The Square Ball Week: Winter Dreams

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

I didn’t sleep very well on Sunday night. Feverish nightmares of being headbutted over and over again by a small Irishman telling me ‘There is no evidence of God’ kept me in an anxious insomniac state.

That meant Monday passed by in a useless sleep deprived fog, all my effort given to staying awake, trying to reinforce my sleep pattern again that night. It didn’t go very well; thankfully I don’t operate heavy machinery for a living. A fairly hefty nap took hold, keeping me away from social media for several hours, which is the true measurement of a nap these days (I was not tweeting, therefore I was asleep).

When I finally checked Twitter to see what the world was saying, I wondered if I was still under the sandy influence of Eunan O’Kane, or if I’d slept through all of the January transfer window like in a fairytale, or if I was awake, only everybody had gone out of their god damn minds.

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I was as disappointed as anyone that Leeds lost in Ipswich, but in my dozy absence disappointment had turned to hysteria by the end of Monday. Tuesday, by which time I was fully conscious and involved again, was even worse.

Nothing, as far as I could tell, was actually happening, but it seemed like with every hour the crisis was deepening. I hadn’t even thought it had particularly deepened between 3pm and 5pm on Saturday; being reduced to ten players so early made a mess of that game, so it didn’t tell us anything that wasn’t known before. And yet that one shot by that one Manchester City player that beat Felix Wiedwald that one time had made it absolutely necessary that Leeds sign a striker, any striker, by the end of Monday, if not sooner. Or all hell would break loose.

Well, I say any striker. At this point any signing less well known than Harry Kane is likely to be dismissed as just another Jay-Roy Grot, which would be a bold claim, because I don’t think anyone is really sure what the first Jay-Roy Grot even is yet. But Cameron Jerome’s transfer to Derby, and Leeds United’s subsequent refusal of Derby’s offer to let us pay Chris Martin’s wages, were like catnip withheld from a bad junkie mog, desperate for a sniff of anybody they’ve heard of.

I’m not sure how it got to this, or why this week in particular has felt so unhinged. The noise cut through to Andrea Radrizzani, who responded on Twitter, promising a Q&A to explain everything after the transfer window closes. (I suspect that will be of the Facebook video variety, like Victor Orta’s ‘Ask Victor’ earlier in the season, rather than an actual hired-hall-and-shouting session over pints.) But whatever the cause, there was a definite feeling among a lot of people at the start of the week that all was lost.

How all can be lost from seventh in the league, with almost half a season to play and two weeks of the transfer window left is a question I had to sleep on. When I woke up, Leeds were signing a midfielder who started thirty games in the Premier League last season, who isn’t costing the earth, who is approaching what ought to be the best years of his career, and who could help solve the continuing problems of O’Kane’s suspension, Kalvin Phillips’ impending suspension, Ronaldo Vieira’s overworked knees and whatever has gone wrong with Mateusz Klich. Jimmy Kebe this is not. True, Adam Forshaw’s not a striker, but maybe all we have to do is dream of one and then open our eyes and see.

There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that Leeds are actively looking for a striker; on Twitter, names are thrown at the Evening Post’s Phil Hay daily, and he’s batting them back with what he knows of the club’s thoughts: they like this one better than that one, they rate one but they don’t rate another. Undermining it all is the club’s resolve not to get ripped off, but surely not getting suckered into overpaying is a good thing, even if it means waiting — as long as summer, potentially — to get a player in.

Waiting is what’s doing the damage. For Leeds fans, waiting is hurting, and we’ve been hurting for a long time. In the summer Andrea Radrizzani was clear that promotion this season isn’t necessary, but nobody listened to him because that wasn’t what anyone wanted to hear. And why would they? We’ve done patience, we’ve completed it, it’s over, worn so thin that Elon Musk thinks he can build a spaceship out of it and fly us all to the moon.

There we would find Massimo Cellino, smoking a beautiful cigarette, whose wisest move as owner of Leeds United was to sell up and get out of the country where the blasts of our impatience can no longer reach him. If Andrea Radrizzani is bemused by the angst overwhelming his Twitter mentions, he ought to remember that it’s not really him that’s the target: it’s every owner of Leeds United that has failed to complete the simple task of getting Leeds promoted for the last thirteen years.

