I HAVEN’T given an awful lot of thought to poppy etiquette, assuming that you either buy one or you don’t, and that’s it. But Ken Bates got me thinking after appearing on the Elland Road big screen ahead of this afternoon’s match between Leeds and Bristol City.
It wasn’t easy to pick up much of what the Leeds chairman was saying, such are the wonders of outdoor public address systems. But the interview was conducted by a chap who looked every bit as nervous as you’d expect someone to be when they’re interviewing their boss and it’s Ken Bates – so I suspect he wasn’t being forced to handle anything too difficult.
When the interview was apparently over, thank-you-very-much-for-joining-us pleasantries complete, Bates turned to his interlocutor and asked: “Why are you wearing your poppy on the wrong side?”
The interviewer, a rictus grin of embarrassment on his face, responded: “Er, I wasn’t aware there was a wrong side.”
And there isn’t, according to the Royal British Legion. While it may be customary to wear the poppy above the left breast (because that’s where your heart is), it is neither right nor wrong to do so.
To prove the point, the poppies embroidered on Leeds’ shirts today were in the middle. As far as the RBL is concerned, that’s good too – as long as the poppy is worn with pride.
It’s not clear why Bates felt the need to pull up his interviewer on his poppy wearing, and it was a shame that he did. But then tact has usually taken second place to plain speaking as far as the Leeds chairman is concerned.
In his programme notes, having publicised the poppy appeal, he took the coalition government to task for decommissioning the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal during the recent spending review, arguing that it would leave Argentina free to help itself to the Falkland Islands. Before the game, with Remembrance Sunday tomorrow, sailors from Ark Royal formed a guard of honour for the players, returning to salute the crowd at half-time.
Bates is not alone in his view on the defence cuts. A group of five retired Royal Navy commanders wrote to The Times this week expressing similar sentiments. I suspect, though, that Leeds’ chairman is the only person to air such thoughts in a football programme this weekend. Interesting timing on the part of Bates, given that Leeds’ 3-1 victory this afternoon was secured by an Argentinian.
Luciano Becchio’s contract at Elland Road expires at the end of this season. Talks over a new deal have been going on for a couple of months, but nothing has been agreed. As things stand, he will be able to walk away for nothing in June.
Leeds have been here before. Twelve months ago, they found themselves in an awkward position with Jermaine Beckford, in the final year of his contract, scoring freely and attracting the attentions of clubs in higher divisions with bigger budgets. The club had to decide between selling him in January, and losing his goals from the League One promotion battle, or keeping him until the end of the season and letting him go for nothing. They went for the latter option and are now in the Championship, which suggested they made the right choice.
Becchio isn’t attracting anywhere near as many suitors as Beckford did. That would suggest Leeds have more chance of keeping him. Manager Simon Grayson spoke positively about Becchio and optimistically of the contract negotiations after today’s game. Judging by the roar that met the striker’s appearance as a replacement for Davide Somma on the hour mark, Leeds fans want his contract sorted out quickly too.
The game was deadlocked at 0-0 when Becchio came on, and looked likely to stay that way. Leeds had looked solid enough in defence for the first hour – these days, they have Peter Schmeichel’s son in goal and Steve Bruce’s son at centre-back, which begs the question as to what Gary Pallister’s kids are up to on a Saturday.
Bristol City’s defence was equally robust, though, with Steven Caulker and Liam Fontaine ensuring David James was relatively untroubled. But with 25 minutes left, captain and right-back Louis Carey damaged his ankle after being clattered by Jonathan Howson. (And it was obvious straight away that Carey was injured, despite the Leeds fans yelling for him to get to his feet.)
“In the second half, I couldn’t see Leeds scoring,” said City manager Keith Millen. “The injury to Louis had a massive bearing on the game. We struggled to deal with Luciano Becchio and with Lloyd Sam on the left wing.”
With Carey off, the visitors’ defence wobbled and Becchio pounced, first heading in a Robert Snodgrass cross and then – after Jon Stead equalised – steering a close-range shot past James before completing his hat-trick from a George McCartney delivery. As Grayson admitted, it was a very good way of strengthening your negotiating position.
“We’re a big football club, we get some fantastic support and we’re trying to keep within our budget,” Grayson said. “We’re not going into the realms of anything we can’t afford.”
At the start of the week, Becchio was one of four key Leeds players in the final year of their contract. Another, South African striker Somma, signed a three-year deal on Wednesday. Bradley Johnson rejected a new contract recently, while his fellow midfielder Neil Kilkenny doesn’t appear to be close to agreeing anything soon.
Leeds won’t spend beyond their means – they’ve been there before too. The challenge facing Grayson, having lifted his side to fifth with today’s win, is to maintain a promotion push on a budget which is a long way from the Championship’s biggest.
“Luciano’s not turned down anything as such,” Grayson said. “It’s been difficult this week because we’ve had games Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday. There might be a chance this week to get a little bit closer to where we want to get with him.”
Even Bates’ apparent antipathy towards Argentina wouldn’t stand in the way of that. And for the record, I’ve been wearing my poppy over the left breast.