Daniel Chapman: Leeds United's Eddie Nketiah, Patrick Bamford and the 'Mike Grella effect'

Football is a team game, but it makes space for individuals.

By Daniel Chapman
Tuesday, 29th October 2019, 12:00 pm
Leeds United loanee Eddie Nketiah.
Leeds United loanee Eddie Nketiah.

Side always comes before self, but straight after that you want to see who scored the goals. And find out how Eddie Nketiah played.

He plays into another of football’s key categories, that of the plucky underdog, crying out for a chance. His tussle to start ahead of Patrick Bamford has a giantkilling quality, even though this David already plays for Arsenal, while nobody has ever called Bamford ‘Goliath’ without smirking.

Nketiah is benefiting from what I once called the Mike Grella Effect, updated for 2019.

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Ten years ago, Grella scored twice in a rare substitute appearance – admittedly against Kettering – around the same time that Jermaine Beckford and Neil Kilkenny, appearing on Soccer AM, declared the All American college soccer superstar the most skilful player at the club.

So why, demanded the fans, was manager Simon Grayson persisting with Beckford and Luciano Becchio, and keeping the next Roberto Baggio in the reserves? Mainly because they kept scoring goals, but that wasn’t really the point.

Beckford had been around for ages, and Becchio had cut his hair, so he was no longer the exotic new signing who once played – ahead of Lionel Messi? – for Barcelona B. Grella came from New York and a team called Long Island Rough Riders, for crying out loud. Who could doubt he was brilliant? He was practically a film star.

Never mind your established first XI, Grayson, roll the dice, play the new guy!

I sometimes wonder how fans coped in the Revie era, when Don Revie ignored transfer speculation and came back, season after season, with the same team. How many years did Eddie Gray play for? Then, when we finally signed a new player, it was his brother.

Success made that faith easier to accept, although Leeds suffered plenty of last-minute disappointments even harsher than ours last season, when fans swore they never wanted to see Kiko Casilla again. Gary Sprake probably got more than a touch of that.

But social media means we don’t have to have Neil Kilkenny’s word on hidden talents anymore, or stand in the cold watching Arsenal’s youth teams to discover the next ‘big thing’, when we’ve got Ian Wright retweeting their every training-ground nutmeg.

Social media takes Nketiah’s appeal beyond the new shininess that boosted Grella, down to an earthy and relatable level.

That’s supposed to be the point of Twitter: rather than making our heroes’ exploits seem fantastic and impossible, that reply button brings them closer to normal. When Nketiah celebrates a goal by holding up an imaginary phone, it feels like he’s waiting on the line just to talk to you. And, if you don’t get him, you get your new mate, Ian Wright.

That’s something Patrick Bamford has never mastered. He also celebrates with his hand to his ear, but it’s cocked towards the fans like a challenge, waiting to hear them reply, as if the banter has snapped him.

Nketiah is calling to chat, not listen, and we like that.

Little of this should be relevant on the football pitch, but it contributes to the tide that Marcelo Bielsa has been struggling to hold back. Nketiah has taken off online, where Bielsa’s detailed full-match statistical analysis doesn’t matter: the clips and tweets make Nketiah the relatable underdog we all want to see getting a shot at the big time.

As so often when online shifts offline, reality is the reverse. If relatable is linked to attainable, I feel much more confident I could be like Bamford, shanking a chance out for a throw-in at Preston, than Nketiah, scoring a precise looping header.

Underdog status is all about perception, too. On the last day of his teens, Nketiah was on the bench for a Europa League final.

Well into his twenties, Bamford was having vocal-gravel spewed at him by Sean Dyche, angry that Burnley’s new loanee could play the violin. We can relax, on Nketiah’s behalf, about him getting his chance: if it doesn’t come in the Championship, that won’t hinder his future in the Premier League.

That is the true modern fear behind much of the clamour for Nketiah. We’re feeling Instagram’s signature emotion, the fear of missing out. He’s not the underdog, we are, and we’re desperate to be aboard his glam-wagon before it rolls back to Arsenal.

We saw Nketiah first, and we want to see more of him, before he’s too popular. Because then we won’t like him anymore.

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.