The Square Ball Week: Uncertain

In 2019-20 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

I can imagine what it’s like to be colour blind, by using a setting I learned about to make the glare of my smartphone’s screen more bearable. The phone needs to be bearable given I spend more time looking at it than at anyone I love. There’s an option to drain the screen of all colour and, by meddling with the brightness, making the yellows indistinguishable from the blues, the greens the same as the purples.

That’s nothing like being colour blind, of course: I’m imagining it, and doing quite a bad job, and confining it anyway to a seven inch box. Around the edges of the screen are my hands, the colour of melting scoops of vanilla and strawberry ice cream, patterned with tiny black hairs, only on the back, although periodically I inspect the palms. Behind them is the carpet, blue, and the world, indescribable.

I can’t replicate the effect of QPR’s away kit blending with Leeds United’s home kit beneath the floodlights at Elland Road last week. Not the blazing floodlights of the late-seventies and eighties that lit up the stadium like an early Hollywood movie set, or the lamps on sticks we’ll require in the Premier League to light up the pitch the same as every Premier League pitch. I can appreciate the irony of the thousands of pounds the Premier League will force Leeds United to spend so that viewers in Beijing can enjoy our games on high-definition television, compared to the lack of interest in the thousand or so fans who devote their time and earnings now to watching Leeds United and, last week, couldn’t be certain who out of the twenty outfield players that was.

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Uncertainty is appropriate for Leeds United in 2019. The club’s colours have always been unstable without QPR trying to blend in; there’s confusion about the colour of the stripes the club’s first players were wearing in the Midland League this time 100 years ago, and since then blue and white stripes, blue and gold shirts and all white kits have superseded each other until the modern era, when away and third and tournament and limited edition kits jostle for the right to define an identity.

But it’s not just the kits that are doubtful. Leeds United have a manager who might leave at the end of the season, whatever happens; key players who are only borrowed and could leave in January; another who won’t be bought until next summer when it might be too late; another who has the right to leave for the Premier League next summer if he’s not there with Leeds. Leeds have a striker who doesn’t look certain to score and one goalkeeper we can’t be certain is nice, another we can’t be sure is good.

We don’t know how we’ll remember these players as a group or as individuals. Will Liam Cooper’s involvement in last season’s collapse stay forgotten behind his good form and our promotion, or haunt him constantly until his testimonial, fans telling the ghost story over and over of how we were trapped in the Championship’s cellar? Will Tyler Roberts inherit Pablo Hernandez’s playmaking genius, or be harvested and fulfil his talent in tandem with Daniel James for club as well as country? Will Jack Harrison and Ben White have a promotion with Leeds to look back on when they’re winning the Champions League with Manchester City, or will we watch them thriving against our regrets?

Such uncertainty is natural in a season when so much is at stake, but it indicates Leeds are missing a vital ingredient from their promotion recipe. Gordon Strachan spoke recently about how Leeds United can be unstoppable when everyone involved in the club — players, staff, fans and the city — is aligned and has confidence in working together to achieve something together. When Strachan was captain, in 1989, Leeds was a one club city with one goal, generating its own powerful momentum.

It’s not 1989 anymore, and the uncertainty at Elland Road this season is largely a product of life in the modern Second Division, with the reduction of value compared to expense, the necessary reliance on loan players, the league-wide infection of short-term planning.

And I suppose you could say the uncertainty off the pitch is a symptom of modern football as well, but the doubts there should be simpler to control. Questions arose again this week about who will own Leeds United Football Club by the end of the season, or soon after it — Andrea Radrizzani, Qatar Sports Investments, both, or neither — questions that run counter to the surefooted togetherness Strachan believes helped bring success to Leeds in his era.

I’m sure Paris is delightful in autumn. And as one hapless PR firm gave away earlier this season, when they appealed for fans to invent false atmospheres on social media to promote Manchester City games, Champions League group matches against Club Brugge aren’t good for much more than a get together with friends while ignoring the football. What better way for Nasser Al-Khelaifi to distract himself from the corruption charges he faces relating to Qatar’s bids for the World Athletics Championships than by catching up with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and old pal Andrea Radrizzani? Icardi scored the winner, all the lads had dinner. Why else own a football club?

Well, you could also use it to bleach the public image of a state regime, I suppose. Say what you like about workers’ rights in Qatar, but they sure spent a lot of money on Neymar, right? If they dropped that kind of cash into Brighton & Hove Albion’s lap we could have Ben White forever. Admittedly it would probably be a bad idea to pay Brighton tens of millions for a player given they could use that money to strengthen their own team and challenge for honours themselves, but who has time for economics when your football club is owned by limitless sovereign wealth?

Phil Hay’s information, as reported at The Athletic, is that QSI have not carried out due diligence or ‘request[ed] access to detailed financial information about Leeds’. Andrea Radrizzani’s information, as provided via Twitter, was a couple of winking emojis directed at The Times’ journalist Martin Ziegler and an insistence that, “I enjoyed the game [at PSG] as I have done so many times and had several meetings with major media companies based in Paris as I have been doing in the last 20 years”, with a winking promise to keep Ziegler “posted”. Last time Radrizzani kept Ziegler posted, Ziegler put it in the paper and Radrizzani spent a week backtracking. That was only three weeks ago.

Togetherness and direction starts at the top, inspiring confidence and certainty below. Football creates uncertainties that are unavoidable — where will the ball go? — that can be controlled as far as they can. We can be certain that Marcelo Bielsa will stay until the end of the season. We can be certain that Ben White and Eddie Nketiah will stay as long as they and their parent clubs are satisfied. We can be certain that Leeds United will wear white, less so about the away team.

But the smoke around a potential takeover of Leeds United causes as much uncertainty as twenty players on a pitch in indistinguishable kits. Who has possession, and who is passing to whom, and as identities merge into clouds, how can we be certain about anyone’s intentions? Is that player aiming for goal, or aiming to defend it? This stuff should be easy, but last weekend, and this week, it’s been hard to be sure what’s going on.

That doesn’t help Leeds United in its aim to be certain of promotion. Promotion should be the only aim this season, and should be easy to get behind: the fans, the players, the staff, the manager, all moving in the same direction. If we find ourselves too often in Paris this season, or Qatar, all we can be sure of is that we’re somewhere off the map. ◉

(Read Moscowhite’s new book: 100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019.)

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(photo by Lee Brown)