The football part of the Leeds United year – that bit where we actually put a team out onto a grassy field to take on and hopefully defeat another team – is over. In truth, there wasn’t that much football to talk about even while the season was going on. And yet football remains what it is all about for Leeds United – or, at least, what it should be all about. Hence the title of this article. I’ve even helpfully put the word “FOOTBALL” in upper case, to emphasise its theoretical importance.
Because, over the past few years, the actual footballing aspect of Leeds United’s activities seems to have dwindled away somewhat – it has faded into the background as other issues have assumed an unwanted prominence. The very nature of the focus put upon the club by the outside world has changed; there has generally been far more to talk or to write about off the field as opposed to on it. Whatever the rights and wrongs of how this has come about, it is most definitely not A Good Thing.
Lately, those iconic initials LUFC have been a lie – or at least not the whole truth. What we have been following could instead have been described in other terms – Leeds United Soap Opera, for instance. Leeds United Farce. Leeds United Three Ring Circus, or even Leeds United Police Five. The club has been in an almost perpetual state of flux over the past three years – and before that, what might have been described as a period of stability was actually anything but; the nature of the despot at the top of the pile saw to that.
At the risk of seeming glib and facile, what is urgently needed now is to get back to being about football. That’s how it used to be, for most of the first thirty years of my support. In that time, we were subjected to a varying degree of competence or incompetence as our beloved Whites set about their business in the sphere of professional sport, with varying degrees of success. But that was where the focus was; the enemy was without and not within. We were all about trying to defeat our competitors and get Leeds United as near as possible to the very top.
The club we have now, though, is not only under attack from the outside; it is beset by problems of an internal nature, to a far greater degree than at any other time I can remember. We always had our problems at Leeds, but they were football problems – relegations, semi-final defeats, dodgy refereeing decisions and of course the permanent enmity and malevolence of the Football League. This situation created the Leeds United that I love; the Damned United, the United with a siege complex where the feeling was one of “you might hate us, all of you out there – but that hate makes us stronger”.
Now, the siege complex is still there, but we’re having to look to the situation behind our own ramparts for the greatest danger to our prospects of becoming once more a great and successful football club. The continual back-biting and internecine squabbling in the boardroom; cameras in that boardroom and bizarrely also in the toilets; stories of Class A drug use making the location of those cameras in the conveniences that bit less strange; a state-of-the-art surveillance suite located above Subway just across the road, that our former dictator might still be privy to everything that’s said or done. It’s not even the stuff of a James Bond movie – more like some tacky and down-market 007 imitation, like the dreadful American “Our Man Flint“. It’s embarrassing and harmful; it’s a million miles away from where we want and need to be.
Last season, things on the field were so bad from Christmas onwards, that we’ve ended up trying to take some comfort in the fact that we’ve finished once more as the top Yorkshire club. I hate to say it, but being top club in Yorkshire these days is a bit like being the tallest mountain in Holland – not much to write home about. In the light of what we now understand has been going on behind the scenes, though, the waning of the team’s performance in the second half of the season is, perhaps, a little more understandable.
After all, any top club needs to run like a well-oiled machine; there needs to be a feeling of smoothness and harmony to inculcate that sense of professional excellence. It’s a game of fine margins – each and every club needs all the edge it can get, and the feel of the place is an important part of that. The players at Leeds United must have felt, lately, that they were playing for Fred Karno’s Army – and performances dipped accordingly. With those fine margins, it doesn’t take much to derail a club’s season entirely – and this is precisely what has happened. It’s simply elementary sports psychology – the collapse of Leeds’ season is amply demystified by those revelations of chaos and strife behind the scenes. Clear-sighted fans who have said that – without McCormack’s goals – we might well have gone down are extremely close to the bulls-eye.
Now we have the new broom in Cellino, which appears resolved to sweep clean. Already, one of those enemies without – the trashy and ridiculous Daily Star – is trying to foment rebellion, stating that Leeds fans are furious at the possible dismissal, along with other staff, of legends Eddie Gray and Peter Lorimer. But that’s OK; hostility from the gutter press has always been part of the Leeds United experience – long may it remain so. The real question is of whether Cellino, by his actions over the summer, can bring about a healthier internal state of affairs whilst keeping the fans onside.
There are rumblings of discontent, certainly. The proposed closure of Thorp Arch over summer smacks of penny-pinching parsimony, just at the time when those dare-to-dreamers had started singing “Dirty Leeds, Filthy Rich”. The financial landscape should become clearer over the summer; meanwhile the closure of Thorp Arch still lacks the poverty-stricken overtones of the culling of Publicity Pete’s rented tropical fish.
If Cellino can clear out the nasties from inside the club – and indeed from over the road above Subway – then he will have taken important strides towards providing a newly-professional atmosphere within Leeds United for the re-opening of business in July. That, for now, is his main priority in the view of this blog. If that involves the loss of the likes of Lorimer – reviled not long back as Bates’ yes-man – and even Eddie Gray – who must now view being sacked by Leeds as one of things that just happens to him now and then – well, so be it. Cellino has got to be allowed to go forward in his own manner, and – as long as that direction really is forward – we simply have to let him get on with it.
All we should really be asking of next season is the re-emergence of Leeds United as a football club, first, last and foremost. Enough of the embarrassing sideshows. Enough of conflicting egos, spinning us lines and eyeing up a swift and risk-free profit. The objective has to be the placing of our best foot forward onto the first rung of that ladder back to the top. All else is so much hogwash and hot air.
Let’s just remember that the “F” in “LUFC” stands for Football and not Farce. Because it’s been the other way around for much too long already.