The Square Ball Week: Tech, Tact, Emotion

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

To fill the empty hours between Ezgjan Alioski’s appearances for Macedonia this week, LUTV put on an #AskVictor session, so fans could interrogate the club’s Director of Football Victor Orta over social media.

It was a much more charming watch than his stern interruptions during the unveiling press conference of Thomas Christiansen, when his vocal displeasure of the price of English footballers these days brought back memories of Ken Bates, not least because, speaking in his second language, he can be as difficult to understand as Bates was. At least Victor has an excuse.

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Speaking into a mobile phone camera at Thorp Arch he came across as much less intense, and his speech patterns were easier to parse, making him easier to understand than at the press conference — and easier than Bates ever was. Waving his two mobile phones around and laughing at how much time he spends working in transfer windows — “I say, in football in August, one hour is one day, one day is one week, one week is one month” — he seemed relieved to have got deadline day out of the way. “I hope this January we don’t sign a lot of players,” he said, “because this is a good sign that our team is on the road,” with the air of someone who has got through a lot of work to get the team on that road.

Against Burton Albion, injuries permitting, Leeds United could field a team of players who weren’t at the club at the end of last season, a phenomenal rate of change for a side that we all thought only needed a touch of tweaking for the play-offs to be assured.

It hasn’t only been the first team, and it hasn’t been done the easy way. Neil Warnock signed a lot of players but, like Fagin selecting pickpockets in Oliver Twist, he just chose from the gang of ne’er do wells hanging around his hovel. Orta has brought in players from all across Europe for the first team and the Under 23s at a bewildering rate. In his Q&A session he spoke a lot about the process, of filtering information and compiling 200 page reports on any player he thinks the head coach should consider, of being creative within a budget. “Not only money can get success,” he says. “Obviously it’s important, but we can work with creativity. With this idea we believe we can try to find the best players technically, tactically, emotionally and financially.”

The Under 23s are perhaps the most interesting, and the most obscure. We’ve seen enough of Alioski and Samuel Saiz now to know we have added at least two quality players to our first eleven. The Under 23s have gained Alejandro Machuca from Rayo Vallecano, Adrian Balboa from Catalan amateur side Unif. Bellvitge, Oriol Rey and Kun Temenuzhkov from Barcelona, Bryce Hosannah from Crystal Palace, Hugo Diaz from Huesca (like Saiz), Ousama Siddiki from Real Madrid and, unconfirmed, Oliver Sarkic on a half-season loan from Benfica.

The club’s connection to Qatar’s Aspire Academy, through our board member and their Director-General Ivan Bravo, adds some questions about this; Aspire have an M.O. of buying outright (KAS Eupen, Cultural Leonesa) or linking with clubs, and transferring players among them to support a long term project of raising Qatar’s status as a sporting centre before the World Cup in 2022. How far Leeds United are involved with this is anyone’s guess, with Ouasim Bouy the only publicised link — bought by Leeds, and sent straight to Leonesa.

But more pertinently, the change of the Under 23s from a finishing school for local teenagers, alongside first teamers returning to fitness, to a squad of young players recruited from around the Mediterranean (and Croydon) is happening at a time when the role of academies and player development is being brought into question across football.

Brentford have done away with their Academy and prospered by building a B-team of players cast adrift from the nearby academies at Chelsea and Arsenal, and now from across Europe; Huddersfield are rumoured to be planning something similar, and while Leeds haven’t made an explicit step outside the academy system, the new strategy appears from outside to resemble Brentford’s. The thinking goes that a player who doesn’t make the grade at Arsenal or Barcelona could still do well for Brentford or Leeds, so they’re hauled off the scrapheap and given another chance. That shifts the cost of development of players from 8-21 onto the biggest clubs, so all clubs like Brentford and Leeds have to do is identify the best of the not quite Premier League players, and smooth whatever rough edges remain.

It’s a sensible approach. There are a lot of levels of football below the top European leagues, and the idea that a youngster should be consigned to some sort of rubbish dump just because he can’t get Lionel Messi out of Barcelona’s first team is bizarre. Brentford’s view is that, even if they have to work on a player over the age of 21 so that he’s only ready when he’s 23, they could still have a very good decade ahead of them with that player. Or a good season before they sell him to Harry Redknapp for a profit.

We’re not Brentford though. We’re Leeds United, and we’re snobs. At least, where it comes to youth development and academies we are. The family of players that Don Revie brought through from schoolboys to old men at Leeds United wrote the club’s culture, and since them extra pride has always been placed in Eddie Gray’s very young team of 1983, Howard Wilkinson and Paul Hart’s Classes of ’92 and ’97, Generation Redders, and everyone inbetween. It’s more than a dream, it’s the Leeds United way: local lads brought through from a young age, immersed in the club and as proud to wear the Leeds shirt as we are of them wearing the England shirt. Even if that’s after they’ve gone; Lewis Cook lifting the Under 20 World Cup this summer was a prouder moment for Leeds United than it was for AFC Bournemouth.

