It’s not so much a sport these days as a science; a game where simply picking eleven players based on ability, form and natural position is an outmoded practice, superseded by systems, rotation and tactical nous that sits several light years beyond the boundaries of the obsessive, in a world where the enlightened thrive and the traditionalists perish.
“Let the opposition worry about us” sits as an outdated mantra for the foolhardy, beating a team draws only muted admiration if the loftier ideal of countering them isn’t the foundation upon which victory was achieved. Passion, belief, experience and the ability to inspire players count for little – any coach offering such coveted traits, but in absentia of the kind of thought processes that get Gary Neville ‘hard’ around the tactics board on a Monday evening, may as well forget it.
What an utter bag of boll**ks.
Dismissing the evolutionary processes in coaching might seem a counterintuitive move, but I’m a Leeds fan and exclusively so; other clubs count for virtually nothing, certain results away from Elland Road retain the power to irritate and amuse, but comparative to the rage that engulfs as Silvestri or Bellusci conspire to p**s away another point or two (depending on who’s down on the rota at any given time) or the unconstrained joy inspired by an unconvincing home win against an inept, lower mid-table Championship side (it will happen again, I’m fairly sure of it), goings on elsewhere barely register. Football to me is Leeds United, so that is the only source of my conclusions, and those conclusions are damning.
We’ll stick to the 21st century, as this is the era in which the pretentious have truly become more aspirational than the performers; a period in football history where a collection ex-pros and managers who clubs wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, have made a living from moving coloured discs about on perspex pitches and drawing lines on touch screens for the purposes of educating us as to what those better qualified should be doing; at time where Sam f**king Allardyce, a man built like an industrial waster compactor, is held up as an authority on diet and nutrition, and where Darren Gough is allowed to spout sanctimonious primetime sh**e about a sport he’s never had any professional involvement in. An era where you can’t focus on the woods for the overwhelming stench of bulls**t…
…and who says Leeds are in danger of losing touch with life at the top, eh?
My hypothesis is formed on a simple premise, an analysis of how our three most famously ‘educated’, ‘illuminated’ and ‘sophisticated’ managers/coaches of the period fared at the club. Fittingly, while the profile of all the candidates have slipped over the years, the levels of abjection have remained consistent.
Terry Venables started the trend. A man in love with his own profile, his appeal to Peter Ridsdale was obvious. He rolled into Elland Road sporting his s**t eating grin, while his adoring press longingly digested his every word, his recent dalliances with Portsmouth and Crystal Palace, where he’d joined struggling clubs and subsequently transformed them crisis clubs, dismissed as trivialities. Instead, living off his two victories in five games at Euro ’96 and his status as the Commission For Racial Equality’s preferred teak skinned, open necked, karaoke singing football pundit, Venables’ venerated position in the game remained unchallenged. That didn’t last in Yorkshire.
“This is a team destined for greatness and maybe this season we will witness the O’Leary Babes coming of age.”
Those were El Tel’s words as he surveyed the squad at Elland Road…and probably the only decent call he ever made at the club. Yes, a fresh age austerity had dawned and with it the necessary departure of Ferdinand, but vying to fill the void were Woodgate, Radebe, Matteo and Mills, while the other headline departee, Robbie Keane was just one amongst a number of excessive striking options. The basis remained for a Leeds United side that could thrive, at least until the financial shadows grew longer.
Rather than chase destiny, Venables chased Paul Okon, sidelined Nigel Martyn, hounded out Olivier Dacourt and window dressed the whole sorry charade with crushingly inevitable signing of Nick Barmby. A side we fell in love with for its exuberance, tempo, competitiveness and attacking verve was rendered impotent and insipid, an all singing, all dancing 4-4-2, transformed into a threadbare Christmas tree, shorn of its most glittering baubles.
Fans no longer looked up in the table, only nervously over their shoulders; the Messiah was unmasked as nothing but a very naughty boy; a visionary outmanoeuvred by his inferiors. It was perhaps appropriate that his Waterloo should come at the hands of Neil Warnock, a pathetic FA Cup quarter-final surrender where Michaels Brown and Tonge combined to set up the winner.
As Leeds embarked upon their steady descent down the leagues so the profile of false prophets diminished: enter Kevin Blackwell.
Pro-licence poster boy, Kev never tired of letting the world know he was amongst the most qualified coaches in the continent. A tireless student of the game, he pestered clubs the length and breadth of Europe and beyond to broaden his horizons, building up a network of contacts that spanned duty free shops and Easy Jet cabin crews from Luton to Ljubljana.
