The Square Ball Week: Is This Thing On?

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

Will Middlesbrough vs Leeds United be on or off? Follow for minute-by-minute updates of nothing happening until it’s decided. On Weather Underground you can find the nearest weather station to the Riverside, to track snowfall through the night; monitor Snapchat maps, too, for evidence of tea-tray banter on icy hills. The club say they’re doing everything they can to get the game on. Well, of course they are. There’s Sky cash at stake.

In a way it doesn’t even matter if the game goes ahead or not. This week someone posted clips of Felix Wiedwald gaffes on one of the Leeds forums, including one taken from a console game. That stopped a few people in their tracks. ‘What game was that?’ they asked. ‘Don’t remember that one.’

If console simulations are now convincing enough to make fans doubt their own memories of the football season they’re currently watching, then we might as well seize the opportunity a postponement presents and hand the fixture over to esports. It’d be easier, tuning in on Twitch.tv instead of trawling Reddit for streams, and quicker; the whole thing could be over and done with in twenty minutes, which is much kinder to modern attention spans. And if Felix Wiedwald still makes terrible mistakes, well, it’ll be just like the real thing, won’t it?

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Workers at Old Trafford proudly hoisted a YouTube logo above the main entrance this week to celebrate the tenant club’s launch of a new video channel, the last holdout among the Premier League clubs. Given they can’t compete with Manchester City on the pitch, they might as well try on the internet; and given the increasing evidence that fans aren’t sitting through as many ninety minute matches as they used to — years of Stoke vs West Brom on a Super Sunday finally wearing them down — they need to monetise the other stuff, and fast: the brief highlights, the classic matches, the tekkers clips, the player interviews, the stunts full of banter.

Someone suggested recently that football matches are rapidly becoming mere datasets from which decisions can be made during the real period of play, the transfer windows, and it’s long been argued that what happens during a ninety minute match is only worthwhile now if it can drive ninety hours of media content until the next one. It doesn’t matter if a Felix Wiedwald mistake is real or computer generated, as long as someone will click on a link to read what someone else has tweeted about it.

Leeds United has had LUTV for a long time, of course, and this week it had #AskLUFC, a Q&A session with “Leeds United’s highest ranking officials”, which made them sound like state bureaucrats from 1960s China. Or 2010s Qatar. In fact it was the managing director, the chairman and the director of football, fielding questions put to them by LUTV’s long serving Thom Kirwin, taken from submissions on Twitter and “selected at random” — don’t laugh — “and put to the men at the top of the Leeds United hierarchy.”

So the nearest we may come to football this week is staring into a mobile phone at three middle aged men, staring back; Angus Kinnear, looking startled every time a question was directed his way, then instantly relieved when he realised it was one he’d revised the night before; Andrea Radrizzani, warm and relaxed but with a hint of temper, like a waiter ready to criticise your wine choice; and Victor Orta, neither looking nor sounding like he gave a fuck about anything or anyone, except Pierre-Michel Lasogga’s shots-to-goals ratio. Orta has acquired a Machiavellian reputation from shenanigans at Middlesbrough and from his confusing activity at Leeds, but the more I see of him, the more I reckon he’s just a nerd, with all the troublesome social shortcomings that entails. At one point, as Radrizzani tried to interject on the subject of Saiz and Jansson’s futures, Orta held him off: “For finish, chairman”, with the kind of tone that, if your mate had brought him to the pub for the first time, would have everyone slagging him off when he went to the toilet.

Orta has, in fact, had an #AskVictor Q&A all to himself on LUTV; back in September he did a twenty minute Facebook Live video answering fans’ questions, that is still up on the LUTV website. Despite that, many of the questions this week were about the same things he talked about then, with the same answers: he’s never signed a player without the head coach’s agreement, his recruitment team watch 3,000 matches a year so the head coach doesn’t have to, the U23s have been through a process of rapid recruitment but now the emphasis is on finding good local players and high quality foreigners for the Academy, UK-based players are expensive and he’s seeking value abroad, his favourite recipes for the kittens he steals from small children at night. That sort of thing.

