On New Year’s Day, when a mobile phone was placed before me and I first saw the now infamous photo of ten year old Leeds fan Kai with El Hadji Diouf, I didn’t really know what to think. It made no sense to me that a ten year would wake up, liberally apply tanning lotion around his blonde mohican, and make his way to Elland Road without anyone stopping him and saying, ‘Let’s just think through what we’re doing here.’ Why, after all, would anyone let a young boy run the risk of enduring ridicule and causing offence, by walking the streets of Leeds dressed up as a Leeds United player?
The ‘blacking up’ aspect was, of course, a bit uncomfortable, and was what ensured the photo went viral and found its way into news coverage even on the other side of the world. But when you take it as what it was – an act of hero worship by a young fan – you have to do a lot of work to find an angle for offence.
More interesting was the weird interaction this season between Leeds, El Hadji Diouf, and fame; something almost entirely new to Leeds United, and something that is not altogether for the best. Leeds have had famous players before, and like Diouf, not all of them gained their celebrity only for their football skills. The names of Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate are still national currency among people with only the faintest interest in football. Vinnie Jones came to nationwide attention for his appearances on the Wogan chat show as much as for his Exocet tackling style. Lee Chapman worked his way into similar red-carpet territory thanks to his looks, having lived in France for a bit, and his marriage to a genuinely famous actress in Leslie Ash; he never quite followed Vincent to Hollywood, though. Otherwise, it has taken footballing excellence to push Leeds players through into the non-football consciousness. John Charles was a superstar because of his extraordinary abilities in defence and attack, which earned him his move to Italy, and to the pop charts with ‘Sixteen Tons.’ While George Best was renowned as the Mancunian Beatle for his bowl hair and party lifestyle, the players of the Revie era were on the cultural map purely because they were such an effective sporting outfit. The top-rated television programmes of the day – Porridge, Rising Damp, The Benny Hill Show – worked Leeds United into their scripts to reflect what Leeds United were in real life – a normal part of every day conversation. Revie and Bremner weren’t discussed over the counter in the corner shop for their off the field exploits at carpet bowls and bingo. They were talked about because of what they did between three and five o’clock on Saturday afternoons.
Leeds’ way has always been to make names, not buy names, and that’s true even of the players we signed. Johnny Giles and Gordon Strachan were risking obscurity on the sidelines at Old Trafford before they came to Elland Road and were transformed. Likewise with Jones and Chapman: the move from Wimbledon was an attention grabber that Vinnie took full advantage of with his best season on the pitch, while Lee and Leslie became a celebrity couple only after his goals helped win two titles for Leeds, as opposed to the ‘famous actress with journeyman footballer husband’ act they had been before. Eric Cantona, Tony Yeboah, Jimmy Hasselbaink – none of them were anybody, in this country at least, before Leeds snapped them up. The important thread running through them all is that their status was unavoidably linked to their performances. Mickey Thomas signed at the same time as Vinnie Jones, and if their subsequent Leeds careers had been reversed, the city could have been overrun by young lads with shocks of long wiry hair, while the Jones buzzcut ’n’ loaf went unremarked in the reserves. It was his connection with the lads on the terraces, but, just as important, his relentless brilliance on the pitch that sent the Leeds fans running to the barbers for a Jones. Which makes me wonder all the more why a Leeds fan would be desperate to spend New Year’s Day sporting a Diouf.
We don’t really do players like El Hadji Diouf. Elland Road is a place where new reputations are made, but it’s not a place where existing reputations come to blossom. Leeds have rarely benefited from the kind of pre-packed transfer that took Robin van Persie from Arsenal to Salford. Working backwards, Robbie Fowler was ‘God’ to Liverpool fans and a genuine Premiership star – see also Ian Rush; Lee Sharpe’s Elvis wiggles had earned him England caps and a national reputation; Tomas Brolin was a real, no mistaking it superstar; Peter Barnes was the Lee Sharpe of Manchester City, via a diminishing detour elsewhere. None of them worked out.
