The Square Ball Week: It’s Trad, Rad

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

The revival of tradition is supposed to be a good thing for football clubs, because things were much better in the olden days.

In the search for a new club badge, could we bring back the owl from the 1960s? No, because Don Revie said pictures of birds are unlucky. Okay then, a peacock from the 1970s? Right, what did I just say. For the centenary, we could go back to the club’s original colours, from 1919 to 1934 — blue and white stripes with white shorts, borrowed from Huddersfield Town. Hmm, let’s not. Well, how about we mix things up by bringing back an old away kit? Like these nice red shirts?

Tradition is often better in theory than in practice, as James Milner proved last weekend, combining two very Leeds United tropes, by leaving the scene of a European final beneath an intangible cloud of injustice, and being robbed of an important victory by his own goalkeeper. The lad’s dedicated to us, you have to give him that.

But it also depends on who you learned your history from. Different generations have different lodestones; for some of us, it’s Gordon Strachan, for others, Tresor Kandol, and we pass their legends on down the ages. Before taking full control of Leeds United, Andrea Radrizzani spent six months learning about the club from his predecessor, Massimo Cellino, and it’s a wonder we haven’t yet put up a statue to commemorate the passing of that important symbol of the Cellino generation, Verne Troyer.

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At least one of the traditions of the Cellino era seems to be reviving right now. There was a sort of floating bin bag sadness about Steve Evans’ punditry during the League One play-off final, as if he was remembering two seasons ago, when he was allowed to talk on the television about teams and managers in the Championship like they were his peers. At the semi-final between Brighton and Sheffield Wednesday in 2016, Evans said he was “keeping myself on top of” which players might be let go by the promoted teams, presumably so he could sign them for Leeds United, where he was head coach.

Needle scratch, freeze frame, cut to Cellino. “I can not make a mistake this time. My players need someone special,” he’s saying, as he talks to the papers about trying to find a new head coach. “I have a good feeling,” he adds, as he flies off to Italy to interview the someone who was giving him that good feeling, who definitely was not Garry Monk, and certainly wasn’t Steve Evans. Ah yes, Steve Evans. And what of him, then? Details, details.

Paul Heckingbottom has at least gone on holiday, rather than stayed roaming the corridors of Elland Road, rooting through bins and licking discarded Kit Kat wrappers, waiting for the chairman to come back from abroad and sack him. But there’s an echo in those corridors all the same, of Cellino yelling his last advice to Radrizzani: ‘And at the end of the season, if you don’t like the coach, you ignore him, get a new coach, then he’ll go away.’

The Leeds United way, hashtag Together, hashtag LUFC Family. Like I said, it depends who you’re learning from, and to be fair this is not an area where Leeds United have always covered themselves in glory: the ill-mannered hirings of Brian Clough and George Graham would teach nothing about decorum. But even after we found out that Victor Orta spent a month ensuring Radrizzani, Thomas Christiansen and sharp objects were never in the same room at the same time, we expected better from Radrizzani than this.

I wrote before the trip to Myanmar that what Leeds should have been doing was what Brighton did after losing that play-off game; sitting down the next day to start the next season. Given Leeds would not be dissuaded from going to Burma, I was ready to accept that they could start the day they got back. Alright, it’s a long way, the day after. And yet here we are.

Luke Ayling’s girlfriend using Instagram to cyberbully Kyle Bartley into signing for Leeds is all well and good, until everyone on that holiday has one Malibu too many and it all ends up in a massive poolside punch-up, but it’s not the same as actually signing him. Likewise, the talk linking us to Claudio Ranieri, Michael Laudrup, Filippo Inzaghi and that guy from Cultural Leonesa who already hates at least two of our players and looks like he works in a Brewdog, would all be great, except we have a head coach, for good or ill, and you’d think he might have something to say about it.