Just as Thomas Christiansen may have underestimated the impact of our memory of the Sutton United game on his approach to playing Newport, Radrizzani may not have realised he would be answering for last winter’s inactive transfer window, or for Edgar Cani and Grandi N’Goye, or the time GFH passed on Ashley Barnes because of his Football Manager stats, or for Ken Bates’ refusal to blink as Simon Grayson turned Elland Road upside down in search of the warchest that would bolster his defence and rescue his promotion attempt.

But he is. And it might not be fair, and not everybody will agree with it, but then, that’s part of what Radrizzani bought when he bought Leeds United. He could probably have added several millions to the purchase price if he’d been buying a happy fanbase too, but our grumpiness — and, until this season, absence from Elland Road — was part of the attraction. When Kenny Dalglish tipped Radrizzani off about the slumbering giant lying dead to the world in the Championship, “It was the first time I was hearing about the history of Leeds and the potential,” says Radrizzani. “I love challenges in my life and I love to turn around organisations.” The supporters are an opportunity for growth, and bringing them back would add value to his investment, and if the cost of that is being yelled at on social media all January, Radrizzani should console himself that he’ll profit in the long run. Or that he’s rich enough to make like Cellino and flee.

It shouldn’t come to that, but there’s no point pretending it’s going to be easy. Where I am sympathetic with Radrizzani is that he’s trapped in a paradox that’s not of his own making. Most fans understand that with every passing season, as more clubs come into the Championship with ever larger Premier League earnings and parachute payments, driving up transfer fees and wages, it gets harder and harder to get promoted. But that increasing difficulty is driving the panic, so that most fans, with every passing season, want promotion to happen faster and faster. It’s Monday. We can’t afford to wait until Thursday to make a signing. We have to do it now because we’ve been in this league so long, every day counts if we’re to compete. Every day? Every hour. Every minute, every second. Refresh Twitter, have we signed a striker? Refresh Twitter, have we signed a striker? Refresh Twitter, have we signed —

But Leeds couldn’t get promoted in eight years under Ken Bates, two years under GFH, three years under Cellino; and that was back when getting promoted was so easy Southampton, Leicester and Bournemouth could do it. It’s much, much harder now, but the anger is upon Radrizzani for not guaranteeing it by his first January. We’re actually pretty much as close right now as we have been at any time since 2007, the years since dominated by League One, Grayson’s 7th place in the Championship, then 15th place finishes forever, but this is being taken as failure already, as if we should just hand the rest of the season’s points over and forget the whole thing if we don’t sign a striker immediately.

I don’t see it that way. A new striker would be good, but the strikers we’ve got have somehow helped the team to 7th. Winter ought not to stop them scoring at the same, admittedly lower than desirable, rate as before. They’re a peculiar and frustrating group of players, but god, imagine if one of them just started scoring goals. It could happen. It’s not like they don’t have room for improvement.

Elsewhere, the left-back problem has been addressed by the signing of an experienced left-footed left-back. Midfield, an area where opposing teams have been enjoying too much ease of late, is getting a well regarded new presence who ought, on paper, to improve the team. That’s all you can ask of a new signing before they’ve played, and both Forshaw and Laurens De Bock fit the requirement of sounding like they’re exactly what we need. Now we have to hope they can prove that on the pitch.

With two key weaknesses addressed, it’s difficult to argue on Thursday, as many did on Monday, that this transfer window’s opportunities to improve the team are being wilfully and flagrantly ignored. Admittedly, if the two new players don’t immediately play well, then angry impatience will rear its head and roar that they’re not good enough and a waste of money, but that’s the savanna over which Radrizzani has chosen to roam. But it’s worth waking up to what’s actually happening at Leeds in this window, more than £4.5m spent dealing with two problem positions so far, rather than trapping ourselves in recursive nightmares about things that are not. ◉

(feature image by Jim Ogden)

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