Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Importance of Being Idol

Loyalty is a term that, without grace, has fallen out of the game. Back in the sixties, it was common practice to see the cult-heroes remain as one-team men. These days, you can announce on national television that you'd never move to your arch rivals, only to expect those fans to forgive you two years later for making the move regardless (Nevertheless, I'm sure their careers benefited from it. How are Milton Keynes doing, anyway?). Such a term can be loosely thrown about and quickly replaced with clichés regarding eggs on faces. Only a select few in the modern game deserve to be referred to as loyal. Luciano Becchio fits firmly within those select few.

Seventy one goals and almost a second century of games ago, Luciano Becchio's long term future in English football was in the balance. The Argentine had impressed in United's Irish tour of 2008, though not to an extent which had Gary McAllister begging for his signature. On the last game of the tour, Gary was still debating whether or not to extend Luciano's stint at the club. A routine post-match interview turned into a frenzy; The Scot confirmed that Becchio's fate was to be decided in the following half hour. Of course, an agreement was met to sign Luciano on a full-time basis. And of course, nobody could predict how important the decision in that half-hour period would turn out to be.

Four years on, and Luciano Becchio is recognised as the face of Leeds United. Whilst other firm favourites have gone on to pasture new (singular, they're all at Norwich), the Argentine striker has kept his focus solely on Leeds United and the task at hand. His efforts both on and off the pitch have won the hearts of many in the rafters; Not only has he proven his credentials time and time again on the field, he has never fluttered his eyelashes at another club.
Coveted for his goalscoring ability and willingness to put himself about, Luciano is a traditional secondary striker. Used primarily as a target man, his technique can sometimes be lacking (his first touch often coming into question from his doubters). He hasn't stayed shy from moments of brilliance, though. Anyone doubting whether or not Luciano has the raw talent to score beautiful goals should dig into the archives for his tremendous volley away to Middlesbrough, a sublime finish from a move started and finished by Luciano himself.

Regardless of doubt; His ability to find the net, win an aerial battle or draw a foul from an opposing defender more than makes up for any shortcomings in his game. With seventy one goals so far in Leeds United white, it's perfectly conceivable that Becchio will be the next striker to reach a century of goals at Elland Road. At twenty eight years, his prime is within reach for the next couple of seasons. No more fitting tribute would be on offer than for Becchio to reach the ton after his service and relentless passion for Leeds United.

It is those aspects that caught the eye of Neil Warnock, who back in February pin-pointed Luciano as a pivotal piece in his plan to get Leeds United promoted. The former QPR boss spoke of how he'd previously tried to sign the Argentine on countless occasions. Now that he finally has his man, he has become the forefront of attacking intent in his re-built squad. The admiration and support from a manager with seven promotions to his name should not be noted lightly. Further still, the backing and admiration from the stands for Becchio is there for all to see (if you haven't heard, he cost less than a certain Mr. Berbatov, and scores more frequently, too).

And it's the unanimous backing that makes Luciano such a pivotal figure within the squad. He is a man to look towards for inspiration, for drive and for passion. Even when his doubters piled on the pressure, his focus remained constant. Despite two poor injuries (the first coming in our promotion season; Taking him until late November to break into the side - The latter during last pre-season), Luciano has managed to break double figures in each of his past four seasons. With 149 starts to his name, he is close to one goal for every two starts at Leeds. It's incredible to even consider that he has his doubters.

The likes of Robert Snodgrass, though hard to argue with, created a saga with their futures. In the midst of Leeds' emergence following the depths of League One, only Luciano has remained sure in his desire to play for Leeds and talked the talk by keeping his loyalties at Elland Road. The opportunities for Becchio to join the crowd of exodus were prominent. In January, Hull came in with an offer deemed acceptable by the board and boss Simon Grayson. The decision lie solely at Luci's feet. At the time, rumours were rife regarding a fall out between Becchio and strike-partner Ross McCormack. The proof is in the pudding, though. Both Luciano and Ross remain at the club. Rumours are to be taken with a fistful of salt, nevermind a pinch. 

And that partnership is finally ready to blossom. Nothing but mere glimpses of the pair together were witnessed in Ross' first season at Elland Road. The preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, along with an early season injury to McCormack, dictated the pairs early fate. Impressions of the pair together acted as signs of promise, though nothing more. The following season saw Luciano struck down by injury, leaving the pair little time together to settle and gel. 

