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Leeds United

Optimism Thy Name Is Leeds United

Picture a director who made a film that, in its time, was lauded as an award-winning classic. Years on, it’s still remembered fondly, though its age may be showing somewhat compared to some of those modern day innovative CGI-laded offerings… still, most people can still appreciate it as cinema done well.

While the director still commands considerable respect in the film community and his sometimes-scathing critiques of the movies of the day are both sought after and feared, he has a problem. He really doesn’t want to make any more films. It isn’t that his creation was perfect, or even the best he could ever do – every time he goes back to it, he finds new faults and defects – but the sheer desire to create no longer burdens him. Perhaps one day the creative urge will return, but perhaps not. So what does this hypothetical director do to make his living, and keep himself in the public eye?

Why, he continues resting on his laurels and just re-releases his old film again with a few uninspiring extras, a new take on the cast perhaps, for they are interchangeable. The director’s name is one that can be found up and down the land at this particular time of year. The director’s name is Optimism.

For 92 teams in the Premier League and English Football League, even those lower in the doldrums of National Leagues, Northern Premier or Isthmian League, Optimism grips them. It holds them, consoles them and provides them with a solace that everybody is equal before a ball is kicked in anger. Schrödinger’s kick-off, if you will. It’s much the same as pressing the ‘Continue’ button in Football Manager. You haven’t yet tasted the familiar bitter taste of defeat, but neither have you celebrated wildly as you bask in the glow of a comprehensive victory over your local rivals.

There are some predictions that are based on firmer ground. Middlesbrough to do well looks to have merit in the Championship and Gillingham to struggle in League One following the loss of their two main forwards, for instance. And then there are the rest, the ones who nobody is quite sure how they’ll do. Sunderland could end the season fifth or fifteenth, depending on whose opinion is proffered.

Ambition and Optimism fit together like a hand into a tailored glove. While Optimism remains a constant, the levels of ambition fluctuate. At Leeds United, the ambition is to break into the Championship’s top six with a playoff spot the absolute minimum expectation. Their opponents this weekend, Bolton Wanderers, are riding the wave of last season’s promotion with their own ambition to avoid immediate relegation back to League One.

Attending Leeds United’s pre-game press conference gave me insight into the expectations set at the highest level of the club and how they reverberate through the Whites of Yorkshire. It’s hard not to be impressed when you visit Thorp Arch, Leeds United’s Wetherby training facility. There is something in the air, and for once it’s not the classic Yorkshire weather beckoning misery and doom. It’s blue skies and sun, smiles and shoulder pats galore.

Midfielder Eunan O’Kane is an Irish international and a participant in two of Bournemouth’s promotion successes, which followed two finishes in playoff positions with Torquay United, before moving to Yorkshire a summer ago. His body language is relaxed, he’s calm, open and speaks very well of his pre-season. The relief to be injury-free following an interrupted campaign is obvious, as is his motivation to display to Leeds supporters the best of him, which has not been evident in the past. Even when discussing the strong competition for places in his area of the team, he has a smile on his face.

His description of the atmosphere is one of excitement, not only for the players coming in but for the ones who were already there. He notes the development of the training ground, the stadium and the appreciation he has for the new manager as positives. Each one takes a worry away from the minds of the players. Eunan is positive about Leeds United’s chances of promotion, which were set by chairman and owner Andrea Radrizzani publicly but is matched by the ambition of the players; “I think we’re more than capable”.

Thomas Christiansen’s build up begins with Eunan O’Kane’s appraisal that he is very impressed with the new manager, “the way he wants to play football will suit me”. He cites Thomas Christiansen’s philosophies but puts emphasis on other options and ways to play. All will be required in the long slog of a Championship season.

The Denmark-born Spaniard has been portrayed as a product of Barcelona’s academy, citing his two caps for Spain and his leadership of APOEL a season previous to victories over the likes of Rosenborg, Olympiacos, Young Boys and Athletic Bilbao. It is his confidence that fills the room, he portrays a manager who does not shy away from challenges. Indeed, one of his early statements hints towards his personality; “I was hired for taking decisions”.

It is most interesting to hear of his outlook to selecting a Captain for the upcoming campaign. He has not arrived and selected his man, he has afforded the players themselves the opportunity to choose who they want to represent the players to him, to the fans and to the board. He has the confidence not to micro-manage, to allow the squad the opportunity to put forward their own leaders.

He alludes to the attitude he expects Bolton Wanderers, newly promoted, to have in front of their own fans. Promoted teams often carry over their winning mentality and look to upset the big boys. He doesn’t expect it to be easy, although he highlights 10 good days in Austria during pre-season as a solid ground for understanding between players and management’s expectations.

Thomas sees Leeds as an important step in his own career, his own ambitions are to manage in the best leagues in the world and there are few more competitive than the Championship, where he realises that it’s possible to lose against the bottom team and defeat the team at the top of the league. He is quick to praise his working relationship with Director of Football Victor Orta, a man who appears to possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of players and their careers which rivals a Football Manager database.

Much like Eunan O’Kane, the Leeds manager is engaging and affable. Even the subject of Neymar’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain is discussed, Christiansen feels the finances involved are not real; “As a Barcelona fan, I would like Neymar to stay because he is a great player”.

He expects Chris Wood to be a Leeds United player for the forthcoming season, which is seen as vitally important, although he acknowledges that contracts can be broken via huge sums of money – but no offer has yet been received. Wood reigns as Championship’s top scorer in 2016/17, Christiansen was joint top scorer in the Bundesliga in 2002/03 and clearly is looking forward to working with the New Zealand international.

The aging director has taken station at Elland Road and Thorp Arch, optimism is the order of the day and with good reason. Owner Andrea Radrizzani has purchased Elland Road back for the club, given the green light on a significant improvement to the Thorp Arch training ground, experienced players have been recruited, a bright young manager signed and something which has flown under the radar; relaunching the funding of Leeds United Ladies.

The only question remaining is whether that same optimism remains for the next 10 months or shall it regress into the shadows, only to be rekindled in another year?

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