Only Tony Currie and Allan Clarke can really be said to have arrived at Leeds with a big reputation, in a big transfer, and kept their status intact. Currie kept his light flickering in an increasingly shadowy team, but it was Clarke who stands out as Leeds’ greatest ever big-name transfer. A British record signing when he arrived, he had 98 goals in 194 appearances for Walsall, Fulham and Leicester under his belt, and at 23 years old, was the hottest striking property in England. For £165,000 he moved to Leeds and over the next nine years added 110 goals and the winner in the FA Cup Final to his C.V. A big transfer for a big player with big results, and Sniffer did it all on the pitch.
And yet you didn’t see many small boys with blonde bowl cuts and dour expressions hanging around the players’ entrance in full kit in 1972. It would be a tough proposition to suggest that El Hadji Diouf has been a success at Leeds – or anywhere – of the order of Allan Clarke or Tony Currie. At this stage, I’d put him firmly in the Tomas Brolin bracket, as a burst of early career success led to rewards that increased as his abilities declined, and he ended up in Yorkshire. Brolin is derided by Leeds fans now, in retrospect, but at the time he was regarded as £4.5m worth of unrealised talent too often discarded on the bench by the cruel vagaries of Wilkinson. If he could have teamed up with Andy Gray at Wembley, the League Cup could have been ours, and with it European football, more money, and maybe even more Wilko.
Instead it was Diouf who had the honour of teaming up with Gray, at a club that is a shadow of the outfit that made it to Wembley in 1996. And like Brolin in the mid-nineties, the popularity of the Senegalese seems to bear little relation to his popularity in the stands. We have had some excellent players at Elland Road over the years, even in these recent dour seasons, but I have rarely seen a reception for a player like Diouf gets for taking a corner. Twenty minutes in to a game and his first meaningful contribution is to pick the ball up and walk to the touchline, lapping up the applause of an adoring public. Perhaps not a red one, but there should be a carpet of sorts rolled out for Dioufy on these trips. His fans all adore him, but his last film was rubbish.
I’m convinced that El Hadji Diouf is past it. Like Brolin he has tucked away a goal here and there; like Brolin he obviously has talents far in excess of the players around him. But like Brolin I think his body has gone and he doesn’t have the nous – or the ability – to adapt his game to his new circumstances. Diouf on the halfway line in 2013 is a non-event – he can use a trick to turn a player, but with fifty yards between him and the goal, and usually at least thirty between him and Becchio, the most Diouf can do is move upfield until he feels a push and wins a free kick. Pearce will then punt this in the general direction of The White Hart and a tear will come to the corner of Luciano’s eye. Diouf has neither the acceleration nor, should he eventually reach top speed, the pace to outrun even the slowest Championship midfielder, and yet he still insists on dropping to the centre circle to get the ball. There he meets Michaels Brown and Tonge, the three of them a slow trickle through our midfield, like piss down an old folks home’s corridor.
Where George Graham and the newly arrived Caspian Group did all they could in 1997 to get Brolin off the payroll – loan moves to Switzerland and dead elks in Sweden the result, before Attilio Lombardo finally rehomed him at Crystal Palace – Neil Warnock and the newly arrived GFH Capital have seen fit to hand El Hadji Diouf an eighteen month contract for his work so far. We’re not allowed to know how much he’s paid – whether through tickets or TV subscriptions, it’s only our money, after all – but it’s fair to predict it won’t be an insignificant amount. £5,000 per week was given as the breadline amount Diouf took to suffer at Doncaster until a better heeled club came in for him, and the word is that has been at least doubled now that he’s a permanent fixture at Elland Road. Those Cadillacs don’t turn gold by themselves. Is Neil Warnock really so far away from George Graham in philosophy and nous that he would look at a squandered talent in his early thirties, clearly on the downward slide and already struggling to perform in the second division, and decide he’s worth keeping around for another season and a half on top wages? Or was it even his decision? Diouf has continued to start more often than not, except where illness or fitness concerns have intervened, but he has been one of the first to be hauled off when things have not been going Leeds’ way. With a younger, fitter and keener McCormack on the bench, Diouf seems unnecessary to Leeds’ squad from a football point of view. From a commercial point of view, though, he’s much more valuable.
