The response from the away end at Oakwell on Saturday was as predictable as it was blunt. After offering a damning commentary on the current team's qualities (“We're s**t, and we're sick if it”) pockets of the near 5,000 Leeds fans then told United's manager Neil Warnock it was “Time to go”. A mere 22 days after the club's takeover by investors from Bahrain was finally announced as complete, any euphoric halo effect from that had quite clearly evaporated into the cold South Yorkshire air.
You might have expected that, following a comprehensive defeat to a managerless team who hadn't won at home since September 1st, the often pugnacious Warnock would be full of contrition. Surprisingly, however, in the post match press conference he decided that attack was the best form of distraction, bringing in a laptop to display a tackle on Ross McCormack about which he adamant was worth a red card. He was asked how he felt about his performance to date as manager – his win ratio is an economic 38% in 47 competitive games, boosted – if that is the right word – by this season's Carling Cup run – his poker faced response was that he was doing a “Great job”.
Clearly irritated during a subsequent interview with the club's in house radio station, he then went on to defend his continual selection of team captain of Lee Peltier out of position at left back, despite the fact that he has two other natural left sided players in Aidy White and Adam Drury at his disposal, one of the few positions where Leeds have reasonable squad coverage. Drury, “In bed with flu” according to Warnock, played more than 350 games, predominantly in that position, for his previous club Norwich City.
You'd gladly pay a penny for the thoughts of the club's new owners, the public faces of which are Salem Patel and David Haigh of Middle Eastern bank subsidiary GFH Capital. Due to a confidentiality clause surrounding the transaction instigated by outgoing Chairman Ken Bates it's not clear however beyond them who the primary investor is/are, but it's worth speculating that they're becoming just as uneasy with Warnock's responsibility shifting antics. These range from post match analysis which seems to come from a different game, continually re-arranging the side into formations in which the players themselves seem to have little faith or understanding, to instigating a direct style of play that surrenders possession and territory to opposing sides in almost every game.
The casual observer might have reasonably believed that this policy had been paying dividends, with United peripherally in touch with the Championship's play-off places. Regular observers of Leeds this season will however tell you that just as with the latter months of his predecessor Simon Grayson's stewardship, highly fortuitous victories have become the order of the day, especially at Elland Road. Any away fan visiting Beeston this season will have their own tales to tell about how unlucky their team had been in not taking all the points. Except of course those of Watford.
As a result, Haigh and Patel may well have added the word “Manager” to their lengthy to do list. The release of United's latest financial information recently showed that their new investment has significant problems, not the least of which is an increasing cost base and a decreasing revenue line, with cash from gate receipts plummeting as fans have been disenfranchised by Bates contempt. The numbers revealed what the thousands of empty seats at every home game spoke to more eloquently; that his policy of selling the club's best players to fund unprofitable off field activities had structurally failed as well as causing a sense of extreme alienation amongst the paying customers he infamously once described as “Morons”.
Having to deal with Warnock's limitations is a situation that Haigh and Patel would have preferred not to have addressed until May, when United's destiny for another year is settled – realistically it's very likely to be a fourth season in the second tier – and his contract expires. The Sheffielder has spoken openly about his intention to retire when this campaign is over, ideally having secured a record eighth promotion to the elite division, but operations in the current transfer window have proved complicated, with little activity of note aside from signing average loanees on to permanent deals.
January is never a good time to go shopping for players, and it's no secret that the apparent procrastination around the takeover over last summer undoubtedly cost him the chance to recruit ambitiously. Back then the majority of the fans were far more empathetic with his situation; now that goodwill has been sapped by cynicism and his apparent retreat into denial.
The position of manager is of course becoming increasingly peripheral as the role's average life cycle reduces in tenure from years to months. That Michael Appleton – a largely untried figurehead with all the charisma of a strimmer – is on his third job in 12 months tells the neutral all they need to know about how disposable and transient most senior coaches are now regarded in board rooms up and down the country. There are of course reasons for this, most obviously next season's revised TV deal, which it's been stated guarantees every Premier League club an income of £80m a year.
The Championship is the gateway to that pot of gold, where comparatively large clubs, like Leeds, can be had for a comparatively nominal sums of money. The corollary has been an influx of impatient foreign owners, all greedily looking at the prospect of controlling a business whose turnover might rise three or four hundred percent in the space of a few months. Few other sparsely regulated markets exist that offer a potential this kind of potential return in such a short space of time.
For the new board and the mystery investor at Leeds, it's time for action. Their options though are limited, however. Assuming Warnock really believes he still has the experience and pulling power to craft signings of sufficient quality to galvanise a drifting squad, he should be backed in the market. If United are to have any hope of reaching the play-offs, there's little point in following the same strategy as Bates adopted this time last year, effectively preventing Grayson from bringing in fresh faces – then sacking him when the window had closed.
If, however, the reality of the situation is that the manager has found this job a bridge too far, he should be offered his retirement package immediately. The middle way – hoping optimistically against hope that greater spirit and cohesion will create itself – is of course that of least resistance, but will fail to satisfy a vast supporter base that has been left with little tolerance for ongoing failure. To date, the Haigh, Patel et al. have been on the periphery, setting up Twitter accounts and other populist but transparent moves like removing Bates column from the match day programme. Now, it's time for them to get their hands dirty, before their fingers get well and truly burnt.