Ah, Easter. A time of rebirth, of new flowers coming into bud, of little chicks cracking out from eggshells, of uncertain lambs unsteady on their legs; all around us are the blossoming fruits of a cold, harsh winter spent indoors, shagging. It’s an inspiring time to be alive. Oh, but wait, Resurrection is Easter Sunday, isn’t it? And this is Good Friday. A time of sorrow and sin, of pain and suffering; of finding the best, nicest most stand-up chap you can find, and nailing the fucker to a cross. At Elland Road, Simon Grayson gathers his squad together. “Alright, Richard,” he says. “Your time has come. You’re starting tonight. Just make sure you keep Long, McAnuff, Kebe and Hunt quiet, and we’ll get our reward in the Kingdom of Heaven. Or at least the play-offs. No pressure though, eh lad? – oh, and here’s the captain’s armband back.”
I like Richard Naylor. He was kind enough to give an interview to The Square Ball at the start of last season, when the current staff had just taken over and even less of a clue than they do now. And he’s famously a Leeds fan, of course, singing Marching On Together in the showers at Ipswich and whatnot, and we all like to see a Leeds fan on the pitch. We prefer it, though, if they don’t play as badly as Naylor did at the start of this season; if a captain sets the tone for the rest of the team, Richard certainly did that for our defence as he failed to cope with, well, with anything that came near him for the first few weeks. With his age, and his injuries, and his old-womanish flapping about, I think we’d all assumed that was that for Nayls; but no, here he was, back in the side, up against the division’s form side and their frighteningly quick attackers. At least the Reading team sheet had one bit of good news: no Kebe. So that was one less thing to worry about.
They’re this season’s Blackpool are Reading, making the ‘late run at the right time’ that Steve Claridge loves to talk about on the Football League Show, with a likeable manager and an ex-Leeds full back in tow – it was Stephen Crainey last season, this time it’s Ian Harte heading back to the Premier League without us. And by rights they should have battered us tonight, because they’ve been scoring for fun while our defence has shown all the composure of two toddlers with sunstroke trying to play swingball on a beach, and it was hard to see what Naylor would do to stop us getting beaten that Bromby wouldn’t. But as the game progressed, and I watched old ginger-bollocks there in the centre of defence, my mind went back to when he first turned up; when suddenly we had a proper hard bastard out there, yelling and organising, fighting for every ball and making sure the players around him did the same. Reading got maybe two chances in the whole game, and for the first time in weeks I was able to look at our back four without wincing. It was the captain’s performance that you just don’t get from Howson; confident and inspiring and steady; and our first clean sheet in six weeks was the natural result.
But when you’ve gone to all the trouble of getting a cross made and dragging it to the top of the hill, you don’t want it to go to waste, do you? And yea! Judas Iscariot didth betrayeth Billy Paynter witheth a kisseth – rather him than me, as old Billy Barn Door has more the look of Alice The Goon than of Olive Oyl – and lo, Billy did lumbereth without aimeth and spilleth his seed upon the fallow ground, and yea, Billy did appeareth to the Apostles as shit. To be fair to Billy, he wasn’t much worse than Somma was against Watford, and at least Davide had had Gradel to help him; but fuck me, how Paynter got all those goals in League One is a mystery to me. At least he wasn’t as bad as Livermore, who seemed to have been told to toughen up our midfield but had interpreted the instruction as “try to maim somebody.” It was a relief to see Kilkenny after half time; nobody ever got sent off for pointing at things, so at least we were guaranteed to finish with eleven players.
Bradley Johnson went closest, a bizarre and flukey looking run ending with a surprisingly composed attempt to chip the keeper with the outside of his foot; he was unlucky to hit the bar. Apart from that, Snoddy beat Paynter to a header in the first half that was straight at McCarthy in the Reading goal; Max nicked the ball off Khizanishvili and his early shot from twenty yards was just about saved, when he probably could have got in closer; and Max had another go, when he was put through by the lively-but-late subs Watt and Somma, but again got his shot off without much composure. This time it rebounded straight to Gradel again and he showed more smarts with a deft chip to Snoddy at the back post, but his header was well saved. Watt had the last try: chasing a Kilkenny lob, the onrushing McCarthy disorientated him and he pretty much just fell over.
Ah well. Perhaps it was fear of Reading that made a nil-nil draw feel like a good enough result, even if it is pretty much useless for the play-off challenge. Maybe it was just that fresh spring air, and the promise of chocolate eggs and foaming ales over the weekend to come; maybe it’s just that if there’s hope for Richard Naylor, there’s hope for all of us. Easter time optimism, sure, but a repeat of the second half performance – with a little less Livermore and Paynter, and a little more Watt and Somma – ought to get us wins against Crystal Palace and Burnley. Now that spring is here, we surely deserve more for our winter of bump ‘n’ grind than a backyard full of weeds and the same mangy old goat.
From The Square Ball magazine 2010/11 issue ten.