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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 31/08/04, 7.45pm
Leeds United
versus
Watford
 
I'm not your sister!
By Ian Grant

The following sentence contains strong language. I can only apologise; it simply can't be avoided.

That Michael Winner advert is a fucking crime.

There, there. All over now.

Despite that, there is a twisted, shameful part of me that loves it. Nothing to do with the on-camera action, which is appalling in an epic, jaw-dropping and scandalous way, but the mental image of what must've been happening off-camera. Because, in an age of corporate spin, there is something wonderful about seeing cracks appear....

So, even as you wince, it's hard to suppress a smile at the thought of a large insurance company having written a hefty cheque to its highly-paid advertising folk for the hire of a stately home, a fleet of cars, an actress who'll never work again, Michael Winner, and a day's filming. The thought of each and every one of them reaching the point of suicidal, sweating, red-faced frustration in an attempt to conjure up something presentable from their ill-chosen star and their nonsensical script. The thought of various people's faces when the finished product was premiered to the board.

It's a landmark, no doubt about it. And, in an awful way, it works: whenever it comes on, which has been painfully often for cricket fans, it's extraordinarily hard not to watch. Your gaze is drawn towards it; each horrifying detail becomes clearer with repeated exposure. It's unforgettable, like the taste of soap.

For similar reasons, it's been hard not to pursue a grim, obsessive fascination with events at Elland Road in recent times: cracks appearing in a different, similar age of corporate spin. "WHO ARE YOU?" howls the bemused Leeds fan. "I'M YOUR ENORMOUS OVERDRAFT!" bellows Mark Viduka, puffing his chest out in front of a line of expensive cars and a stately home, before disappearing to wherever he is now. (Middlesbrough? I'm guessing.) To be honest, it's been quite hard to muster much sympathy either, given that Leeds' downfall was the pursuit of Champions League temptation. Spend your money on coke, champagne and Terry Venables; repent at leisure later on.

Besides, every time that one of these top flight giants gets dumped back into the Football League, a small and satisfying, if largely insignificant, blow is struck for natural, level sporting competition. The rich and powerful have made so many attempts to insure themselves against disaster, and it's reassuring to know that they've not yet been entirely successful. For now, it can still go horribly, spectacularly wrong. Given the role played by 15m of Jack Petchey's fortune in the March takeover, it may get worse yet.

It's easy to get carried away, though. No matter how precarious their financial arrangements might be, many commentators forget that, since the ITV collapse, Premiership relegatees are coming down into a complete wasteland. That doesn't, as West Ham found out last season, mean that they'll automatically bounce back; it does, however, mean that they'll get a year or two's grace before they become part of the scenery. Six million quid of parachute money is an awful lot down here. Despite the vast number of forced departures, the Leeds squad is still one of the strongest in the division, and a focused, heads-down approach really ought to see it in the top six when May comes around.

Inevitably, though, there'll be a period of adjustment. The first day, single goal victory over Derby kicked things off quite nicely, but the subsequent midweek defeat at Gillingham had a beautiful predictability about it: like waiting eagerly, smothering giggles, for a naive newcomer to be caught out by the office prankster's whoopee cushion. It'll take a little while, you imagine. After all, the Second Division (because that's what it is) isn't really like anything else, and it's become an infinitely more idiosyncratic experience since Leeds were last down here.

They seem to have prepared with that in mind, with Kevin Blackwell's summer signings appearing to prioritise rugged experience over gleaming quality. Oh, look: it's Brian Deane. While loyal supporters are rightly pained by the exodus of talent, it's probably better to get it over with quickly and to re-build immediately than to waste valuable energy trying to persuade yer big knobs and their agents that their CVs really need to include a year of playing in a division that has "Er..." as its unofficial sponsor. (One suspects that it's even referred to as "The Er Championship" behind closed doors at Football League HQ.)

In this context, the signing of Neil Sullivan, cheap in fee but not in wages, as Paul Robinson's replacement between the sticks appears to be a slightly curious one, a little out-of-step with everything else. The Radio Five commentary for the opening day's Derby match featured the first, but probably not the last, use of the phrase "And Sullivan's dropped it!", and we can only hope that his confidence is yet to recover from some distinctly uncertain performances in a Chelsea shirt: he contributed in no small measure to that two-all draw last season.

