Player (and more) reviews for the last TSB of 2013/14.
I’ve never gone to the end of season awards so I don’t really know how they work; and with Cellino in charge and in attendance this year, the template might be torn up anyway. Will there be a manager of the season award, in preparation for the years ahead when we might have three or four to choose from? Will there be a massive game of Guitar Hero, so the president can win an award for himself? Will they just give everything from player of the year downwards to Ross McCormack and knock it on the head early?
If they did that, it would be harsh on Jason Pearce. The way Leeds’ season has gone, and the way McCormack’s season has gone, there should be a Player of the Season Not Named Ross award, because nobody could really look past McCormack for the biggest contribution this year. If you did, though, you’d see Jason Pearce, P-Dogg himself, staring back at you from the face of an old English bull terrier, the only real competition Ross has for player of the year.
Pearce won that and more at Portsmouth, where in his final season he seemed by all accounts to have performed like their McCormack, single-handedly running the team from centre half. He didn’t immediately translate that form to Leeds, and perhaps wasn’t helped by a manager who probably only broke off from telling him what Clint Hill would do if he was here when he was tired of bollocking Tom Lees.
This season has been a different story, and if they’re handing out a ‘most improved’ gong this year, Pearce should have it. Back in August, Pearce and Lees were effectively the only two defenders at the club, and while Lees has struggled, Pearce has seized the responsibility and revelled in it. Given all the experimentation in the side this season, especially with formations that have affect the defence it’s remarkable that Pearce only missed a game because his wife gave birth. In every other game P-Dogg has been there, keeping mistakes to a minimum, keeping his team mates’ minds on their jobs, and keeping himself in the firing line when others around him have hid.
Playing down the left side has been particularly tough for Pearce because it has meant he has had to deal with Warnock and Pugh, but their failings have helped to highlight his strengths. One of Jason’s main jobs with Warnock in the team is to yell instructions at the supposedly more experienced player and tell him how to handle the opposing winger; one of his main jobs with Pugh is to accept that Pugh just generally isn’t going to be there and to play left back as well as left central defence. He’s no Tony Dorigo, but when Pearce did briefly play at left wing back himself, he put in a performance that ought to have shamed the two regulars, if they were capable of shame.
At 26 years old, Jason Pearce should just be coming into his prime, and if he’s got another level of improvement in him, then the chances are he could become a very good player for Leeds as we try to get out of the Championship in the next two seasons. If nothing else, in a season when players have passed responsibility more often than they’ve passed the ball, Pearce stands out with McCormack as a player who has taken on more than his fair share of the workload and kept on with the job. He might not get the glamour, attention and plaudits Ross will get at the awards dinner, but Pearce should enjoy the night, satisfied that he did a bloody good job this season.
If Leeds needed anything this season, it was for players like Stephen Warnock, who have seen it all and done it all in the top flight, to show themselves as a leaders, to take responsibility for what was going wrong on the pitch and use their experience and knowledge to put it right. Well into the nineties and his thirties, Gordon Strachan showed that even if the legs weren’t quite up to it, you could lead by example and be a positive influence on those around you. Warnock, well paid by Leeds standards and an old head in a young team, offered none of that. Three or four average games at left back and then out he’d go, replaced by Pugh, who would have three of four average games at left back and then out he’d go, replaced by Warnock, and as the pattern repeated throughout the season one of the most angering aspects of the team’s decline was that players like Warnock, who could have stepped up and done something about it, didn’t appear to give one single fuck about it. Fuck off.
If Leeds needed anything this season, it was for players like Danny Pugh, who have seen it all and done it all in the top flight, to show themselves as a leaders, to take responsibility for what was going wrong on the pitch and use their experience and knowledge to put it right. Well into the nineties and his thirties, Gordon Strachan showed that even if the legs weren’t quite up to it, you could lead by example and be a positive influence on those around you. Pugh, well paid by Leeds standards and an old head in a young team, offered none of that. Three or four average games at left back and then out he’d go, replaced by Warnock, who would have three of four average games at left back and then out he’d go, replaced by Pugh, and as the pattern repeated throughout the season one of the most angering aspects of the team’s decline was that players like Pugh, who could have stepped up and done something about it, didn’t appear to give one single fuck about it. Fuck off.