But it all had to be gone through again because that was September, when Leeds were winning, and nobody cared about Victor Orta much; since we’ve been losing, people have cared about Victor Orta very much, but not enough to spend the time checking what he might have said already. It wasn’t only him; much of what Andrea and Angus had to add was warmed over from previous interviews and announcements anyway, making the Q&A a fairly easy ride for the high-ranking officials, and a fairly frustrating watch for anyone who had heard all this before.

Radrizzani actually added the one bit of new news himself; his leg jiggling as if he was willing Thom Kirwin to ask, he broke in as Kirwin instead began wrapping up the event: “I’m sorry, can I add maybe two more questions that were popular from the fans on Twitter? It was about where we spend the money from Chris Wood and Charlie Taylor.” It was spent on transfer fees and wages, he said, “So you can’t complain about that to the club.” The other was about what he thought about the salute crest, which he didn’t answer, promising instead a “good event to launch the new badge for the centennial year.” It was an interesting move, asking one more thing of himself like a paranoid Columbo, but given he did the same thing to the BBC’s Dan Roan in August, stopping him from ending the interview so he could add that he “already committed with big investment in region of £100m, so I’m here for good, and I want to bring this club back what it deserves,” so it could also be a tactic.

It’s definitely a long way from where we were, in style at least. Leeds United were actually early pioneers of live-streaming video Q&As, if unwittingly. Back in the Ken Bates era, getting information about what was really going on at the club — like, who owned it — was impossible, so armed with rudimentary but cutting edge technology, enterprising Leeds fans attended the club’s sanitised ‘On The Road’ Q&A dinners, using Twitter to broadcast the first live streams I can ever remember seeing. Around the same time, Bates’ scripted LUTV interviews with Ben Fry were laboriously but valuably transcribed by Andrew Haigh for the TSB website, so we could keep track of the nonsense spouting forth and flooding any notions of transparency.

Since then, live video via mobile has become the club’s preferred method of communication, and transcripts of interviews and press conferences have become the norm on various news websites, not just at Leeds United, but everywhere. It has never been easier to watch the people in charge at Leeds United answering the fans’ questions. In one sense, it’s brilliant, a victory for those who were once battling to get the club to even acknowledge that supporters might have legitimate queries.

It hasn’t, however, led to transparency, as that has been superseded by something we’re supposed to accept as a synonym, but isn’t: access. The LUTV Q&A format used this week was cosy enough to make me feel close to the people running things at Leeds United. But Pro-Evo is designed to make me feel close to the action of a football match, and neither presents the real thing. Both present versions of reality its presumed you want to experience: multiple angles of a Felix Wiedwald mistake, an answer about where the Chris Wood money went. But both leave out the parts of reality that might cause dismay, and make you not want to return to the app for more: ninety minutes of Second Division football on Teeside in the snow; or Ivan Bravo, a high-ranking Leeds United official and board member, seen at Elland Road more often than you might expect of someone whose day job is running Qatar’s Aspire Academy, but rarely mentioned amid the clamour to make Victor Orta explain, again, that he didn’t have to give Thomas Christiansen a wedgie when he wanted to sign Jay-Roy Grot.

Football is a fantasy, whether of one day becoming a brilliant footballer playing at Elland Road, or of one day seeing brilliant footballers playing at Elland Road, and bringing success to Leeds United, but there are still elements that are real, and they’re important. Samu Saiz has returned from his Flemish exile like a saint walking among us, and yet his ability is far more earthbound and much more real than half of what gets served up to football supporters these days as “the game”.

I was writing here earlier in the season that I might give up on watching Leeds United in football matches, and only watch Saiz. I feel that even more strongly after six cold weeks of wilderness without him. As I seek something to cling to amid the blizzards of hype, deflection and content generation that seem to give football matches all their meaning lately, Saiz TV is the realest thing I can find. ◉

(feature image by Jim Ogden)

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