I wanted to wring his scrawny little bastard neck. Not right when it happened, not when Beckford then Doyle then Hughes were trying to restrain his incoherent anger; I was too deflated then. As Max Gradel finally left the pitch after his famous Bristol Rovers blow-up, I only felt bewildered, unable to believe that such a stupid petulant strop was going to what kept Leeds in League One. No, the desire to wring his scrawny little bastard neck came later, after Howson’s screamer and Beckford’s winner, after the relief and the joy and the pitch invasion, when he came bounding out of the tunnel. After we’d cleared the pitch so that the players could do their lap of We-Didn’t-Fuck-It-Up, Gradel was the first player on the pitch, sprinting and bouncing like a frolicksome gazelle. Max looked happier than anyone in that moment, and I wanted to get back on the pitch; I wanted to get back on the pitch and to wring his scrawny little bastard neck.
It was as if he didn’t realise what he’d damn so nearly done. But then, when he became contrite and apologetic afterwards – he must have realised. Perhaps he was jumping for joy for the same reason we were: relief. And he certainly seemed to do his utmost to make up for it. For most of that May afternoon Gradel’s Leeds career was over, and his scrawny little bastard neck was in grave danger of being wrung; but by the next May, he was player of the year for the simple reason that he’d been our best player. Not just the eighteen goals – the sharp volleys, the quick dribbles and swerving shots, the one against Doncaster when he put a spell on the keeper and made him fall over – but the incredible work rate, the tracking back, the dashing to get the ball from our own net while Schmeichel moaned on about everything. ‘He’s making up for it now,’ was the accepted wisdom. ‘Time and goals will atone for his sins.’
Was it deliberate atonement from Max, though, really? Because he was like that when he got here. The first thing I noticed about Gradel when he arrived on loan was how often he would beat a player by just repeatedly kicking the ball at his shins until it rebounded the other side. The next thing was how much easier he made life for the full-backs of the day, as Max would go rushing back to his own corner flag to help. The third thing was how hard he was trying at everything. Bristol Rovers wasn’t his first flash-point: Max had nearly come to blows with Neil Kilkenny as Leeds limped out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Carlisle. Nobody really cared about the JPT, but to Gradel, it looked like the World Cup final. Did he really care that much about getting Leeds to Wembley?
Perhaps the reason was simple: if Leeds got to Wembley, Max Gradel would go too. The day he left for St. Etienne, Max reactivated his Twitter account, and sent four messages for Leeds fans to explain his move. He claimed he was putting family first, but there was also this: “I know i was nobody when i signe for leeds this is wy i give all i have when i play for leeds”.
You could never argue that Gradel didn’t give his all for Leeds, but you would never want to hear that he did it so he could get it all back; so he would go from ‘nobody’ to ‘somebody.’ Giving, ideally, is selfless; but Max Gradel only gave in proportion to what he would eventually receive. The paradox is that he gave much more than many other players have for Leeds United.
But that’s football. For a team sport, it places incredible value upon the individual. Leeds United had one of the greatest club sides of all time, but only Billy Bremner has a statue; six players scored en route to the 1972 Cup Final, but only Allan Clarke is feted for his header. It’s the game within the game: every player wants their team to win the cup, but every player wants to be the one who scores the winner; or, in modern parlance, to be the one with the biggest wage packet.
It could be seen as greed, which in part it is, but at least Gradel understood that he had to work hard for the reward. The estrangement of Leeds United and Max Gradel is due to his talent and effort being worth more to football clubs than this football club can offer. Max has given, given, given; but when the time has come to take back, he’s had to take from elsewhere. The problem for Leeds in the moment of Max’s departure is not how to cope without Gradel’s goals, but how to match the value other clubs place on our best players. Work demands reward, and in a football marketplace where rewards are not hard to find, Leeds’ best players will keep working their way out of our club.
From The Square Ball magazine 2011/12 issue two.