FOOTBALL paints a certain image of Gaetano Berardi but when Leeds United give him time off from wearing blood on his sleeve, he likes to pursue an interest in photography.
In an interview with The Square Ball earlier this year, he talked about the pleasure he took from walking into Roundhay Park and snapping the starry sky. Bedlam by day, Nikon by night.
In spite of that there is something singular about Berardi’s wilder persona; the streak which took him from a red card at Bristol City to a ring walk for a featherweight title bout in Leeds in the space of a few hours in October. Josh Warrington, the city’s world champion-in-waiting, nicknamed Berardi ‘headbutt’ on account of the defender sticking one on Matty Taylor at Ashton Gate.
Berardi suits the culture of Leeds past and present and his various scrapes in four years with the club have not provoked a bad word about him from anyone at Elland Road. One of his former managers described him as “the most model pro’ you’ll ever work with – once you figure him out”. The quiet ones, they say, are usually trouble but it transpired that Berardi’s man-of-few words attitude made him a dream to manage.
That lack of ego spilled out this week when Berardi admitted that using him, a right-sided defender, as a left-back could only be a stop-gap for a club with designs on promotion; that Leeds “probably do need a better player than me in that position to try and go to the Premier League”.
He is arguably right and the debate about that area of United’s team has been running all season but the popular Swiss is the last player who anyone in Leeds wants to run out of town.
Berardi, from his point of view, is happy in Yorkshire.
He has four seasons behind him and a new three-year contract to work with, agreed and signed in August.
“I feel at home in Leeds,” he said. “This is my fourth season so I know a lot about the city –everything from the people to the restaurants and the bars.
“It’s always a good place to go out and enjoy.
They may bring someone in at left-back but I don’t care if that happens. It’s not about me. The team is what matters.Leeds United’s Gaetano Berardi
“The people are very good to me and the other players find that too. For me this has been the best moment of my career.
“I’ll always remember however many years I spend here. I don’t know if that will be four, five, six or even more but they have been good.”
The former Sampdoria player has been in cult-hero territory for some time now. He was an obvious choice, alongside Leeds Rhinos’ Danny McGuire, when Warrington began looking for two suitable candidates to walk with him to the ring before his stoppage of Denmark’s Dennis Ceylan on October 21.
United had been in Bristol earlier that day, winning 3-0 at Ashton Gate but losing Berardi to a late sending off. A flight back north got him to Leeds’ First Direct Arena in time.
“The atmosphere was unbelievable,” Berardi said. “I was very happy to be there and so proud. I’d met Josh last year and we spoke about the possibility then. He wanted to know if I’d be happy to do that. Of course I was. I told him it would be a big honour.
“The noise was huge but he’s told me that he’s trying to organise a fight at Elland Road. I would definitely be there. I do not know if he would want me (leading Warrington out again) but I would be there.”
The 29-year-old is a surviving member of the big influx of signings during Massimo Cellino first summer as owner of Leeds in 2014 and has stuck around on merit, bothered by intermittent injures but a player who different managers have consistently found a place for.
He was and is a right-back, however, and his appearances on the left side of defence have been enforced as much as anything, in part by Luke Ayling’s form at right-back. He covered for the injured Charlie Taylor last season and has been part of Thomas Christiansen’s attempt to find a fixed replacement for Taylor who quit for Burnley at the end of his contract in July. Vurnon Anita had a go but was replaced by Berardi in September. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, on loan from Manchester United, has never had a foot in the door.
It is possible, in light of the problems down that side of the field, that the club and Christiansen will look for a another left-back next month.
“I don’t know what will happen in January,” Berardi said. “Obviously they may bring someone in at left-back but I don’t care if that happens. It’s not about me. The team is what matters.
“I try to do my best every day. When the manager wants me to play, I am ready. But probably the team does need a better player than me in that position to try and go to the Premier League.
“It is not difficult playing there, just different. I’ve now played more games on the left than the right (for Leeds) so for me it’s normal. It’s all about mentality and confidence. If you do that correct you will be good. The other defenders help me all the time.”
Berardi has a knack of generating support, inside and outside the dressing room. The crowd at Leeds have been clamouring for the defender to claim his first career goal – he was inches away with a 25-yard shot against Norwich City last weekend – and Berardi said his team-mates were “waiting for me to get this goal too”. “I would love to score,” he said. “Hopefully soon.” What would he do if he finds the net at home to Hull City this afternoon? “I don’t have a celebration planned.”
Today’s game, if he plays, will be his 98th for Leeds, two short of a landmark which few in the current squad have reached. The bigger picture, though, is a Championship table which will show United inside the top six if they see off a dishevelled Hull side. The players who were at Elland Road last season, Berardi included, remember the way in which a play-off place slipped through their fingers at the death and are not keen on a repeat.
“The Championship is a little bit different to last season but we’re in a good position and feeling confident that we’ll finish better than last season,” Berardi said. “What happened to us can only help us. We have many players still here who remember how we finished last season. We learned from that and know this can be better.”