The number nine shirt is an iconic one in the game of football – that has remained the case throughout all the changes in fashion, custom and positional theory over the years. As a former centre-forward myself, back in the days when such a term was still current, it’s rankled with me that there has been no Leeds United number nine this season. Not, at least, until today.
The arrival of Connor Wickham, on loan from Sunderland, has at last filled that vacancy. That the lad is enough of a natural centre-forward to demand the number nine shirt was borne out by some of his play on his debut in the 1-1 draw at QPR. Powerful in the air and adept on the ground, Wickham looks to be a formidable, if temporary, addition to United’s striking resources.
It was clear throughout the game that a fresh dimension was present in Leeds’ forward play. Flick-ons were won, accurately finding fellow United players. There was the promise of great things to come in the embryonic partnership with Ross McCormack. The odd give-and-go, the eagerness of each in possession to find the other in space. All of this bodes well for the short-term future.
Of course, Wickham’s signing is only a loan, as with keeper Jack Butland and the earlier acquisitions of Stewart and Kebe. These latter two are yet to live up to their reputations – to the extent that manager McDermott’s almost paternal belief in his former Reading charge Kebe is puzzling to many – but the quality of Wickham and Butland cannot be denied. A further loan addition is expected, and we can but hope that the standard of the last fortnight’s recruitment drive is maintained.
Meanwhile, on today’s evidence, much might be expected of the Wickham and McCormack axis as their partnership develops, with a nice little run of home games in prospect to get things simmering. To say that those winnable Elland Road fixtures will be make or break for United’s play-off prospects is no more or less than the truth.
But the more significant result remains the as yet unknown outcome of the off-field saga, as the Football League continue to scratch around for any reason to deny United their Italian prospective saviour, Massimo Cellino. It’s as if they’re messing with our heads, playing mind games with something that matters deeply to thousands of loyal and fanatical supporters around the globe.
The enhancements to the team under Cellino’s growing influence have necessarily been mere loans – but it’s the pedigree and quality of the last couple of captures which looks so significant. Whether or not either Butland, or Wickham, or both can be retained beyond the end of the season is a moot point. But it’s becoming clear that, as Cellino’s grip on Leeds becomes ever more hands-on, we are now shopping on Quality Street instead of looking to pick up discarded dross on Skid Row. Which makes it all the more bitterly frustrating that this “fit and proper” business drags ominously on. When you see the positive impact of Cellino, it begs the question: who in United’s recent history has shown more support or ambition – backed up by cold, hard cash – than the Italian has, in such a short time, and with such a long shadow over his ownership?
The more that Cellino invests, loans, contributes to the ongoing cost of keeping Leeds United going, the more his ownership begins to look like a fait accompli. If the League were to reject him now, the consequences for the club could be grave. Would that be an appropriate act for “fit and proper” rulers of the game? I beg leave to doubt their motives, and I have fifty years of murky history between Leeds and the League to back up those doubts.
If the Football League are in any real doubt that, for the future of Leeds United, Cellino is the only game in town, then they should look at his positive impact over the past few weeks, at his swift and decisive support of the manager’s desire to make his squad competitive. Look at that number 9 shirt, neglected all season up to this week. Perhaps, instead of bending over backwards to find reasons to dump United neck-deep in the brown stuff, they should simply do their job and apply the rubber stamp. It’s the decent thing to do, and it’s remarkably simple. Up, down, bang. Job done.
Even the suits at the League should be able to manage that.