His deputy, Scott Carson, was born in 1985. In my eyes, this makes him ridiculously young. However, I am having to come to terms with the fact that it doesn't actually make him that young. It's more me than him, I think.

The back four has already undergone several changes as a new line-up settles in...and, in particular, as the club comes to terms with a potentially career-threatening achilles injury to Lucas "The Chief" Radebe sustained in the goalless draw against Wolves. Radebe is in his testimonial year and therefore, you imagine, might have some stories to tell, should he need an alternative pastime.

Kevin Blackwell's summer un-spending spree means that there's a reasonable amount of cover, though. The manager's selection problems were compounded by the dismissal of the compact, powerful Michael Duberry, back to form and fitness after something of a career holiday, at Molineux. However, of all Blackwell's signings, the arrival of the thoroughly hateful Paul Butler - Gifton's assassin, lest we forget - is the most telling, and the new club captain seems to be the constant that the other variables will revolve around. Those variables potentially include young Matthew Kilgallon and Clarke Carlisle, a capture from QPR who got the nod for Saturday's draw against Forest.

Much activity in the wide positions too. With Danny Mills - whose contract ran until 2008, just in case anyone is in any doubt over the whys and wherefores of the afore-mentioned crisis - finally and permanently departed to Manchester City, Gary Kelly has the right back berth all to himself, although young Frazer Richardson provides understudy-type cover. Having used Kilgallon to fill in at left back in the opening fixtures, the arrival of Stephen Crainey on a month's loan from Southampton means that things are more or less as they ought to be at the back.

There's another long-term injury in the midfield: to Eirik Bakke's long-suffering knee, and he'll be out for the duration. Actually, there are two long-term injuries, but we can rather take Seth Johnson's knee injury as read, I think. A reminder, probably unnecessary to both sides of this particular contest, that player investments can go down as well as up. Seven million quid. Ouch.

Instead, it's a bit of the patching-up and making-do that makes life in Division Two so much, erm, fun. And makes writing previews so, erm, interesting: just which players has the manager decided to play out of position, and where? Well, there appear to be rather a lot of wide midfielders and rather a few of central midfielders: the tactic is probably to make the wings very wide, so that they join in the middle. C'mon, it'll make sense when Andy Townsend explains it....

Anyway, the available options involve Danny Pugh, whose young talent came as part of the Alan Smith deal with Manchester United; ex-Ipswich fancy-dan Jermaine Wright; the previously-noted Frazer Richardson, only a bit further forward; and left-wing maestro Steve Guppy, returned from a bit of a non-event at Celtic after his glory years at Leicester. The latter's getting on a bit now, but as he's never needed to beat his man to whip in a stunning cross onto an immobile striker's head, we ought to be more than a little wary.

Otherwise, I'm assuming that the complete absence of former Luton play-maker Matthew Spring from all reports means that he's injured, while recent signing Serge Branco has only just unpacked his suitcase, Chris Bart-Williams has yet to prove his fitness, and Craig Hignett has yet to return from over the hill. With our new, heavyweight midfield, there's some hope of domination in this department, methinks.

Up front, Brian Deane. Nuff said. Alongside, Julian Joachim. Nuff said. It takes more than mere noises to sum up most forward lines, but not here: crash, whizz. It's an almost stereotypical Football League front pairing, to the point where you start to wonder if Blackwell's not over-doing the culture shock treatment. On the bench, Michael Ricketts, who played for England once, is still trying to recover from a 3.5m transfer to Middlesbrough: did nobody tell him that you go there after you've done everything else that you wanted to do? It's like cashing in your pension and buying a flat in Eastbourne when you're twenty-five, for heaven's sake. And finally, Danny Cadamarteri, who's useless and dives a lot and has to be somewhere and happens to be here. In the reserves, natch.

Not our easiest fixture of the season by any means, then. But, as with Leicester, it's probably not a bad time for it, for relegation always has a bit of a knock-on effect for a while and it's almost compulsory for the newcomers to get turned over a few times while they're looking around dizzily. It's a famous name, this one...but Leeds' reaction to their relegation has been to transform themselves into a Second Division team almost overnight. Not a bad plan. But nothing to be scared of.