Indeed, our Kev was such a beguiling exponent of self-promotion that he became the only manager to ever loosen Ken Bates’ (parachute payment laden) purse strings. Starting life at The Fortress with only Gary Kelly for company, he inherited the sort of blank canvas any creative genius would covet…and subsequently splashed Paul Butler, Jermaine Wright, Geoff Horsfield and Danny Cadamateri (beating off competition from Chester City) all over it.
We stank. Even in the second season when we pushed for the play-offs, we stank. Even with David Healy, we stank. Games became most notable for when the ironic cheers for the first goal attempt would arrive – anything before the hour mark denoted a blistering start – and yet, despite what felt like the most soul destroying season in my 30 years at Elland Road, we somehow got to the Play-Off final. Needless to say that on the day, we stank.
Tellingly, as with Venables, the death knell for Blackwell was effectively sounded by another relative ‘tactical dinosaur’, his former apprentice Aidy Boothroyd, laughing in the face of Kevin’s wall of framed certificates as Watford somehow countered Blackwell’s decision to move Matthew Kilgallon to wing back at the Millennium Stadium. He limped on into the new season, like a lame dog begging to be euthanised, until Luton opted to do the humane thing and obliged with a 5-1 humiliation in mid-September.
Once bitten, twice shy, only a madman would’ve taken Leeds back down such an unproductive route. Naturally, under Cellino, Dave Hockaday was the club’s first significant appointment. If Blackwell was a ‘B’ list appointment, than the English alphabet is probably too modest in scope to categorise The Hock.
Still, you had to had admire The Hock’s chutzpah when it came to self-promotion. He confidently strode into his press conference having created the blueprint for English football academies, invented the telephone, discovered Malta and advised Trebor that putting holes in their mints would be a marketing masterstroke. With a resume longer than one of Junior Lewis’ pauses and a history of treading water with a non-league football club that was geared up for promotion, it was little wonder that he was able to greet each doubter with a firm handshake and prolonged eye contact.
What followed was probably only a surprise to the man himself and the one who appointed him. For the benefit of a consistent through line, it would apt to say that Hockaday’s final downfall came at the hands of an opponent perceived to be less of a football sophisticate than himself…though sadly the existence of such being appears inconceivable.
So to the point of this whole ramble. Thinkers, tinkerers, tactics spouting charlatans… recent history illustrates they don’t thrive at Elland Road. Instead, it is those who understand the club, buy into it and utilise those values and that passion that infuses those who follow it that tend to succeed. Compare O’Leary (pre-meltdown) to Venables, Grayson to Blackwell, even Redfearn to Hockaday. O’Leary wholeheartedly bought into the identity and values of Leeds United, rather than tried to change it, for Grayson and Redfearn they were ingrained. All three were preoccupied with the offensive, they picked players and teams to win games, rather than to counter and out-think the opposition. Even Sgt. Wilko himself, while an innovator off the pitch was regarded as a ‘bread and butter’ manager in terms of his playing style, but who doesn’t cherish the rigid, brutalist 4-4-2 magnificence of the ‘Class of 1989/90’?
When Rösler took his place in the dug-out on the opening day of the season, I had high hopes that we had another leader in the mould of those just mentioned; the talk of heavy metal football, of high tempo, pressurising opponents, right down to the animated celebrations as Antenucci rifled us ahead. Passionate on the touchline, measured in his words off it – all good signs.
Recent weeks have been rather less encouraging. Teams set out as if they’re defending a lead, rather than trying to take one; three coveted wingers, neither playing wide enough to supply a lone striker, nor advanced enough to support him; tactical switches that, when they arrive, are reactive rather than proactive. Rösler is persisting with a system that while effective on the road is totally at odds with what is needed, or indeed expected at home. There is a preoccupation with what could happen, rather than dictate what should.
The size and fanaticism of the support at Elland Road has never been, nor will ever be a disadvantage to any coach with the nous and bravery to utilise it. There is and always will be expectation in our own back yard, but there will always be an acceptance of those who play with the right intentions. Win or lose, Leeds fans will always back those who play with tempo, hunger, guts and the mindset to go out to win every game, and the bedrock of the current team have already shown under Redfearn that they possess such qualities, so perhaps the players are not the issue?
Maybe, just maybe the remedy for the perceived ‘homesickness’ lies closer to home for Uwe? The mentality of any given team is surely a reflection of him who leads it? Rösler’s playing spell at Maine Road left little doubt that he’s a man who understands, appreciates and feeds off the passion of supporters. Maybe it’s time embrace positivity, be bold (and perhaps, totally true to himself) with his selections, sideline preoccupations with restrictive, defensive systems and to wake the long apathetic 12th man from its slumber by infusing that same fearlessness from his playing days into his Leeds United team? It might just be the making of him.