If there was anyone more relieved than Luke Varney when he moved on loan to Blackburn, then it was me. He seemed delighted to get away, and I was delighted that he’d gone away, to stop tempting people into including him in fantasy formation just because he was here and was alleged useful for something. One good performance against Leicester apart, all Varney was useful for in the first half of the season was staying out of Ross McCormack’s way. Against a Slovenia XI in pre-season, Varney stopped a long ball into the penalty dead with a deft first touch that left him one-on-one with the goalkeeper, then promptly fell to the ground as if he’d been shot and rolled away towards the Hungarian border, punching the grass as he did so. He’s a fucking buffoon and I’m delighted he’s gone.
We signed Paul Green just after he’d put in one of the all-time worst substitute performances ever seen in international football, ten minutes against Spain in the European Championship. We stuck with him until he attempted a Cruyff turn in his own half at Pride Park, suffered a brain freeze when miraculously it worked, and watched helpless as Derby dashed through to score an easy goal. He’s opening a soccer academy near Pontefract. Don’t all rush at once.
Connor Wickham didn’t score any goals, therefore I feel absolutely confident in declaring that he was, is, and only ever will be any good at taking long throws so Matt Smith can score. Just like Adam Johnson, Jake Livermore, Eric Lichaj, Andros Townsend and the rest, I expect his loan spell at Leeds will be the last the football world will be hearing of this Connor Wickham character.
Probably as clear an example as any of how Brian McDermott couldn’t catch a break this season. Secured by Luke Dowling, the head scout that GFH never quite round to appointing, he was the right player at the right time, especially when he scored with his first touch against Huddersfield. What was going to become a season long loan instead became a season long injury, and as McCormack carried on scoring goal after goal they must have both cursed not having Blackstock to share some of the responsibility and cursed their bastard, bastard, bastard luck.
We gave Norwich Howson, Johnson, Snodgrass and Becchio; they gave us Adam Drury, older than time itself and now following the Gunnar Halle path to Bradford City. He’ll probably get them promoted single-handedly now.
Simon Grayson trusted Alex Cairns more than he trusted Paul Rachubka, and Brian McDermott must trust him more than he trusts Paddy Kenny, but he doesn’t trust him as much as Jack Butland, and so on the bench he must stay. I sometimes wondered whether, should Kenny or Butland be too injured to continue in a game, McDermott would throw the gloves to Matt Smith rather than let Cairns have a go in goal.
Anyone? Anyone seen him? Does anyone remember what he looks like?
One of the great underplayed stories of a season of many tales was that of Andrea Tabanelli. Signed on loan by Cagliari late in January seemingly only so he could be loaned again to Leeds when Cellino had control of the club, he was the one player that Massimo managed to sneak through customs on fiasco Friday. He joined Gianluca Festa in the East Stand to watch his new team mates humble Huddersfield 5-1, and us mere mortals were simply humbled by his presence. Not by his ability or his potential – all he seems to have done in his career so far is score a goal in Serie B that he celebrated by miming a phone call on his shinpad – but by his face, the glory that is his beautiful, brooding, saintly face. Leeds United have not had such a mythic power in their ranks since Gylfi Einarsson angered the gods and was cast out of Valhalla. Sadly, we could not contain it; while McDermott spoke about taking a look at him in training and giving him a shot, and Andrea drew crowds to gaze upon his passion as he trained alone in the gym in The Light, the Football League looked over his paperwork and sent him home. When people talk about the Football League being corrupt, remember that Ian Dowie never had a problem playing or managing whatever club he liked, and that Andrea Tabanelli was sent him. Well, not quite home – judging by his Instagram, he seemed to take a bit of time off to hang out with other unspeakably beautiful people at the beach before finally playing a game for Cagliari in mid-April. Of all the reasons to hope for Cellino’s takeover to go through, the prospect of getting Tabanelli back might be most significant, or certainly the most aesthetic.
