Driven by the dream, rumbled by reality

The Leeds crisis

On Wednesday morning we awoke to the kind of headline that makes you not so much surprised as downright suspicious. "O'Leary Shock", it announced, with the speculation that the Irishman could be tempted back to Elland Road. It was Back to the Future, and playing the role portrayed by Michael J Fox would be the genial Irishman. Why stop there, the thought persisted? If O'Leary could reinstall himself at Leeds, then maybe his old chairman, Peter Ridsdale, could join him. And for that matter, what about Adam Crozier, fresh from negotiating with posties' picket lines, to sort out the potential England strikers, back at the FA? The possibilities were endless.

Yet one of life's rules dictates: never go back. Not to former lovers. Not to manage your former football clubs. Just ask Graham Taylor, among others. About the latter, of course. And, it may be added, in O'Leary's case, don't even think about returning to a club whose debts include the £3.7m they owe you in compensation for your dismissal. The supporters were less than enamoured by the prospect. As Simon Jose, founder of Leeds United Independent Fans' Association, declared: "I would rather gouge my eyes out with a rusty spoon than have O'Leary back."

Following the Peter Reid dismissal, Leeds are left with that enthusiastic caretaker Eddie Gray, who entertains a thankless task. It is one that has had most conceivable contenders scurrying for cover. Better the Nationwide than committing yourself to the poverty trap that is Leeds United. O'Leary was swift to distance himself from the proposition that he could be "tempted" to leave Aston Villa because of disagreements with Doug Ellis, though it did did beg the question: precisely from whom did the conjecture originate? Answers, please, to: The Chairman, Aston Villa Football Club.

The truth is that Villa, for all the perceived parsimony and lack of ambition of Ellis, are actually a decently administrated club, certainly in comparison to the downturn in Leeds' fortunes, the like of which has never been witnessed before in the top echelon of football. And, though it will be of no great consolation to Simon Jose and his fellow followers, it may just prove to be football's salvation, having the same effect that the first highly publicised case of negative equity in the property market will have on mortgage borrowing.

It was five years ago that Ridsdale attempted to lure Martin O'Neill from Leic-ester. He did not get his wish. Whether that was O'Neill's good fortune or simply Leeds' misfortune we shall never know. Instead O'Leary was installed, and for a time, both manager and chairman were held up as paragons. The Irishman nurtured his "babies", including Alan Smith, of whom more later. Ridsdale answered O'Leary's call to bring in Rio & Co. You may damn Ridsdale's flair for financial forecasting, but not his basic instincts. That desire to propel his club to fulfil what he believed was their potential, and beyond, is what drove him. Ultimately, it would drive him to distraction as he failed to make allowances for possible failure. But the salutary lesson learnt is that progress has to be achieved steadily.

For years, the likes of those who enjoyed describing themselves as supporters of "major" clubs have patronised Charlton Athletic. For a time homeless and apparently destitute, the south-east London club are now not only financially secure, but are planning to increase their stadium to a capacity of some 40,000. And they are fourth in the table. No wonder Alan Curbishley has, thus far, been unimpressed by approaches from "glamour" clubs. In 10 years' time, it could be that we have revised our opinion about which clubs merit that description. History counts for nothing when you are languishing in debt and your immediate ambition is a return to the Premiership.

FA must be reviewed - urgently s

It was on Friday, after a week of "Carry On Clutching Your Sides", that the message was delivered from on high: "Football Association chief executive Mark Palios tonight ordered an urgent review into the rules governing the selection of England players under police investigation." Palios has been clearly watching the politicians zealously and has learnt that if you have been backed into a cul-de-sac, hounds slavering at your heels, and been accused of being a Cock-up Charlie, the appropriate remedy is to announce "a review", preferably an "urgent" one.

It suggests firm action, scoring a line under events and, most importantly, resonates with the message, "it weren't me, guv, it was one of my minions". How long before Tony Blair declares that there should be an "urgent review" into the appointment of children's ministers?

In the wake of the Alan Smith bottle brouhaha, Palios has handed the matter to the FA's International Committee. If he had been even smarter he would have thrust the complete imbroglio in the direction of the Home Office. "David Blunkett to introduce compulsory ID cards by the back door", we were informed on Tuesday, which referred to a cunning plan to issue passports doubling as ID documents. Why not build a microchip into them which would be scanned for "international eligibility" when players arrive for training? The computer bods at the Home Office would have keyed in the relevant information. There would be a kind of totting-up procedure.

Take a player whom we shall refer to as Andy Allstar: altercation with nightclub steward, charges pending, 6pts; drink-driving, year's ban - completed, but 1pt for incurring a reputation as "irresponsible footballer"; unsavoury sexual incident in hotel room with 18-year-old female, no charges, but story sold to the News of the World, 2pts, for breaking the FA's "moral code"; failure to pay London congestion charge, 3pts. Total: 12pts. Those three points take him over the limit. A red light blinks on the scanning machine. Player barred from entry. A HAL-like voice intones: "Sorry, son. Not this time." The manager is informed. No argument, no appeal and, from the FA's perspective, no comeback. Just blame Big Brother.

Fortunately, those human qualities of reason and a sense of proportion mean that the Smith affair will be resolved satisfactorily, won't it? You have your doubts, in view of the actions and observations of some of those who are implicated.

First, the offence. Lobbing of an empty plastic bottle back into the crowd during the Carling Cup tie against Man-chester United. Not the brightest act, but does anyone in Leeds and the surrounding areas believe it is really in the public interest for the West Yorkshire Police to arrest the Leeds striker and conduct "an ongoing investigation"?

Even if justified, should it follow that Smith should be excluded from the squad to face Denmark today? It can only be presumed that the FA do not wish to be accused of inconsistency by Man-chester United following the suspension from international duty of Rio Ferdinand. But they are hardly comparable matters.

As for the PFA's Gordon Taylor, whose observations become ever more perverse, what do we make of this? "The FA are testing the limits of players - you wouldn't treat a dog like this", and "I'm wondering how far the FA can go before the players consider giving it [England] up." Perhaps it might assist his argument if his members didn't keep having their shoulders felt by the Old Bill, or invited to an afternoon in Soho Square.

It's time for a reality check for everyone, but principally the FA. Long past are the days when even a dismissal by an international performer was regarded as a heinous offence and a blemish on the English shirt. Frankly, unless the FA adopt a somewhat more liberal approach to the matter, Sven Goran Eriksson will be fortunate to have 11 players to select from next summer.

Comments