THE story of the Charlton six, or the ‘sicknote six’ as social media has it, is fated to be an equivocal part of Leeds United’s history. The definitive version was left untold, before and after the last of the protagonists took his leave of Elland Road.
Souleymane Doukara completed the exodus yesterday, leaving for Turkey in a transfer which closed the book on Massimo Cellino’s time as owner.
There are remnants of the Italian’s transfer policy still – Liam Cooper, Gaetano Berardi and others – but none who carry the reputation of being Cellino’s men.
Charlton away in April 2015 drew that line: the perception or the distinction of who danced for the club and who danced for their chairman; a chairman whose relationship with his head coach, Neil Redfearn, had splintered badly.
Some of the six who cried off at The Valley – Doukara, Marco Silvestri, Giuseppe Bellusci, Mirco Antenucci, Dario Del Fabro and Edgar Cani – resented the allegation of sycophancy but the mud stuck.
It stuck because the defence of the six, by the club and their families, was riddled with contradictions. Leeds argued vehemently that all six had been injured.
On Facebook, Silvestri’s father protested the goalkeeper’s innocence but accused the others bar Antenucci – the “a**holes” as he called them – of mounting a “stupid protest” against Redfearn by refusing to travel.
Sol Bamba, Leeds’ captain at the time, would later tell the YEP that he believed the injuries to be genuine. Gaetano Berardi, an apparent dissenter who kept clear of trouble by making the trip to Charlton, admitted to The Square Ball, the Leeds United fanzine, that he did not.
“A few players had a few problems, they had injuries,” Berardi said in a recent interview. “The other ones had a problem with the manager, so they took the decision. I don’t want to say names.”
There were no independent voices but enough suspicion to implicate those involved. The story went that one of the players was seen hurdling a fence at Thorp Arch before appearing in Redfearn’s office a few minutes later to complain of a muscle strain.
Behind the facade of inconsistent explanations was a wall of distrust. It had begun to fracture long before Charlton.The YEP’s Phil Hay
Behind the facade of inconsistent explanations was a wall of distrust. It had begun to fracture long before Charlton and Steve Morison touched on it after a 2-1 defeat at The Valley, talking with tired exasperation about a club where “every day something different happens. Every week. I’ve never known anything like it in football.”
Morison is an Enfield boy, a product of working-class North London who earned his wage in a factory before football started paying the bills.
A battering-ram of a centre-forward, he won no prizes for style in Leeds and was not adverse to pursuing his own agenda when it suited.
At Elland Road, he was condemned to be seen as the underwhelming plaque marking Luciano Becchio’s player-plus-£200,000 transfer to Norwich City. But at Charlton he nailed it.
“I’ve played in teams who are scrapping for their lives,” he said. “I’ve played in the Premier League with a bunch of players from the Championship who should never have stayed up.
“The one thing we had, ultimately, was team spirit. Sometimes you can get away with being very, very average if you have that. I would class myself as an average football player. But I’ve had a ‘team’ around me in my career. And it works.”
An away crowd of 3,000 related to that and were naturally riled; in London, at Charlton, at their own expense while players who were paid to be there couldn’t make the effort to step onto the bus.
Leeds have aspired to better than average for years. They have fallen short for years. The city has never let the club go, clinging onto Darwin’s Law and the promise that a team of this size must break the Championship’s ceiling eventually, but not everyone kept the faith.
On Tuesday, for their League Cup tie against Newport County, Leeds set entrance prices for children at £1. Through 13 years of post-Premiership football, the years when the sell of tickets is most hard, that simple promotion had been forgotten or purposely avoided.
In simple terms, previous regimes did not think kids-for-a-quid had any long-term benefits.
“Many supporters have told me that our absence from the Premier League has created a ‘lost generation’,” said chief executive Angus Kinnear.
“I know fans find it galling to see children wearing the shirts of our rivals on the streets of our great city. I’ve been told this didn’t happen 15 years ago and it’s our responsibility to ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.”
The second half against Newport, when Leeds went to town, was worth a pound. In return, the club inspired that little rush, the first creep of addiction which feeds a lifetime of support.
Leeds have changed since Charlton and, even with Cellino in the building last season, began changing some time ago. Doukara had his volley against Nottingham Forest and his mercurial cameo at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Silvestri had his moments too and stuck with the programme professionally last season.
Resentment shifted towards tolerance and old scores mattered less as players like them were squeezed out by others.
Doukara had been hard work for the past fortnight, agitating for a transfer which Leeds granted him on Wednesday, but this was not Chris Wood in disguise. Leeds lost a cornerstone of their team when they sold Wood to Burnley. Doukara was essentially free to go.
Without Wood, United’s remaining players beat Sunderland last Saturday and celebrated the win with abandon down the tunnel.
It was less about Sunderland, the Championship or what the result said about their season than it was to do with the emotion of players who had chosen to be there, wanted to be there and felt sure that none of the camaraderie was an illusion.
The atmosphere might not last because no dressing room is perfect but the transition of players has given Leeds a squad who can play without skeletons on their backs.
It leaves Charlton as a salutary footnote, no more or less than the saga deserves.