There’s a northern soul standard by Al Wilson called The Snake that always used to fill the dance floors in Wigan and Blackpool. It retells the old story of a tender hearted woman who, finding a poor half frozen snake, takes in to her home and her heart and cares for it until it is revived. At which point the snake bites her, and in her shock the woman asks the snake how he could do this to her, when she has taken him in and nursed him back health – “You know your bite is poisonous, and now I’m gonna die!” she says. “Shut up, silly woman,” says the reptile with a grin. “You knew damn well I was a snake before you brought me in.”
So who is the snake? If you listen to Massimo, it’s GFH; “There’s a bunch of evil snakes there,” he said of the board he was trying to buy Leeds United from. But GFH might equally say the snake is Cellino; Haigh and Patel swooped in on Sober Saturday, trying to clear up the havoc Massimo had wrought within hours of being told he owned the club, and at some point one of them must have asked the other, “Were there any signs that he would do something like this?” Actually there were plenty of signs, and GFH had their Project Athena research that showed exactly how Cellino would behave in most situations, but GFH being GFH they’d ignored it all and been bitten anyway.
Since that day, and without really meaning to, Massimo has played a blinder to win the fans back over. A private phone call while he was a little tired and tipsy was broadcast to the world, and far from backfire, it improved his standing and reputation no end. All through that conversation he sounded like a beaten man, certain that the Football League would block his takeover once and for all and sounding almost relieved that Leeds United wouldn’t be his expensive problem; next thing you know he’s won his appeal and there he is in the dugout with Brian, presumably telling him about all the things Massimo is going to do for Leeds United but casually glossing over the question of who will manage the team.
If this were Al Wilson’s song, we’d have just got to the bit where the snake is in the house and it’s starting to feel better. Massimo at the moment seems like the nicest guy in Italy, paying the wages and the tax and hanging out in The Peacock and doing Leeds salutes in City Square. His name is being sung at games, and even though he won’t say what Benito Carbone is doing attending matches with an iPad the general assumption is that it can only be a good thing.
The feeling is that Leeds United will get the best out of Cellino, that with a Ferrari rather than a Fiat he’ll be able to do so much more than he ever did at Cagliari, that the recklessness suggested by his record there – his nickname is ‘Manager Eater’ – will be calmed by the more sedate atmosphere of the Championship. He’s also perceived to have learned from Fiasco Friday, and to have modified his plans for an Italian revolution in the dressing room and anywhere else; the suspicion lingers, though, that what Cellino has learned is not to go so obviously against public opinion.
As for the future, well, we know damn well who Massimo Cellino is and we’ve let him in anyway – taken him to our bosom and giving him some honey and some milk. What will be will be, but there’s no doubt that all the good will is behind Massimo; perhaps there wasn’t enough ill will left after Bates and GFH. It doesn’t feel like a question of if this snake will bite us, but when, and how hard; perhaps a nip now and then won’t do us any harm, but if he sinks his venomous fangs into us, that might be a different matter.
Just when you thought David’s Story couldn’t get any weirder, along came Massimo to call him “a witch” and “fucking dangerous”, two phrases I’d never have associated with the genial and ever-smiling Dave. But while Haigh tried to give the impression he was an open book all the time he was at Leeds, we obviously never really got to know the real Dave. Now it’s over – with a surprise resignation, on the same day that it was revealed that police were investigating some surprisingly candid cameras around Elland Road – I don’t think we ever will know the truth about David Lawrence Haigh.
We can guess, though. My gut feeling is that David Haigh has been absolutely done. There was a plan behind his involvement with United, and it was a plan about Dave; that’s why he came with a personal website, and was front and centre of all the photos even though he seemed to be the junior of GFH’s representatives. Several of his initiatives to ‘reengage’ the club with the community, like the Stonewall scheme, working with St George’s Crypt and the food bank at Elland Road, while all laudable and, particularly where Stonewall was concerned, genuinely groundbreaking, in retrospect look less like good works for Leeds United than good PR for the managing director and his future political career.
What David and his advisers – he had plenty of advisers – didn’t take into account was that along with profile, involvement with Leeds United brings scrutiny – lots of scrutiny. Within about half an hour of his initial claim to be born in Beeston being published online, the record of his birth in a Salford hospital had been found, and his family history traced. If you’re going to stretch the truth, it’s best not to stretch it in full view of a bunch of people who honed their analytical skills over years of fact-checking Ken Bates, who are all waiting to catch you out.
