The Square Ball Week: Quirks of Fate

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

Samu Saiz dived to try and win a penalty against Hull City on Tuesday night, and before a yellow card was shown, I wondered for a moment if his mother wasn’t going to hurdle the barriers, march across, and give him a clip round the ear. Perhaps she would drag him from the field by that same lughole, telling him he wasn’t allowed to play anymore until he learned how to behave himself. Marcelo Bielsa substituted him a while after, perhaps his own version of a lughole drag.

It all seemed terribly unfair. Samu Saiz was basically booked and shouted at by Hull’s big defenders for the crime of being Samu Saiz. This is just who he is. In the annals of diving, dominated by Adryan Oliveira Tavares, once of this parish, Saiz’s dive against Hull will be remembered only for its absurd innocence. He didn’t leap from the grass like a salmon from a stream, then jerk and roll like a salmon on an electric fence. He didn’t claim grievous injury, crying for an ambulance. If this was the dark arts, he did it under halogen lights. Saiz simply felt contact while in the penalty area, fell over to try and fool the referee into giving his team a penalty, then got up and got on with things, shrugging it off when it didn’t work.

It was the kind of honest attempt at thieving that the East End of London has mythologised since Victorian times, and while I’d always assumed that in the film of Leeds United’s promotion season Samu Saiz would be played by Twiki the Robot from Buck Rogers, now I have to wonder if Danny Dyer wouldn’t be more appropriate. Not a bad lad, but he does some bad things, and he’s always nice to his muvva, cos she’d ‘av his lug’ole if he warrent.

Anyway, cheating is bad, and Saiz tries too much of it, but it’s always, like this, kinda sweet, and kinda justified. Except when he’s spitting at Welsh people, but even then, he’d been knocked over by some non-league bully who can’t celebrate a goal without pushing a shortarse around; the revenge aspect of Saiz’s sin that day always gets glossed over, I suppose because of the size and manner of his sinful vengeance.

More usually he’s trying to get something out of a cold-hearted referee who remains unmoved every time Saiz feels a defender’s studs scraping his ankles, but whips out his notebook should Saiz so much as complain. These situations are always made worse by Saiz’s lack of English; he seems to have learned now that, in the English game, it is not acceptable to wave an imaginary yellow card; you have to unleash streams of profane instructions at high volume into the referee’s ear. ‘Book the bastard’ — a mild version, as children might be reading this — seems to be more than Saiz can bring himself to say, and with his imaginary cards hidden on one of his mum’s high shelves where he can’t reach, he’s reduced to flurries of mad pointing to convince the referee to take action. He’ll point at the defender, at his own leg, at the other areas of the pitch this has happened, at the grass, at the ball, at anything; he’s like a tourist trying to order by pointing at an incomprehensible foreign menu, until the bemused waiter finally brings him the salad of chicken, pencils, cigarettes and glue that he apparently wants.

If only we could send Salim Lamrani out onto the pitch to shadow him and translate. For one thing the ankle kickers would think twice, because although I don’t know how Lamrani finds the time to work out between translating for Bielsa and studying the geopolitical and socio-economic consequences of diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba, he did not develop those biceps by marking student papers, and I can not imagine Richard Keogh, for example, getting much change out of him. But if we did somehow solve Saiz’s communication problem, and find a way for him to explain to people on the pitch that he’s a nice guy who just makes bad choices, without spitting at them, I might miss some of his weird excesses. That’s how I felt about his dive against Hull. Diving is bad. Diving like that is just funny.

Speaking of bad choices, also on my list of problems I’d miss if they were ever solved is Ezgjan Alioski and The Offside Trap, an adventure story that, years from now, will be read with much joy by children in Macedonian schools. It’s the story of a young boy, far from home, taken in by a kind gentleman from Argentina, who encourages young Gjanni to take many risks in pursuit of his goals. Only by taking risks can Gjanni get closer to his dreams; but every time he thinks he’s closer, that he’s beyond the bad guys and running free, something happens to haul him back to the start. As his dreams collapse beneath flags and whistles, he loses sight of who are the real bad guys stopping him from achieving his targets, and the reader is absorbed by his attempts to overcome his flag-waving, whistling enemies, wondering if he’ll ever realise that the first battle he has to win is with himself.

Alioski kept the offsides to a dull roar against Hull, but made sure, by missing a great chance, that there were still plenty of folk around to suggest we’d be better with Jack Clarke on the wing, or Stuart Dallas, or Pablo Hernandez on one leg. There’s always been something particular about the groan of fans watching a promising attack ended by an offside winger; it’s a noise you don’t hear in many other situations. Alioski has developed it further so that Elland Road has a sound only for him, sort of like the passive-aggressive sigh of a justifiably angry spouse whose lungs have been surgically replaced by whoopee cushions. You don’t ever want to hear it; it’s unmistakable when you do.

For some reason, though, I’m over being angry about Alioski being offside. When, against Birmingham City, the entire Leeds team moved forward into the penalty area for a free-kick from wide, only for their trip to be wasted when Barry Douglas rolled a short pass towards an inevitably offside Alioski, amid that noise I wanted to stand and applaud. He’s like the Stewart Lee of offsides, repeating what is in itself an unfunny concept over and over until that becomes the joke, and you become the laugher. At the end of it Alioski is still offside, and the joke still isn’t funny, but at least you’ve had a laugh and feel better.