Two seasons on, and the pair now lead the line for United and have started clinically. Whilst Luciano has took the headlines with four goals in as many games, McCormack's involvement should not be disregarded. Two assists from the Scot have aided Luciano's impressive start to the season. On their day, it's hard to see another duo as threatening. It's up to them to continue to make it their day.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Pen for Ken

Twitter and Leeds United haven't really had a smooth ride over the past couple of years. Whether it's Davide Somma revealing the news on his long-term injury despite the manager's wishes or just Paddy Kenny putting Queens Park Rangers in their place, there is always a tinge of controversy when Leeds United and it's fans collide with a story on the social networking site. Even if it's not a tale of trouble, it's a case of sheer stupidity. Every fan is entitled to their own opinion, but when they're advocating a bid to re-sign Sanchez Watt on loan, that opinion is wrong.

It was a refreshing touch, then, to see the 'Pen4Ken' campaign start on twitter. The new hashtag craze (#Pen4Ken) amongst the Twitter Whites has a method to its madness. Fans are pledging to send a simple Biro pen addressed to Ken Bates at Elland Road (or, for those who have access to it, his home address in the tax haven of Monaco) along with a personalised letter reminding the Chairman of when such an item could be of valued importance to him in the coming weeks. Along with the following on twitter, a new website for the innovation has started here

Some letters have been quite elegant and profound (Read The Scratching Shed's version here). Others has been a little more brutal and to the point. It only seems fair, though, to send our Biro in a similar vein to which Bates would no doubt choose should he have been in a position to do so;


FAO Kenneth William Bates
Elland Road Stadium,
Leeds, West Yorkshire,
LS11 0ES

Dear Ken,

Please find enclosed a Biro I found in the bookies this afternoon. I am fully aware that fellow fans intend to send you a pen of more quality (perhaps, even, that of the Bic Cristal brand). However, seeing as you have failed to deliver in terms of quality and investment over the past seven years, I decided it would only be fair to respond in kind with my choice of Biro. 

This pen was picked up free of charge at the local William Hill store, had been acquired and discarded by several previous owners and struggles to hold any consistency or reliability. Frankly, this pen is on it's last legs; Any self-respecting businessman would snub such an inferior Biro for one of true quality. Does any of this sound vaguely familiar to you?

Please do not mistake this pen as a gift. It's not. Rather, this is merely a loan (I'd explain the concept to you, although I feel you may have an insight into how a loan works) and should be returned following the signing of the contracts handing over the club to the future owners currently in negotiation.

As with the freebies and loans that you have saddled this great club with over the years, I cannot guarantee you any success with this pen. Not to worry, though. Should this pen fail to deliver, I'm sure you'll have many more sent to you in the foreseeable future to complete the transaction and finally rid us of your shambolic reign at Leeds United.

Yours Sincerely,

Becchio Well Placed.


Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Opening night

Saturday afternoons retain their comfortable, familiar feeling this weekend as Leeds play host to newly-relegated Wolves in the lunch-time kick-off (subject to Sky, Police, Weather and possible Apocalypse). Three and a half months of precise planning and take-over speculation have all past in preparation of the start of the 2012/13 campaign as Neil Warnock looks to take United back to the Premier League. It should act as a welcome start for Neil and his new-look outfit. Warnock's arrival in place of Simon Grayson was met with a large amount of optimism as Leeds sat just three points behind the playoff positions in mid-February. 

That level of optimism, for now, has been left unwarranted; Under Warnock, Leeds have returned less than a point per game. What was labelled 'Grayson's team' seemed unable to adapt to the new tactics and regime put in place, and by mid-March, United's slim play-off chances had burned out at the hands of Nottingham Forest (though that debacle is a whole other can of worms that we can leave unopened). It's fair to say that the clichéd instant impact that comes hand-in-hand with a newly-appointed boss was missing.

Nevertheless, a fourteen week period of 'major surgery' has seen Leeds re-vamped into a unit more typically suited to play under Warnock. A more prominent, hard working ethic has been brought into the side, and whilst a lack of invention remains a burdening issue a brighter season looks possible. All that has gone before should be casted out as nothing more than a footnote - Neil's legacy at Leeds United begins this weekend. Despite a tough start to the new campaign, Warnock and his men should be feeling quietly confident ahead of Saturday - Leeds' record on opening day is generally positive. In the past ten seasons alone, United have won seven (though the only two losses coming from the past two campaigns, at the hands of Derby and Southampton). 