The air is thick with rumour, or thick with rumour-mongering tweets clogging up the wi-fi. Piecing together the plausible, it sounds like the post-season meetings Heckingbottom said were very important for next season left Radrizzani unconvinced, either because he couldn’t work out what all the stuff in the Powerpoint about training a kestrel had to do with anything, or because when he’s about to hit send on ‘Let’s just stick with the loser’ in the group chat, someone replies first to say Laudrup just became available. An urbane Dane who played for Johan Cruyff during Barcelona’s Kappa-clad successes of the early nineties? Fate doesn’t often offer second chances like that.

Another explanation is that San Francisco wants its say. Perhaps it’s unfair to say Leeds United have been bone idle, when a week ago they managed to pull off a rare big announcement that didn’t upset anybody/everybody: that American Football’s famous 49ers (investment arm) has bought ten percent ish of Leeds United for ten million pounds ish. The money goes into our playing budget, and Paraag Marathe, executive vice-president of football (with hands) operations at the 49ers, goes onto our board. He’s already met Heckingbottom and the players, and presumably has plenty of questions, like why that one Swiss guy kept staring at him and why wasn’t he told about the basketball franchise Jay-Roy plays for, and plenty of opinions.

Marathe certainly offers plenty of expertise, known for his tight understanding of stats and budgets, knowledge that could benefit Leeds greatly, if he shares it. Our other experienced board member, Real Madrid’s former director of strategy and the Qatar government’s current director-general of the Aspire Academy, Ivan Bravo, seems to have set an auto-reply to Radrizzani of ‘Loan him to Cultural Leonesa’ and disappeared. If Marathe is going to help Leeds, he’ll have to offer more to board meetings than logging into and straight out of Skype until Radrizzani has gone offline.

A third scenario is that nothing is being said because, well, there’s nothing to say. The difference between this and the situation with Steve Evans is that Evans’ contract was running out, so a decision had to be made and communicated. It was made, in a board meeting at Elland Road, after which it was communicated, to Evans by then club secretary Stuart Hayton, while Cellino hid from Evans in the boardroom. Paul Heckingbottom, though, has a contract until the end of the next season, so there’s no actual need to announce anything about his position.

Most of the links to new head coaches have been generated through click-bait and online betting, and the club has been accused of a fairly new style of crime: allowing speculation to develop. Social media abhors a vacuum, so because it’s known that Leeds United’s coach has a poor record and that lots of Leeds United fans hate him, and because it’s presumed that football supporters in general will click on anything, social media has been scratching all three of those itches at once, using both hands and holding a loofah in its teeth.

Now the club is expected to come out and stop all this with some kind of back or sack statement about Heckingbottom, but this is one scenario where I would sort of respect silence. Total silence. Imagine a media blackout until the first game of the season, so we turn up with no idea who will be in the dugout, or even who will be in the team? Have we sold anybody, have we signed anybody? You don’t get to know until kick-off on the opening day. It would be carnage. It would be brilliant.

That’s unrealistic though; soccer speculation isn’t really anything new, it’s the medium that has changed. But while the club can be justified for not saying anything about the position of the head coach if his position is horizontal on a beach in Greece until he comes back for pre-season, what it needs to put up, instead of a back or sack statement, is some results. Some outward signs that next season is being prepared for, whether that includes a change of coach or not. Sell players. Sign players. Say that this one player was identified by head coach Paul Heckingbottom, if you want to give him some public security. Make that one player Kyle Bartley if you want to bring the cleansing tide of public opinion sweeping gloriously across your beach of broken glass and needles. Show us some progress with the team, and just generally reassure people that there is still a football club going on somewhere behind all the outer noise, and the inner silence.

Despite what Andrea Radrizzani might have seen so far, interminable, turgid depression is not the traditional Leeds United way. We had enough of a lack of results or visible progress during the last three months of the season, without extending that slug life and ruining our summer. Football is a results business, and that counts during the off-season, too. ◉

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(feature image by Jim Ogden)