There might be real football reasons why Alioski is offside so often. He’s a defensively minded winger, being asked to do as much as he can with the space behind the opposing full-back, at a tempo he probably never had to play with in Switzerland. It’s okay for Tyler Roberts, given the task of dropping deep to create the space behind for Alioski to be offside in; and it’s alright for Jack Harrison, able to play deeper because he can beat a full-back with tricks, or Pablo Hernandez, who drifts deep and inside to be more playmaker than winger. All Alioski really has is pace and aggression, so he’s told to play as high as he can, on the full-back’s shoulder, stretching the opponent’s defence and creating space inside for Douglas to underlap, while being alert for through balls. Which is the problem, but he’s working on it. At least I assume he is. I haven’t seen any evidence.

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Do I want to? Yes and no. Yes, because like diving, being constantly offside isn’t helpful in football matches. But also no, because once Alioski does get behind, we might just find ourselves having the same conversation again about his final ball, and I think the offside conversation has more comic potential.

And also no because Alioski is who he is, just as Saiz is who he is, and I’ve gradually embraced that they’re both real weirdos, in the nicest sense. Add to them Kalvin Phillips, with his mad hair and pockets full of snuck chocolate cake; Pontus Jansson, Yorkshire’s number one Malmo supporter; Luke Ayling, conquering his speech impediment with a man bun; Gaetano Berardi, the sort of psychopath about whom the signs are hidden in plain sight but only spoken of after he goes to jail; Bailey Peacock-Farrell, an Easter Island statue hauled and plonked in the goalmouth; Mateusz Klich, who I suspect is using his football career to disguise that he’s the true inventor of bitcoin; Patrick Bamford, who I’m convinced is a hockey player; Pablo Hernandez, whose eyes are a cellar of bad dreams. And it’s Hallowe’en soon.

As a bunch, they’re not what you’d call normal. Salim Lamrani calls Luke Ayling “Bill.” In a video on the club’s ‘All Leeds’ YouTube channel, Tyler Roberts has to choose a team to play FIFA against Kemar Roofe, and scrolls through international teams, The Championship twice — pausing but rejecting Bristol City — Ligue 1 and then League One, where he finally — there’s at least ninety seconds of this, and it’s been heavily edited down — picks Oxford United. Roofe’s old club. That commitment to being annoying is admirable, but it’s surely not normal.

Not normal, but delightful. Because something that held us back during the darkest seasons of this decade was that, through the squad, there were few players who were interesting. Robert Snodgrass had character. It was the character of an expertly tap-dancing tramp, but he stood out all the same. When he left there was only Luciano Becchio, the Sky Bet Iggy Pop, until Neil Warnock swapped him for Steve Morison, a personality so grey only Pantone can tolerate him. Who were we left with then? Michael Brown, Colin’s mate. Paddy Kenny, Colin’s mate. Lee Peltier, Colin’s mate. Luke Varney, Colin’s mate. Even Sol Bamba, arriving later, ended up being Colin’s mate.

The shower that came after that shower hid most of what personality they had behind a) loud cowardice and b) the owner’s madness, which threatened to overwhelm Elland Road like a black hole; Sam Byram, Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor might have been the bright building blocks of a new generation, but they were cowed into quietness by Massimo Cellino enabling the madness around them. Would Sam Byram be having a better career now if he hadn’t spent his late teens being shouted into submission by Warnock, Cellino, Giuseppe Bellusci, Steve Evans? How could he develop an engaging personality, when he was hardly able to open his mouth?

It’s arguably not just Leeds that has suffered a personality vacuum in recent years. The Premier League’s media training successfully drained the flamboyance from a generation of footballers, and it’s only being repaired now that the players are so rich they don’t care anymore; so England striker Jamie Vardy can call England defender Harry Maguire ‘slabhead’ in public without bringing shame upon the country. (It also helps that he isn’t Raheem Sterling, but that’s another matter.) Over the last year James Milner has emerged from his cocoon as not only one of the most brilliant midfielders in world football, but as one of the most dryly humorous — just in time for his return to Leeds United.

Who are, lest we forget, being managed by one of football’s most severe screwballs. The marvels Bielsa has worked with our squad of players on the pitch — and he may keep Alioski onside yet, even if he has to watch 100 hours of footage to do it — are only part of the story. It’s too soon to talk about promotion, except it’s not, so let’s imagine going through next summer without making a single new signing, apart from Milner, because Bielsa has decided these people — Alioski, found mid-table in the Swiss league; Saiz, found in B-team purgatory; Berardi, found on the outskirts of Genoa, living in a cave with wolves — are going to be Premier League footballers. I would forgive them the occasional offside call, a dive here and there, a diet of raw meat and howling, because it’s more fun to embrace the weirdness in this squad than to be frustrated by it: especially when we’re top of the league.

Giuseppe Bellusci isn’t here anymore. Ezgjan Alioski is. Admittedly he’s over there up the pitch where he shouldn’t be, but at least he’s not a total dickhead. ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)