Free Ben White, Rio Ferdinand similarities and welcome to the Premier League Leeds United - Daniel Chapman

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.

Tuesday, 11th August 2020, 6:00 am

This could be the easiest column I ever write, and probably the best, if I just paste 'Free Ben White' 250 times until I hit my word count, then walk away.

Well, those shenanigans might work on Twitter, where the Free Ben White (there's two!) hashtag was trending for most of the weekend. But this isn't Twitter. Free Ben White anyway, though.

That Twitter campaign had its tongue firmly in its cheek, and I wonder if Leeds delivered their opening bid to Brighton with a similar ironic wink.

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Former Leeds United loanee Ben White. (Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Andrea Radrizzani predicted Leeds will break their transfer record in this window, beating the £18m paid for Rio Ferdinand back in November 2000. And if reports are right, the first offer to free Ben White was for exactly the same again, with a Gunnar Halle sized £500,000 on top to clinch the record, the player, and his liberty.

The next try is believed to have been £22m, and still Brighton won't unlock that prison door, putting Leeds into uncharted bidding territory. They seem confident that White's freedom can be bought, but much is too much?

It's all too much, obviously, because paying millions of pounds to people just to kick a ball around is absurd. But that's football.

And the step from £18m for Ferdinand to £22m or £25m to free Ben White is not the same moon-shooting leap Peter Ridsdale made for Rio, from the record £7.2m he'd paid four months earlier to buy Olivier Dacourt.

The Ferdinand transfer is still the most eye-catching of United's spend-happily pay-back-miserably years. It even had David O'Leary muttering at the time, much to Ridsdale's surprise.

Peter was just happy being on the pitch, showing off his new bauble to the fans.

It wasn't the Ferdinand transfer that broke Leeds, though, but the convoluted financing that bought players like Danny Mills, meaning Leeds were still paying his wages years after he had gone.

Ferdinand was, in fact, the making of that team. Yes he was expensive, and yes, his subsequent allegiance means we'd rather deny it, but he was an exceptional defender.

Jonathan Woodgate was the homegrown hero; Lucas Radebe was respected and admired; the connoisseurs' choice among modern Leeds centre-backs is Chris Fairclough, and it's still a scandal that he never played for England.

But Ferdinand was world class. He hardly ever tackled because he didn't need to; he was a reader, anticipating danger before it arose, giving the team consistency and security that took Leeds to the next level.

Ask any kid today, and they'll tell you they love two things more than anything: freeing Ben White, and goals per game averages. So here's a treat.

The season before Ferdinand arrived, Leeds were letting in 1.13 goals per game, and beset by injuries at the start of 2000/01, 1.36 were going past them every in every match.

O'Leary's team never managed a full season of brilliance, but for the year and a bit from buying Ferdinand until imploding in the FA Cup at Cardiff, they were the best in the Premier League.

Massaging the figures a bit to delete the three conceded on Ferdinand's debut, when Leicester beat half-baked ideas about three at the back out of O'Leary, Leeds conceded just 0.81 goals per game when Ferdinand was in the team, culminating in the three clean sheets over Christmas that put Leeds top of the league on New Year's Day 2002.

We've had eighteen years to mull over what happened after that point, so let's not worry about that now.

Ben White is not Rio Ferdinand, but he's the closest I've seen at Leeds since, with the potential to be even better. With due respect to O'Leary's career as a defender, I'm not sure his coaching ever improved players the way Marcelo Bielsa's does.

White is a few months older than Ferdinand when he joined, and if we're judging by goals against again, the last two seasons look like this: 1.08 conceded per game when Pontus Jansson ruled in 2018/19; 0.76 when Ben White ran free.

Other central defenders do exist. Some might be cheaper, some might be better, some might be both.

(Please apply care of Mr. V. Orta, Elland Road.)

Someone else might steal our hearts over the next twelve months, making us wonder what we ever saw in White — although they'll do well to grab Kalvin Phillips' affection the same as young Benjamin William.

But among the distorted values of the stratospheric transfer market Leeds have no choice but joining in the Premier League, is any price too high for Ben White's freedom?

Let's fill his jailers' beaks with all the chips and ice cream they want, and let clean Yorkshire air be the salvation of Ben's woebegone soul.