“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”
So said Rudyard Kipling, a man for whom words, as a writer and poet, were his stock-in-trade.
Words have been a similarly potent tool for Brian McDermott, ever since the day humbly strode through the entrance doors at Elland Road. In his first interview he talked of how honoured he felt to be managing Leeds United, he spoke with great reverence of the encounter he’d just had in the corridors with boyhood idol, Eddie Gray. His words immediately connected with the supporters, we had a man whose values, plans and methods struck a chord, and because of that, there was an instant degree of infatuation.
Since then, Brian has continued to build that bond, the “side before self” mantra of King Billy’s days, so lacking for so long, back and recurrently evident over months of public discourse; it’s why, even on our darkest days, at Spotland, at Hillsborough, that while the players have rightly been on the end of scathing vitriol, McDermott’s treatment has been markedly more sympathetic – he’s on our side, he wants the same things as us, and he’s as devoted to the cause as we are.
But as powerful as words are, football and literature are not one and the same; the beautiful game may inspire more writing and discussion than almost anything else in many lives, but those words concern themselves primarily with what happens on the pitch…or what is happening off the pitch to rectify what isn’t happening on the pitch, or what needs to change, or what shouldn’t have been changed.
Words primarily are the preserve of the fans and the media, because ultimately, opinion is all they are empowered to offer, the actions that provoke and inspire those words, they remain the in the hands of a select few: the players, the management and the boardroom.
Those privileged enough to be able to exert a more ‘hands on’ influence at clubs, do of course also have the powers of words at their disposal as a positive tool for progress, but at Leeds United, it seems now that for too long, they’ve been employed as the most fundamental tool, and often the sole tool.
Ken Bates certainly appreciated the importance of words as propaganda, for years presiding over a desperately under-achieving football club with little or no criticism to deal with – yes there were always murmurings, but in creating Yorkshire Radio, words were his friends, being pre-scripted as they were to always cast him in a good light, accentuating the positives (as laughably insignificant as they often were – another wedding fayre, anyone?) while skipping around the burning issues, whenever he addressed the fans through his own media outlet, on his own terms.
Eventually, the tide did turn on Ken though, even if apathy, manifest in the form of falling attendances and commercial revenue did as much, if not more to oust him, than supporter unrest.
David Haigh and GFH similarly liked to use words, and lots of them. While Bates employed his words as a self-preservation tool, the new incumbents appreciated how using the right words could be a powerful driver for positive change. Talk of fresh starts, engagement, sustainability – it bought the owners favour, faith and time, time to get around to the meaty stuff of taking substantive action to address on the pitch matters.
GFH however have proven failures, catastrophic failures at that, borrowing money hand over fist, just to keep the club afloat. Their words, much like Bates before them have proved hollow and worthless. That just leaves us with Brian to buy into.
Brian’s has always been good with words, but he’s now at a club where words are a rapidly diminishing currency. Leeds fans have been mouth-fed promises and platitudes incessantly for the last 14 months, hungrily devouring them, like verbal placebos, but it feels now as though the time is upon us where prose powered delusions are dissipating, where the boundaries between actions and words are at their most clearly delineated.
“I don’t want just words. If that’s all you have for me, you’d better go” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
McDermott, more than anyone else in Leeds United’s recent history has been a deftly skilled manipulator of words; his words have bought him support, they’ve bought him almost universal goodwill, they’ve bought him understanding, sympathy and patience, but now, if he is to have any chance of thriving and surviving in LS11, our manager must instead allow his actions to define him.
If his history in Italian football and his initial movements at Elland Road are anything to go by, Massimo Cellino is clearly a proactive rather than prose-centric individual, one who rarely considers patience and progress to be complimentary bedfellows. Being that GFH would most likely push Oliver Twist to the floor in the stampede for a Wonga loan, it’s a fair to conclude that the money for the loans of Jack Butland and Connor Wickham has come out of the Italian’s pocket. It’s also follows that if the club ties up loans for such supremely talented players, they are doing so with a view to a push for the play-offs.
As a matter of fact, we know Butland and Wickham have been brought to the club for these ends – we know because Brian told us so. We know because Connor told us that’s why he was here too. So why, when we are being told that Brian still believes, the players still believe…why is so hard to believe this while watching Leeds?
While the debate over the suitability of Cellino as an owner will continue to rage, his willingness to support McDermott in the loan market cannot at least be questioned. Brian wanted four players in January, now he’s got his four. It’s belated and the best part of two months late, but the fact that he’s brought them on board anyway suggests it’s not too late.
But what Leeds need now is wins. We were promised positivity from the start at the Riverside having failed miserably to even test the keeper at the AMEX – it was barely evident. Post-match, Brian mused that a point represented a decent return from a tricky assignment.
Yesterday, Leeds got the positive start and had the opportunities to wrap up a victory before Jermaine Jenas waltzed through the backline to equalise. Come the second half though and that positivity, that urgency, it was nowhere; that’s not to say the players didn’t compete, but the mentality returned to being about solidity over positivity. QPR had taken a solitary point from their previous four games and Leeds controlled much of the first period, the game was there to be won, if only Leeds had the courage in their convictions to do so.
But Brian didn’t grasp the nettle, he didn’t roll the dice and for tactical reasons beyond everyones’ comprehension, persevered with Kebe. Elsewhere, questions persist; Cameron Stewart remains wholly ineffective on the left, but untried on his natural right side. Austin remains the one with the greatest licence to go forward, while Murphy, a prolific scorer at Crewe and a more creative midfielder spends much of his time trying to function as our ball winner, and yesterday, in Byram, the most positive player we possess in wide positions was left to kick his heels for all but 30 seconds of the afternoon.
The lack of forthright ambition transmitted to the School End Upper where the away supporters watched on, uncharacteristically muted; when the 1700 clustered behind goal were as one in thought and deed it was in reference to that latter sin – “Byram for Kebe” rang out, as indifference and frustration became bewilderment. Every individual can be heard from time to time crying out for tactical changes in their desire to see a victory, yesterday though marked the first time the supporters had collectively questioned a specific (in)action on the part of the manager. It can be a slippery slope as Neil Warnock found out this time last year.
I like McDermott and I wholeheartedly agree with his assertion that what Leeds United really needs is stability, but football is a results business, and by continually playing up the team’s chances of making the play-offs, and in doing so, securing further investment in the playing squad to aid that aim, our manager now finds himself with 14 games ahead of him and has a duty to go into every one of them looking for victories – otherwise, what is he here for? By signing Butland and Wickham he’s forsaken the right to simply frame March and April as progressional steps in the rebuilding job. Instead he’s openly accepted Cellino’s invite to audition himself as the man who should be starting next season in the dug out.
If these next two months continue to be peppered merely with post-match soundbites about disciplined, committed performances and “good points”, Brian might just do Cellino’s dirty work for him. As our manager maintains, the offer of the Leeds United job doesn’t come around that often. It’s down to him now to ensure that, come May, he’s not vacating the post, thinking “if only”.
“Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.” (Mark Twain)
Follow Fear and Loathing on twitter.