Daniel Chapman: Leeds United and dealing with eternal hope - on the pitch and in the transfer market

Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford. (Pic: Bruce Rollinson)Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford. (Pic: Bruce Rollinson)
Leeds United striker Patrick Bamford. (Pic: Bruce Rollinson)
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.

Writing to the Yorkshire Evening Post’s print deadlines means these columns carry an element of risk. I can do all the preparation I want but, in the time between submitting and printing, I can only hope nothing happens to put these words out of date before you read them.

For once, then, blessed be Leeds United’s fumbling in the transfer market. Never mind today, I could write the next sentences for next Tuesday’s column and I expect they would still be relevant: sign a striker! There’s isn’t much time!

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And if they have signed one by the time you read this? Well done! Now go wild, sign another, sign more, sign four!

This January’s storm is something Leeds have brought on themselves. Marcelo Bielsa likes a small squad, Andrea Radrizzani likes small bills, Victor Orta likes big dreams.

That combination of desires has kept Leeds United in the Championship’s top two for most of last season and this. But it’s also a combination that could drag Leeds down again, Angus Kinnear bent double from the weight of his boasts, about avoiding the play-offs and moving early on transfers, hanging around his neck.

We never imagined, in all the years of finishing 15th, that being a good team would be this difficult. Improving to become good felt like the intimidating problem, but Bielsa made short work of that.

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Instead we’re finding that being good at football can feel like being cheated, because we don’t get to enjoy it after all. And in the absence of fun there’s nobody else to blame but the people who easily made us much better, but are now making such hard work of the slightest improvements.

Other teams sign strikers, and they make it look easy. Other teams don’t need to sign strikers because they already have more than one. Other strikers score goals and other teams win matches, so we know it’s not impossible.

The proof has been in the Peacocks, too. Leeds are top of the Championship for number of games won; we’re fourth on goals scored.

But the top is where people talk about fine margins, and whenever Leeds are put on some fine, marginal knife edge – with a penalty to equalise, for example – they never seem to get the fine marginal gains.

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Under Bielsa, the most theoretical of coaches, Leeds are, in theory, the best. But even Bielsa knows his theories can work only so far.

He admits, for example, that he has no fully developed method for teaching players to improve their finishing, because it’s not possible to rehearse chances with the momentous intensity of a real, high-pressure game.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the area where Leeds struggle most is the one where Bielsa has least to offer.

But it’s a failure that repeats in other parts of the club, which seems constantly surprised by events in the real world. Bielsa can’t replicate scoring chances in training, and I suppose there are limits to how much practice Leeds can do for a transfer window.

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Like Patrick Bamford popping every penalty on a Tuesday morning, United’s paperwork might be pristine but, with thousands of fans putting them under pressure, faced with the stubborn attitudes of other clubs, managers, agents, players and families, every time Leeds aim for the top corner of the fax machine, their contracts are miscued and end up in the bin.

With transfers, with finishing, ultimately with promotion, we like to think we’re dealing with science. Really, we’re relying on hope.

It’s that last, vital part of the game of football that Bielsa won’t even try to master: the fact that no matter how much you prepare, when the ball bounces in front of a striker in a six-yard box full of players, it’s round, and its fate is determined by forces you can’t control.

When your perfect offer goes to another club, it’s the start of a conversation in another office in another city, while you cross your fingers and wait.

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Can you teach finishing? It’s arguable. Who taught Gary Lineker, and could they give Pat Bamford the same secret mastery over physics and chance? And can anyone teach transfers? And do they offer an intensive one-week course?

Leeds have worked very hard since summer 2018, but that doesn’t guarantee success. All it guarantees is that you’ll hope harder, and you’ll hurt more when your hopes fail. Some clubs make life at the top look easy.

But even top managers close their eyes because they can’t bear to watch a penalty being taken. It’s a long wait, hoping something will go your way.