Of course, last season's opener, away at St. Marys, was not short of it's own controversy. A summer of discontent and lack of ambition from the board sparked anger in the fan-base, with protests in the stands aimed at chairman Ken Bates. This was the first time the support had a majority voice on the terrace, together in one calling for Bates' departure. On the field, matters were hardly any more positive. Leeds fell victim to a 3-1 defeat courtesy of goals from Dean Hammond, Adam Lallana and David Connolly. Max Gradel's consolation penalty in the last minute of injury time healed no wounds. The Whites' performance had been epitomised by an almost cliché performance from 'Barndoor' Billy Paynter, summed up quite painfully by Howson is Now.

Prior to that was our return to the second tier where a new-look United, built on the premise of a tougher challenge following promotion from League One, played host to Derby County. Again on television, Leeds fell short of the opposition, as goals from Rob Hulse and  Kris Commons sandwiched Luciano Becchio's finish to confirm a 2-1 defeat. The performance left a lot to be desired; The tempo and creativity of the affair consistently controlled by Derby's midfield with little from United in response. Infact, the only shining light from a Leeds United perspective was the impressive debut performance of Kasper Schmeichel. The young Dane pulled off an outstanding double save to keep Leeds within fighting contention mid-way through the second half.

Perhaps the most iconic season opener was of that in 2007 as Leeds travelled to Merseyside, facing uncharted territory as the Whites faced their first ever third-tier match. A travelling army of 2,000 made the journey to Prenton Park, juggling emotions of excitement, anxiousness and sheer relief at the fact that Leeds were still playing professional competitive football. The summer prior had been a living nightmare for the Elland Road faithful, with the club's future consistently in doubt, only to be settled through Administration, confirmation of Ken Bates' extension at the club and a fifteen point penalty to start of the League One campaign. Nevertheless, football was back and so was the 'us-against-the-world' atmosphere. Despite an early setback, Matt Heath's second half header and a scrappy last minute tap-in from Tresor Kandol secured all three points, leaving Leeds on minus twelve and around two thousand sore heads the next morning.

It shouldn't be a cause for concern, either, should Warnock's side fall short against Wolves. Whilst a running start is ideal, it is far from a fair analysis of how the season will pan out. Title competitors of yesteryear Norwich will preach this louder than most - Their 7-1 defeat at the hands of Colchester not stopping them from topping the League One chart in 2010. United can confess to this, too. Opening day against Newcastle in '89 acted as the start of quite a lackluster opening set of matches for the season. Following the 5-2 defeat at St. James' Park, Leeds proceeded to pick up just one win and three draws in their next four games, leaving the Yorkshire outfit with just six points from five.

Whilst 2012/13 promises to be a season of uniqueness (for off the pitch matters, at the very least), Warnock can take solace from the lessons of 1990. Following Wolves, Leeds face tough challenges in the form of Blackpool, Peterborough, Blackburn and Cardiff. Many of those sides will fancy their own chances at a promotion or playoff spot. Leeds have been dealt a raw hand to start of their new era. As shown under Sgt. Wilko, though, a jittery start against tough opposition does not have to spell disaster for the rest of the season. The infamous side of 1990 grabbed the title on the last day of the season on an iconic day away to Bournemouth, and Warnock's men could be writing their own script, with the final act prepared for Vicarage Road, Watford. 

With around a dozen faces new to the Leeds United squad, it is only natural to expect a few loose bolts in the machine for the first few exchanges. Players need time to settle and gel, whilst the boss needs to fully assess who will be his preferred eleven. A tough start against recently relegated Wolves will not have been ideal, nor will the games proceeding. August should act as nothing more than confirmation of where the squad is at in comparison to the realistic challengers in the division, signposting the work that is needed for the rest of the campaign. Irrespective of early results, United will still be in with a fighting chance for promotion come May at Watford. 

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Bring a Game Boy, this could get dull

If controversy is your idea of fun, walk into any bar around the Beeston area on Saturday afternoon and mention Neil Warnock and Simon Grayson in the same sentence. Follow by ordering your pint, locating the group with the highest raised eyebrows and grabbing a nearby seat. It may be best to order a couple of drinks actually, these things can take a while. 

