Now, we’re all just mad about Max!
In the shared view of Simon Grayson and Sean O’Driscoll, last weekend’s game at Elland Road turned on a single minute: the 60 seconds in which Doncaster established and surrendered a second-half lead.
“If you watch the DVD, we weren’t even ready for the kick-off,” said O’Driscoll, bemoaning Jonathan Howson’s instantaneous reply to a Franck Moussa goal.
For that, Leeds United had Max Gradel to thank; the one player whose urgency befitted a volatile situation.
His impulsive response to Moussa’s goal – running 40 yards to retrieve the ball from United’s net while players around him stared at their feet – went largely unmentioned in the analysis of a rabid Yorkshire derby, but his reaction mattered. Doncaster allowed their attention to stray and Howson scored within seconds; games and seasons can hinge on fleeting moments like these.
Gradel realised what those of us watching knew: that the crowd would not tolerate the thought of a Doncaster win. This at the hands of an injury-riddled squad and a week on from a sour defeat in Swansea. For a matter of seconds, United’s season lost its thread and the air of resignation was unmistakable. The sublime goal encouraged by Gradel and delivered by Howson placated Elland Road before the stadium could panic or revolt.
For 16 months, United’s African winger has been impossible to read: a loose cannon when the mood takes him but capable of showing a deeply conscientious streak. Kevin Bond, the manager who handled him at Bournemouth, promised as much when Leeds first signed him in 2009, recalling how the death of Gradel’s mother had burdened a 21-year-old with the responsibility of using modest League One wages to support two siblings in France.
“As a professional footballer, he saw himself as the one person who was able to look after them,” Bond said. “He was barely old enough to look after himself, let alone take care of his family in France. After his mother died, we saw nothing of him for four or five weeks.”
One of Bond’s favourites recollections of the player is the story of him re-appearing at Dean Court two hours before an FA Cup tie against Barrow, ready for kick-off and demanding to play. “When he went back to France, I honestly wasn’t sure if we’d ever see him again,” said Bond. “That for me was inspirational.”
Gradel is blessed with that quality. Leeds have profited from it repeatedly in a season when the Ivorian has scored 14 times. United’s position in the Championship is the work of many hands, but Gradel’s performances have been a cause célèbre; in some respects, an unexpected bonus. Four more goals from the winger will surpass the total recorded by Luciano Becchio last season.
Leeds expected big things of Robert Snodgrass and consistently promoted Howson’s potential. They also suspected that Becchio’s strengths might be suited to the Championship, but Gradel’s prominence was never as certain. The are some at Thorp Arch who seem genuinely astonished by his development in the space of a year-and-a-half.
United did not categorise Gradel as a peripheral player when they signed him from Leicester City but, until the early months of this season, he was not demonstrably an automatic choice either. Grayson is now inclined to use him every available turn. The specific change in Gradel? “He’s matured,” said Grayson, “and he’s taken on board what we’ve asked him to do.”
Chief among those demands must have been a commitment to stricter discipline. Gradel’s reckless dismissal in the final league game of last season had the potential to finish his career at Elland Road. Serious bridge-building with the paying public would have been necessary had his red card inspired a different result.
As recently as November, his temperament was examined again after a petulant kick at Reading’s Andy Griffin. At the time, this column was critical of him, remarking that Gradel was “too talented to risk being classed as a liability.” Players with his ability are wasted in the trenches of foul play.
Having taking issue with his attitude, it would be remiss 18 games later to ignore the improvement: two bookings, 11 goals and a contribution that will earn him much sway in the vote of the YEP’s player of the year award next month.
He is, as Grayson described him, a breath of fresh air and a quiet inspiration. He is also part of the reason why criticism of United’s squad has concentrated doggedly on their defence and the centre of midfield.
It was interesting to note an interview with Gradel in last weekend’s match-day programme, addressing his dismissal against Bristol Rovers and his flamboyant reputation. “There’s no Mad Max anymore,” he said, joking at his own expense.
At the time of that irresponsible dismissal, you seriously questioned whether Gradel understood the bubble he was in or the ethos of Leeds United; the desperation of a fine club to drag themselves out of the mire or the peril he had put them in. His diligence against Doncaster left no doubt that he understands it implicitly.
Player of the year? Very possibly.