We like to think of Thorp Arch as a garden of young Yorkshire footballers, and now here’s Victor Orta, filling the place with grey squirrels and weird big-leafed plants. Can a club with an image of itself founded in players like Billy Bremner, David Batty and Alan Smith, who grew up wanting to play for nobody else, cope with youth teams full of players who grew up unable to point to Leeds on a map?

It can, if it remembers that, once upon a time, Billy Bremner was growing up, unable to point to Leeds on a map. And even after he got here, it was only special attention from Don Revie that kept him from going back. Revie grew his team, but he planted his garden with seeds gathered from all over, because he only wanted the best for his garden. Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer and Eddie Gray all came from Scotland, Gary Sprake from Wales and Albert Johanneson from South Africa, at a time when there had never been a great football club called Leeds United — only a very average one. Everything that bound them and their teammates together for the good of the white shirt had to be learned. There was no osmosis; at first, there wasn’t even a white shirt.

The culture was and remains as much about character as about anything intrinsic to upbringing, age or the often changed badge on the shirt. Two of the most dedicated adherents of what we first came to understand as Leeds United were Bobby Collins and Johnny Giles, experienced players signed from clubs where they’d been thoroughly schooled in one way of thinking already. Likewise Gordon Strachan, who signed a contract never expecting Leeds United to become the defining club of his career, and even Don Revie, whose playing autobiography was titled ‘Soccer’s Happy Wanderer’ at the end of a career spent moving from club to club, and the start of a managerial career built on loyalty to just one.

Leeds clicks with some, not with others, based on how much you give it. David O’Leary was here for a couple of years as a mostly injured player, but became enamoured with Leeds in a way George Graham, who never moved from London, never did. Ken Bates was Chelsea, Massimo Cellino was Massimo Cellino; but Andy Hughes and Luciano Becchio were Leeds. Age doesn’t matter, and where the players in the academy come from isn’t as important as where they’ve come to, and what they’re willing to do about it.

And on how much help they’ll get from Andrea Radrizzani, Victor Orta, Thomas Christiansen and the rest, all of whom are showing, after just a few months, clear willingness to give themselves up to the club and to the city, to learn the culture and make of their times at Leeds United not just a job, but an experience. It’s hard to define the difference, but on the pitch it’s between playing for Leeds United, and being a Leeds United player. If you understand that line, and which side of it you want to be on, you’re a long way to being successful at Leeds in a meaningful way. And if the people at the top of the club have already reached that understanding and made that decision, it makes your job much easier.

Reading some old interviews with Pierre-Michel Lasogga in German football magazine 11Freunde, I found his commentary on that infamous photograph of him posing shirtless as his mum — also his agent — rests her hand on his chest. It was no different to photos people take of themselves with their mothers at the beach, he said, and he suggested that anyone with a problem about the close relationship he has with his mum “should rather think about what has gone wrong in his family.”

Family, to Lasogga, is key, and as his mum is separated from both his natural father and his stepfather, that is concentrated first on the one parent he has. “Where I come from, a family lives together for a lifetime,” he says. “Love is not only played but lived. It comes from the heart, which is extreme. Mother, uncle, brothers and sisters: Nothing and nobody will ever push between us.”

A strong, supportive family is definitely necessary to back the kind of decision Lasogga has made about this weekend: that he will be available to play against Burton, even though his partner is in Germany, due to give birth to their first child at any moment. That can’t have been an easy decision, but assuming it was taken jointly, it suggests that Lasogga’s family are as determined for his move to Leeds to work out as he is; which is important, given what his former coach at Hamburg, Bruno Labbadia, says about his need for a supportive, family atmosphere. “Pierre-Michel needs a completely intact environment to get his best performances. It’s the same with him as I used to be.”

Leeds United can give him that, which is not something we have always been able to say over the last decade and more. It’s not just the banners around the stadium and the training ground, or the women’s team being brought back aboard; but the squad on nights out in city centre bars, instead of skulking around at retail park restaurants; it’s Gaetano Berardi’s wife’s career being as settled in Leeds as his own; it’s Pontus Jansson giving season tickets to the Children’s Hospital (which TSB are also supporting with our mugs, by the way), Kalvin Phillips giving his time to people with dementia, and Bailey Peacock-Farrell taking a signed shirt round to a young kid’s house.

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Leeds United might not be growing from its youth teams the way it has in the past, but the principle of bringing the best together and nurturing them like a family is as true for Lasogga in the first team now as it was for Billy Bremner as a schoolboy, for Gary Kelly when he was brought over from Home Farm, for Gordon Strachan when he moved over the Pennines. The bunch of strangers that make up any football team are not being treated like strangers in Leeds, and are not treating the city like a strange place. It makes a difference. And if one of the kids joining the Under 23s this summer goes on to make a difference in our first team, it’ll be a big part of the reason why. ◉

(feature image by Paul Kent)