Phil Hay: Leeds United left red faced by '˜cult hero' Berardi
A cult hero with Gaetano Berardi's character is forever a hostage to fortune. Cartoon madness gives football personality, like Vinnie Jones holding a shotgun to the head of Howard Wilkinson, but only until it goes too far. Berardi is learning about the fickle nature of cult-heroism, cut down to size by the streak which made him popular in the first place.
The headbutts, the fouls, the red cards, the murderous glares; if that side of him appealed when the going was good then it is too late now to put the lid back on. His reputation was built on those traits and, on occasions, with impunity. In October, when he was sent off for headbutting Matty Taylor at Bristol City, Berardi flew home to Leeds in time to take part in the ring-walk with featherweight boxer Josh Warrington that same night. It was a satirical appearance which made light of his indiscipline, helped by the fact that Leeds won easily at Ashton Gate. With hindsight the club might have asked whether Berardi carrying on regardless sent the right message.
Mixed messages or not, he should not need his hand held to the extent where a club – any club – are asked to tolerate three red cards in one season. Berardi can tell Paul Heckingbottom that his foul on Callum McManaman last Saturday was an attempt to win the ball but it was two-footed, it was off the ground and it went straight through McManaman’s right leg; a genuine tackle at the same time as breaking every rule in the book. That he took the Sunderland midfielder out so far up the pitch called into question, again, the levels of self-control in the dressing room at Leeds. Either the penny won’t drop or no-one is interested in hearing it rattle. Either way, the glaringly obvious refuses to register.
Berardi, in his defence, has some right to be disillusioned or exasperated. This season is a write-off and it has not been flattering, in terms of his discipline or his football, but how much his football comes down to ability and how much is related to his position on the pitch is a moot point.
Berardi, as a right-back, has never been exposed as he is on the left side of defence. The shift from his preferred position has been so contrived that in December even he admitted that Leeds needed “a better player than me” at left-back. What sounded like endearing honesty could as easily have been a plea for someone to do him a favour. But four months on the role is his, or was until the Football Association ended his season with a five-game ban on Monday.
With that, Berardi will have missed 10 league matches through three separate bans by the time this season ends. Or, to put it another way, a quarter of Leeds’ Championship fixtures. Leeds, collectively, have a wider problem, like a company trying to cut down on excessive sick leave: almost 30 individual appearances lost to suspension since August. Red cards carry a standard fine of two weeks’ wages but there is, it seems, nowhere near enough grief at work or at home for players who transgress. Then again, if Samuel Saiz in the stocks doesn’t make anyone think, not much will.
Three strikes in one season puts Berardi in a perilous position. He has a long contract and he is well liked at Leeds but he has been nothing less than a liability since confronting Taylor at Ashton Gate. There is part of you that wonders if Berardi is playing to the crowd – indulging the caricature he created for himself – but he is 29, well-travelled and experienced enough to rise above any act. Berardi is Berardi. The on-field aggression is innate. Leeds saw it in him when he first signed and have never felt the urge to knock it out of him. He represents the most difficult balance in football: finding the line between a soft touch and an excessively hard case.
The summer is coming and Leeds will soon be asked to put their money where their mouth is, in more respects than one. Their managing director, Angus Kinnear, wrote in the club’s programme a fortnight ago about what he called a “no excuses culture where mistakes are recognised and corrected.” On the basis that such a culture exists, people at Elland Road should be paying for this season’s disengagement. If Leeds are serious about getting their squad in order, they should be serious about the consequences of an abject outcome where the team lie 14th and Saturday’s captain ends the term with a five-game ban. Berardi’s general vigour is admirable and he has shown himself to be a competent right-back. But Leeds cannot have this.