If Leeds United is a play, then the pitch at Elland Road is the stage, the scene for ninety minute bursts of drama in a series of two-act performances from August to May. All that matters, in the end, happens within the confines of that 100 square yards of trodden green boards.
That’s the theory, anyway; a theory favoured by fans who like to think of themselves as purists. The off-pitch politics and personality clashes don’t matter; all that counts is what our best eleven does against their best eleven; or twelve, if the referee behaves as per.
It’s an alluring way to be. I’ve tried it myself. With Ken Bates heading out of the door, I took a conscious decision last season to change my focus, particularly when writing for The Square Ball and The City Talking. It would all be about the football, and with the brilliant form of Luciano Becchio, I had my subject. He was irresistible at the start of last season, and fascinating to watch; when he bounced the ball off the Barnsley keeper’s head before scoring a Panenka penalty at Elland Road, it was a joy to behold and to write about. He may not have been to everyone’s taste, but Luciano’s play was cleansing my palate, brushing out the remnants of white-beard that had stuck between my teeth after years of writing about Ken.
And then, because of off-field politics and personality clashes, we sold him.
The lesson is that no matter how pure you may want your football to be, those ninety minute dramas every week are always vulnerable to influences we can not see. If you had been concentrated on the Iggy Pop look-a-like in the no. 10 shirt, and had ignored every whisper coming from elsewhere, his sale would have come as a shock; even if you had paid attention to the little that is revealed to us of the world behind the scenes, you would still have found it hard to understand what was going on. A whole other drama took place that was performed away from the football field and away from the audience, a drama that we will probably never know the true beginning, middle and end of. And yet, while we tried to enjoy the football, those unseen forces took our best striker away from our football team.
Some of the off stage action that has affected our club in recent years was revealed at the start of the month, when Simon Grayson and Glynn Snodin, their tongues loosened by ale, the end of their nondisclosure agreements and a friendly audience of Leeds fans keen to hear from them and Ian Baird, let us in on some of what they had experienced on the days betweens the games when they managed the club. It left us with the mental image of Gwyn Williams, “a snake in the grass” according to Grayson, crouched in the toilets next to the first team dressing room, listening for complaints he could use against the manager. And it gave us a few answers about why things were the way they were at Leeds.
“I wasn’t stupid,” said Grayson at one point. “I knew the defence needed sorting. Going forward was alright, but a clean sheet would have been nice now and then.” It was strange to hear this in Grayson’s voice, because I heard the same words from fans moaning about Grayson at the time. It was all very well having Gradel, Snodgrass, Becchio, Howson, McCormack, Somma and Payn – okay, maybe not Paynter. But why didn’t Grayson do something about the defence?
Week after week the weakness at the heart of our team was obvious. And yet transfer windows came, good attacking players went, and good defenders never arrived. From ninety minutes to ninety minutes, from performance to performance, the cast remained the same. Concentrate only on the football, and you’d conclude that Simon Grayson was an idiot.
There was more in play than football, though. On the stage, after a moment’s thought about whether to answer a question and list them or not, Grayson rattled off the names of the players he tried to sign to solve the problem – Kaspars Gorkss, Gareth McAuley and Keith Andrews. There were audible groans in the room. Those players would have done it. Even one of those players would have done it. They were the right players to solve the problem Grayson had seemed to be ignoring. Keith Andrews was willing to agree a deal, but Gwyn Williams said he’d discuss it after the weekend, by which time Andrews had been offered a three year contract and the captaincy at Ipswich. Gareth McAuley, with six months left on his contract, was available for a £100k fee and £7k per week and was interesting in coming; Leeds United would only offer £50k to the club and £4k per week. “Why would he come for that?” said Grayson.
Leeds United missed out on the play-offs that season because the team wasn’t good enough on the pitch; ultimately, football always comes down to being good enough on the pitch. But they weren’t good enough on the pitch because of what went on off the pitch. As fans we all felt the sting when Leeds United lost and threw our complaints at Simon Grayson; we didn’t know that Grayson, as manager, also had to deal with the “gloating” of his technical director after every defeat. From blocked signings, to spying, finally to the sale of Howson – when Grayson was told he’d be given the money to spend on transfers, only for Shaun Harvey to tell him two days later that he wouldn’t be seeing a penny – what went on behind the scenes between Bates, Harvey and Williams on one side, and Grayson, Snodin and Miller on the other, wasn’t just personal politics that could be left in the board room or the dressing room. It was the game behind the game, the invisible that guided the visible action, the determining force behind what did or didn’t happen on the pitch. Leeds missed out on the play-offs because the defence couldn’t keep the ball out of our net. And we had that defence because of an ongoing drama that went on away from our view.
“I don’t think Ken was here for footballing reasons,” said Grayson, and that is the key to Leeds United in the Bates era. We were all here for the football; all any of us have ever been here for is the football. Kids are seduced by the game because of the sound of the ball hitting the net, not the sound of accounts hitting a desk. But the top of the club was not, despite their claims, here for the football. Into that chasm between them and us our dreams of promotion fell.
We should have this, in retrospect; or we could have done that. In fact, we couldn’t have done any more than we did, because while some had suspicions about what was really going on at Leeds United, the structure of football means that unless it happens on a green field in Beeston between whatever hours Sky have allotted, we can’t confirm its existence. How can you be victorious, when you don’t know what you’re truly up against? We may like our football pure, but there’s no purity in football, and there never has been. The play is only as good as the rehearsals, and don’t invite the public to those.
From The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 05