Where it all turned from benign good fun to something more troublesome, though, was when David seemed to get carried away with the Leeds United project to the detriment of the David Haigh one. Or maybe the plan to buy the club outright from GFH was just another part of Project Dave – who can tell. But the season’s decline can be dated almost exactly to the point in late November when, in response to interest from Mike Farnan and the rest, Haigh announced he had signed a deal for exclusivity. That deal could prove to be Haigh’s Icarus moment, when he flew just too close to the sun; or other forces might have been at work. The depth of self-justification in his resignation letter – the rush to wire funds to HMRC, the bills paid on personal credit cards, the lack of support as he simply tried to do his best – were a new note from David, who had never tried to hard to seem so fragile before. Coming just a couple of weeks after Cellino called Haigh “Sick in his head” and accused him of blackmail, you wonder if this last minute attempt at outright cuteness was inspired by a need to cover up some final last minute errors.
He’s a shot bolt now, though, and it’s hard to see what kind of public life David Haigh can have after this. After our win at Old Trafford in 2010, one inspired Leeds fan changed his name to We Beat The Scum 1-0 and stood for Parliament. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that, should the lure of a political career prove more than Haigh can resist, wherever he stands for election he’ll find Leeds fans there to make his life difficult, just because. We’re the best fans in the world, as David never tired of reminding us, but I don’t think he ever realised just how much we can fuck you up if we want to.
Nobody even knows why she’s included in any of this, but here she is anyway. YOU MAKE PUKE.
Nobody ever has a bad word to say about Hisham Alrayes, but then Hisham has kept a decidedly low profile since GFH took over at Leeds. Every now and then, though, you hear is name mentioned. ‘Hisham Alrayes phoned up from Bahrain at half-time in the Sheffield Wednesday match, to say McDermott should be sacked.’ ‘McDermott had to send his teamsheets to Hisham Alrayes for approval before games.’ ‘Hisham Alrayes is said to be in Leeds on business, but didn’t attend today’s match.’
While David and Salem did their Laurel and Hardy routine on Twitter, Hisham maintained what you could call a dignified silence. Was it really dignified? Or was it that, as CEO of the whole damn shebang up at GFH HQ, he was content to let those two fools take the front line flak while he ran things behind the scenes?
David Haigh is often credited as the driving force behind the deal that brought GFH to Leeds, but it was Hisham who, in December 2013, got the promotion to CEO; he’s still in post, while Haigh seems to be effectively jobless now. What Alrayes has done with regard to Leeds United in 2013/14 isn’t clear, beyond those few interfering hints above, but what should be made clear is that he wasn’t only interfering there – Hisham Alrayes was in charge of the whole damn thing, he just had the sense not to let on about it. As such, the right place to record GFH’s performance as a whole is here, although we only have pounds and pence amounts up to June last year; during the first part of their spell as owners, Leeds United lost £9.5m, and ran up debts of £15m – all owed, with interest, to Alrayes’ bank, Gulf Finance House. They’ve retained a small stake, too, just in case Cellino can run the club successfully and make them an even tidier profit.
I don’t know what Hisham Alrayes earns, or what sort of bonus scheme he might benefit from, but of all the people who have made money from owning Leeds United in recent years, I suspect Hisham might have been the most handsomely rewarded – with the least spotlight.
Part of the joy of that opening day win over Brighton was that the game was played with the knowledge that self-appointed president Bates was well and truly out of our club. When Cellino talks about a bloodbath this summer, he’ll have to go some to improve on the week when Ken Bates was fired, Gwyn Williams put on leave, and Shaun Harvey edged closer to the door. Of all the things Ken should have lost his ‘legacy’ over, an argument about who paid for a private jet was incredibly appropriate – he could pay for his own flights if he wanted, but he’s such a petty old so-and-so, he’d rather screw up three years of glorious semi-relevance than pay the bill himself.
