever the league table says, because one infraction — a cheeky handball between friends, say — can be heard, and criticised, around the world. Then the world will try to make you pay for what you’ve done, and that’s when you have to prove you’ve learned what playing for Leeds United is all about. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)