Since football began, individual players have been targeted for criticism. I hesitate to use the word ‘scapegoat’ but that’s often how it feels when you’re on the inside. Things go wrong, the crowd lose their rag and some poor soul gets singled out.
Usually that treatment is based entirely on the game itself. Crowds don’t generally dislike players or dislike them on a personal level. They take issue with those who, rightly or wrongly, appear to be dragging everyone else down. It’s hard not to feel sorry for a lad alongside you who’s genuinely trying their best but failing to win the public over.
Giuseppe Bellusci might see himself in that way but his situation at Leeds United is different. The antipathy between him and some of club’s supporters goes well beyond the fact that they don’t rate him as a footballer. This is personal – or to put it simply, a case where many of the fans simply don’t like him – and in those circumstances a club only have one choice. Criticism is criticism. What Bellusci got at Guiseley on Saturday was outright abuse.
He’ll leave Elland Road now and in the grand scheme it’s the best decision for everyone concerned. I get the feeling he was probably on the fringes of the club’s plans anyway but his run-in with the crowd at Guiseley will have confirmed the club’s thinking. You can’t have a situation where a player is so at odds with people who pay to watch him. It’s not healthy and it won’t work. Leeds have done the right thing by moving quickly to nip this in the bud.
If he’s honest with himself, Bellusci must know that it’s time to move on. He’s had a difficult time in England and there seems to be a prevailing view that many of his problems he brought on himself. Every player wants to be loved but most of us settled for being liked or, at the very least, tolerated. Ninety-eight per cent of us aren’t superstars and won’t ever have statues built of us but you want to feel like you’re contributing in a way that’s appreciated.
When I left Leeds, that’s what it came down to – my belief that I was no longer in the picture and no longer needed. I could have seen the writing on the wall sooner than I did but the reality dawned on me on the afternoon when I was asked by the stadium announcer to make a half-time appearance on the pitch at Elland Road.
I wasn’t in the squad that day and I wasn’t in the team so naturally I wasn’t full of the joys of spring. Now I was the equivalent of a cheerleader, walking around the pitch while people joked about the fact I’d had a haircut (and no longer looked like Jesus). I thought to myself ‘is this seriously what it’s come to?’ and from then on I was set on finding a way out. You never want to outstay your welcome, especially at a club like Leeds, and I knew I was in danger of doing that.
Even training becomes harder. You turn up every day and do your thing and I can honestly say that I was never guilty of slacking off, even when I was a long way from the team. But despite your graft and your effort, there’s no hope of a reprieve and you get the sense of people around you thinking ‘bless him. At least he’s trying.’ The last thing I wanted was sympathy or a patronising pat on the back. I just wanted to play.
I accept that my experience was nothing like Bellusci’s because the crowd at Leeds were always very good to me but if he came back this summer hoping for another chance then that was wishful thinking on his part.
For one thing, as a defender he has never been a hugely stable presence. When you look at Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley in the centre of defence last season, there’s a level of solidity and consistency there that you never got with Bellusci. They were eight or nine out of 10 most weeks. Whether you call it rash or whatever, there was a side to Bellusci’s game which had a tendency to blow up and that in itself is one reason why Leeds can take the decision to move him on without much concern about the consequences.
That, really, is the crux of all this. If Bellusci was a top centre-back or a player Leeds desperately needed, they’d have found a way to resolve this. In truth, if he was a top defender then his relationship with the crowd wouldn’t have broken down so badly in the first place. In many ways, the fact that last weekend’s spat happened at Guiseley said it all. Pre-season is supposed to be a calm, gentle and optimistic time.
It’s one of the few periods of the season when people have very little to fight about. Bellusci’s only 27 and no doubt he has plenty of football left in front of him but not at Leeds. Saturday was the end of the line.