And part of the depression of the winter’s takeover was that it freed Ken from his tomb to haunt Elland Road again. Striding into Billy’s Bar as if he owned the place – there wasn’t enough holy water in the fridge to keep him out – was classic Bates; setting up a radio station in a former tanning salon above the Subway over the road was a new kind of bizarre, even for him. It didn’t seem real, but it is; you can actually turn on a radio and hear Johnny Buchan talking to Andy Couzens about Leeds United – you can even tune in to what looks like CCTV footage of the studio while he does it. We don’t have listening figures, but we do have viewing numbers for their videos on YouTube: the seven minute ‘Yorkshire Today’ news round up for April 22nd has reached a mighty ten people; a Tuesday football preview from a couple of weeks ago has nudged up to seventy.
The biggest figures, of course, are for the return of Ken Bates’ address to the Leeds United nation, that sent most of us screaming through the streets before we returned to our computers to watch and try to work out if it was a hologram. “Okay, so, Leeds United,” began bewildered looking presenter Anna Hodges, sitting in a room that was like a Microsoft Paint image made real. “In a bit of a turmoil, at the moment. What are your thoughts, generally, on this?” And with that Ken was off, for eight minutes, demanding to know what happened to GFH’s money (that Ken assured us they had plenty of when he sold the club to them) and presenting himself as some kind of benevolent uncle, constantly being pestered by the family for loans.
Bates’ continued involvement with Haigh in particular has become a cause of concern, even after Bates said in his own secretly taped phone call that Haigh was “fucking ignorant” to cancelling a supper at the last moment; that Cellino’s purchase agreement includes clauses making Massimo liable for any future payments to Bates is also a worry. But Ken has been noticeably quiet since Massimo took over, and I suspect that he might have met his match in Cellino. Ken does crazy things, but his kind of crazy manifests itself as a two-bit radio station above a shop. Cellino’s kind of crazy? I don’t think Ken will want to find that out.
How the hell did he do it? How the hell did he manage to leave a job as Ken Bates’ poodle, and become boss of the whole Football League? Was his time at Leeds all some sort of weird initiation ceremony before he took the top job? I’m not sure who groaned more when Cellino’s forms for the Owners and Directors Test landed on Shaun’s desk, him or us; from Harvey’s point of view, we must be like someone from his past who won’t stop nagging him even though he’s got a whole group of new and more interesting friends. “What next?” he’ll have mutted. “Ken on the telepho- RING RING.” Meanwhile what should have been a fairly standard box-ticking (or not-ticking) exercise became a war of the Leeds fans against the corrupt Football League led by arch-henchman Shaun Harvey, who had to retire and lick his wounds when Tim Kerr said Cellino had to be allowed in after all – or that’s how it felt. Still, the Football League is normally so faceless that it’s been nice to have a target.
Tim Kerr QC
Well played, sir. Kerr actually played a blinder on Cellino’s appeal decision – went against expectations by ruling that Cellino has been convicted, and then bucked the trend again by essentially saying that until the Sardinian court publishes its ruling, he has no idea if Cellino is dishonest or not. In other words, his decision was “Call me in three months – but I’ll be busy.”
Our chairman for the next three years, unless he falls on his sword Dave-style before then; but what influence he actually has isn’t known. What influence he has had isn’t known, either. Salah bought a minority stake in Leeds, became chairman, did a ten minute interview in which he repeated the words ‘sustainable long term future’ over and over, than bought a bunch of shares in GFH and joined the board there too, meaning he had stakes at both the bottom and the top of the ownership ladder. Then he pretty much disappeared, apart from his column in the programme, that didn’t give much away. It’s worth remembering that while the club’s ownership is often seen as Cellino + GFH now, Salah personally owns a bigger stake than GFH – around 15% to their 10%. Whether his links to GFH founder and former chairman Essam Janahi – whose shares in GFH Nooruddin bought – are a clue to his real status isn’t clear, but like Hisham Alrayes, Salah’s done a good job of letting first Salem and Dave and then just Dave take the flack in Yorkshire, despite having by the funniest sounding name of any of them.
It’s only a mild exaggeration to say that Eleonora’s ass was one of the decisive factors in the wave of public opinion turning in the Cellino family’s favour. At first it was just a casual extension of the research – when it was found out that the company buying Leeds United was named Eleonora Sport, after Massimo’s daughter, inquiring minds wished to know more about said daughter. Turned out she was on Instagram and hot damn. To be fair to Ellie the Elland Road Elephant’s replacement, she handled the attention with calm aplomb – hundreds of comments left by Leeds fans exhorting her by turns to “come to Leeds” “wear a Leeds shirt” and “tell your dad that we need a new left back” were replied to with politeness and much emoji. And all that was just based on some old photos of her on holiday in her grundies – she hadn’t even been to Elland Road yet. Still, it’s be nice for the teenage boys of Leeds to have someone else for their bedroom wall instead of Brown and Pugh.