Naturally, the controversy stems from their polar-opposite styles of play. Grayson's side are built with the purpose of promoting attacking, free-flowing football. It doesn't matter if you score three, because we're going to score four, to quote a typical mantra. Clearly, it never mattered if all twenty-thousand were clenching their buttocks in anguish every time a counter broke from the opposition, either. Under Grayson, United were built to shock and surprise. A trip to Elland Road could've offered anything from a calamitous breakdown from Paul Rachubka to having a Ross McCormack tap-in seal victory in the 97th minute. 

Perhaps Simon felt guilty about the prices the Elland Road faithful were having to pay and wanted to put on a show. With Warnock's ever-impending retirement, though, the clash in direction may stem from his desire to see through his career in the most predictable way possible. Nobody wants to see Neil crashing to the floor with a heart-trauma after Danny Pugh allows yet another mediocre winger in on goal. Despite the clash in style and focus, the only thing remains evident for those who've 'treated' themselves to a season ticket at Elland Road this season - It's not going to be pretty.

This shouldn't be read in any pessimistic tone, or even viewed as a damning statement ruling out any intention of promotion for Leeds this season. After a faultering start to Warnock's era (to put it kindly), 'major surgery' has seen a new look United line-up brace the field. Equipped with added bite and composure, the Yorkshire outfit look more organised and capable of holding firm against most attacks that will be thrown at them this season. New blood in Lee Peltier, Paddy Kenny, Adam Drury and Jason Pearce have completely over-wrote any lasting memory of a defence kindling a resemblance to that  of Simon Grayson's, and for it all the better. 

Despite a slight fear that young Peltier, Pearce and the now seemingly ever-present Lees may hold too little experience to hold strong throughout a whole campaign, the back line at Elland Road looks more dependable than any time previous under the demise of chairman Ken Bates' seven and a half reign. The extra protection extended from the new cult hero Rodolph Austin only further stresses the point that Leeds will be one of the hardest sides to beat in the division. And irrespective of Ronnie Jespon's ridiculous waistline, the entire squad seems to have avoided a similar fate, with the side looking in great physical shape. Initially, the new-born resilience of Leeds United is something to look upon with relief. 

With that in mind, though, every decision comes with it's own consequence. A lack of invention or creativity seems to be the lasting impression on the rest of the squad as a reaction to the over-dependance to protect the defence. Of those that have joined the squad, Luke Varney remains the standout purchase in terms of attacking intent, a rather poor sign of things to come. Depsite a fairly positive pre-season campaign so far, the truth remains that Varney's contributions to a side in this division has consistently been below par. Last season, his offering of just six goals and one assist proved not enough as Portsmouth fell victim to relegation. Throughout his career, his record struggles to shine much brighter than this. Fellow Fratton Park arrival David Norris was mooted as a signing to bring more attacking intent to the side, yet also struggles to raise the temperature. 

Throughout the midfield and attack, a lack of pace or invention leaves the side feeling flat and predictable. At the very least, an inventive winger to replace the heavy boots of Robert Snodgrass is required, alongside a new striker with instinctive class. Since the loss of Max Gradel (and before that Jermaine Beckford), the loss of attacking prowess has been painfully clear. Replacements like Danny Pugh further dug the coffin into the ground. Whilst the likes of Nicky Maynard and George Boyd have been raised by the media as solutions to the new issue at hand, securing talent of this calibre is now looking more and more like a losing battle. Warnock's damning statement on Tuesday night, re-igniting the seven-year regular cliché 'sell to buy' sent warning signals to all those in white that the likelihood of signing players with flashes of brilliance that have oh-so often been missing will be hard to come by yet again. 

It's that lack of sparkle that will leave the fans with their chins resting firmly upon their palms. Whilst some like to roll off the cliché that the likes of Newcastle United and Liverpool were born to play beautiful football, it is often forgotten in the midst of a nationwide agenda towards 'Dirty Leeds' that attractive and engaging football is also a traditional aspect of the game at Elland Road. Sacrificing this as payment for success is an acceptable route to end the demise that has been since our relegation from the Premiership in 2004. Only time will tell if Warnock's decision to play Devil's Advocate to Grayson's previous regime will prove successful. Many will feel that without an improvement on what once was, the new brand of 'anti-football' will come at a price not worth paying.


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