FORTY-ODD years ago there was a football team called Leeds United that nobody much liked. Their win-at-all-costs, like-us-or-not approach never endeared them to the impartial observer, which was why Brian Clough’s calamitously brief tenure, as portrayed in the book and film The Damned United, provoked such a sense of schadenfreude amongst football fans outside Elland Road.
What the re-writing of history has tended to conveniently overlook though was just how good Leeds were in their pre-Clough pomp. The 7-0 humiliation of Southampton in 1972 was one of the most sublime pieces of footballing demolition work you will ever have seen. Brilliant in its execution. And yet still nobody loved them.
Watching Saracens clinically dissect and then devour Ulster in Saturday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final at Twickenham evoked memories of those Leeds United days. On a glorious spring evening (remarkably) this was a masterclass in how to win a sporting contest. Total commitment and focus, with an intensity that was almost frightening. Barely a suggestion of any responsibility to entertain. A job to be done, win-at-all-costs, like-us-or-not. Chris Ashton scored a sensational try in the way that Peter Lorimer used to smash home thunderous volleys for Leeds, but in the bars afterwards, the non-committed Saracens fans (of which there were many) weren’t talking about that. The general verdict was that Sarries are dull, functional, methodical.
There remains a substantial South African influence at the club, which perhaps deters some from giving Saracens their due, but those barbs tend to ignore an almost entire English international back division. And if Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Dave Strettle, Alex Goode and Ashton could barely a muster an attacking move between them all game, the response will doubtless be to look at the final scoreboard. Do you want winners or do you crave flaky entertainers who buckle when the going gets tough?
On this weekend’s evidence, no one will fancy playing Saracens for the rest of the season. Difficult to love. Impossible to ignore. Harder still not to respect. Which is doubtless exactly how they want it.