No youngster is going to spend his Christmas in simply thrilled honey at the prospect of dressing up and meeting Ross McCormack on New Year’s Day. No kid is going to unwrap his ‘Lees 4’ shirt and frown constantly to be like his hero. Paddy Kenny is not the sort of icon of athleticism that has children going to sleep excited to dream of being a goalie. These players have come from the lower leagues, the youth team, or from unfashionable clubs – and they aren’t Dioufy 21. The true significance of Diouf for Leeds is that he has been on the telly more than any of our players: even your dear old gran, who doesn’t like football, knows who he is, whereas that nice Paul Green, who is much more likely to treat her to a sherry on Christmas Eve, isn’t even on her radar. You can print up a few thousand no. 21 shirts for next season and hang them in the club shop in safety, knowing that they’ll sell no matter what Diouf does on the pitch for Leeds. Go in and ask them to put ‘Varney 11’ on the new kit and I believe they have instructions to notify the police.
That this popularity was noticed and acted upon is, I suppose, a tick in favour of the new owners. The crowd loves a player, the player wants a new contract, the player gets his contract and the crowd stay happy. This would be fine if it was Becchio or Byram, the two star performers so far in a dire 2012/13. But it’s hard not to be cynical where Diouf’s contract is concerned. Keeping him to the end of the season would make sense; but it wouldn’t translate into a summer of shirt sales before the next campaign. And as an early exercise in gaining favour, it fits very neatly with David Haigh and Salem Patel’s Twitter friendly personas. “Who do they like?” you can imagine them asking, between retweets of dogs in Leeds scarves. “Diouf? Let’s sign him up. They’ll like that.” To be fair to our new owners, when kids are risking the kind of embarrassment Kai risked to win a moment’s attention from their favourite player, you’d have to be a heartless bastard not to keep that player at the club.
A little heartless bastardry isn’t always amiss when it’s the right decision, though. A handsome eighteen month contract based on past glories and reputation seems like the wrong decision, to me. I don’t always ask that club directors give us what we want, I ask rather that they give us what will be best for the club. Another season and a half of a barely mobile Diouf contributing to the team’s overall downward trajectory doesn’t seem like a plan that will work well at Elland Road. But that’s only the football, and maybe it’s the case that at Leeds United we’re just not used to the public image as part of what we still quaintly call the ‘game.’ We see Byram and Becchio, or Jones and Chapman, as the perfect on-pitch expression of what we want from our football club; but in the plush canteens of the East Stand upper, the demands are somewhat different. While the nation rustled its Daily Mail and tutted at the photo of Kai and his hero, executives at Enterprise Insurance, Macron and GFH Capital must have popped a cork or two and toasted Leeds United’s most effective performer of the season. In terms of raw return, they couldn’t have wished for more exposure than Diouf gave them in that one photo; and, after smiling out from the back pages as he embraces a young Leeds fan, El Hadji Diouf can look forward to an even warmer reception as he trundles to the corner to take a set piece. Everybody is happy and everybody wins, but the ball stays firmly out of the net.
Raised on unglamourous workers, perhaps it’s no wonder that we’re so dazzled by the goldenness of Diouf the presence, while underwhelmed by Diouf the player, and perhaps it’s a hint of what is to come. We’ve all dreamed of a team of Andy Hughes, while frustrated club sponsors dreamed of a team of El Hadji Dioufs. With GFH Capital in charge and eager to please, the balance may be tipping towards the public image above all else.
From The Square Ball magazine 2012/13 issue six.