Ercole and Edoardo Cellino
Aka the Italian Jedward, aka our club’s future. Their dad has spoken about buying our club as a way of building a legacy for his sons, which sounds like a roundabout way of saying the idle bastards won’t get jobs so he’s buying them something to do in England to keep them out of his way. It’s not yet totally clear which one is which, but I’m assuming whichever thought it was a good idea to leave comments on Poppy Farnan’s Instagram including “Cringe – ugly – you make puke” while their father was locked in a negotiation battle with her father is going to be in charge of strategy. At the moment their main role seems to be sitting next to their dad and/or Peter Lorimer, and going to the Brit Awards with David Haigh.
Another fine season for Dom, who has remained steadfastedly suited and suitably serious looking even if he has no idea who is sitting next to him in the executive boxes this week. Dom’s time as ‘ambassador’ is turning into the longest running game of Touch The Truck going: “Is, er, Eleonora coming this week? No? Okay, well, should be a good game anyway. Has she been to Milan? I have. I’d like to tell her about it. Alright, well maybe next week.”
There is a strange reflexive gesture among Leeds fans where if somebody tries to buy our club, and doesn’t manage it, they’re scum; whereas if someone does buy it, despite their being every chance that they’re going to run it into the ground, they’re given a hero’s welcome. TogetherLeeds never really stood a chance of buying the club once Cellino became involved, but the main problem was not them, but him – he’s fucking crazy, and has paid a fortune for an absolute lemon. It’s not to TogetherLeeds’ discredit that they tried to keep things fairly sensible. On the surface, a team of Welcome to Yorkshire chairman Gary Verity – who you’ll see plenty of during the Grand Départ this summer – Red Strike Marketing’s Mike Farnan and Frank Devoy, plus Hull FC chairman and ex-Leeds executive Adam Pearson, had the right mix of knowhow and experience to do a good job of running Leeds. Part of the problem, though, was that we only ever saw the surface, and never heard the actual detail of what they were trying to do. There were many questions, but few answers – what was all that with Radebe at the start? How come Adam Pearson never commented? If Verity is the public-relations man all set to be chairman, why is it always Farnan doing the press? Where is the money coming from, and how much? Ultimately money was the deciding factor, and TogetherLeeds lost the PR battle because of the perception that, however much money they had, it wasn’t enough; and they lost the takeover battle because, however much money they were willing to pay for LUFC, Cellino was mad enough to pay more.
Since moving to Norwich, Becchio has played 219 minutes of first team football; that’s less than two and a half games worth. To look at the photos of Luciano celebrating his goal against Chelsea just before he left us, and look at him on the bench at Norwich now – when he makes the bench – is to feel your heart break. Neil Warnock says it was all done because of money, but I’m not prepared to take Warnock’s word on the Becchio situation, or on anything, and all Luciano seems to talk about these days – on Twitter, at least – is how well his team mates and former team mates are doing, and about taking his kids on days out around East Anglia. They say never go back, but as far as I’m concerned Becchio has never left us – what has happened to him over the last season can hardly be called a transfer. We need to bring him home, because if Norwich do get relegated this season and cut their cloth accordingly, we could well find him back in their team, but in our division – and we know how good he can be in this league.
Part of the continuing madness of what we allowed Neil Warnock to do at this club is that we need to find somewhere for Steve Morison to play that isn’t Leeds for two more seasons. He’s scored eight goals for Millwall this season which will probably have helped keep them up; that’s a catch-22 for us, because while it’d be great to see Millwall go down, the only way we can convince them to take Morison again next year is if they stay up. This is what Colin condemned us to – hoping Millwall do just well enough that we can keep paying for the striker that keeps them in the league to play for them until his contract runs out. And then they can all go to hell.
From The Square Ball Magazine, 2013/14 issue 10