Amid the despondent post-match wreckage of yet another spineless home performance against Watford last Saturday, Neil Warnock, as he so often does, came out with a succinct and damning summary of the state of the current Leeds United squad; “You name it…….we haven’t got it,” he sighed. A fitting epitaph to a wretched season that can’t end soon enough, the dying embers of which are being played out like painful drops of candle wax on the sensitive parts of every Leeds fan.
It wasn’t meant to be like this of course, but a muddled and disorganised transfer window which culminated in the stinging loss of Max Gradel on the very last day back in August, pretty much set the tone at a time when the squad had been perfectly poised for the fine-tuning required to build on an impressive first season back in the Championship. Instead, a patchwork quilt of miscellaneous short term fixes was thrown together with little apparent strategy and what transpired was a season that perfectly matched the components of the squad; lacking in consistency, some bright moments but ultimately bereft of quality and desire.
The general consensus now, from Bates, Warnock and pretty much every Leeds fan is that the squad needs a major overhaul from top to bottom; a damning indictment of the stream of frees and loanees brought in by the undoubtedly hamstrung Simon Grayson. Wherever you sit on the debate of who is to blame for the hopelessly disjointed squad we are left with, what cannot be denied is that it contains very little of the ingredients required to escape the suffocating slog of the Championship.
As Warnock so eloquently put it, we tick very few boxes when analysing what is required of an accomplished squad truly primed to attack the realistic prospect of promotion. We lack a solid spine to the team, we lack leaders (despite being told how many we have signed in recent seasons), we lack organisation, we lack bottle, we lack pace, we lack height and strength in the air, we lack a physical presence in midfield, we lack intelligence on and off the ball, we lack character, we lack composure, we lack fitness, we lack quality. Anything else?
The general consensus now, from Bates, Warnock and pretty much every Leeds fan is that the squad needs a major overhaul from top to bottom
In Snodgrass and McCormack Leeds possess two players of gifted ability who shine like a beacon amongst the moribund mixed bag containing their teammates, and while their futures are dependent on delicate contract situations, you feel Warnock is hoping to retain them as integral parts of a refurbished. After that there is little else. Centre half Tom Lees shows promise and has had a good season, though is now shot of confidence and must take some of the blame for the string of atrocious home losses we have endured. Adam Clayton started the season like the answer to all our prayers but has faded alarmingly in recent weeks, perhaps a reflection on this being his first full season of first team football at this level. Aidan White is a decent left back with the precious attribute of pace, but as yet is by no means an attacking winger, demonstrated by the dearth of occasions where he has positively affected a game from an attacking position. That said, Warnock likes him and the crowd want him to succeed, so certainly there is scope for improvement in White and hopefully his contract situation will also be resolved.
What we certainly have in Neil Warnock is a Manager that can craft some of those many missing attributes from the scraps he has been left with, and this has been shown in some recent games, notably Southampton and West Ham at home and Middlesborough away. But clearly, Warnock is of the opinion that he needs players he can trust, and his very open and very derogatory assessment of the squad currently at his disposal suggests he is about to revert to his tried and trusted methods; with personnel to match.
So the revolving door of the Leeds United dressing room will once more be rattling round at a frenetic pace, as yet another mixed bag of fresh faces attempts to drag the sorry carcass of this once fearsome footballing institution back into the groove of the formidable beast it continually promises to be, but fails to deliver.
For various reasons there have been many nostalgic hankerings for the past to be repeated this season; perhaps triggered by the death of Gary Speed, which inevitably sparked a wistful longing for a current player with just a third of his all-round ability. I have found myself regularly looking back to the 80s and trying to remember exactly how demoralising life as a Leeds fan was then. Of course, the era in which you become a teenager and are let loose on the all-consuming adventure of independent football-watching will always invoke slushy sentiment with positive yearnings, despite the poisonous savagery and desperate under-achievement it masks. But I have often looked back at what is widely perceived as Leeds United’s darkest era and wondered if today is any better.
In Snodgrass and McCormack Leeds possess two players of gifted ability who shine like a beacon amongst the moribund mixed bag containing their teammates
Obviously the frequent crowd disorder of the 80s puts a slightly darker and more sinister tinge on the memories, but looking at the era purely in football terms was it any worse than today? Defenders like Brian Caswell, Ronnie Robinson, Jack Ashurst and Martin Dickinson are by-words for the truly mediocre, the epitome of how low we had sunk, but were they any worse than Fede Bessone or Tony Capaldi, Paul Connolly or Alex Bruce? Certainly I can’t remember being humiliated so often at home in the 80s. There were some embarrassing capitulations away, but at home I can’t remember shipping three goals too often, never mind four, five, six and seven.
The symmetry with the 80s stems from the fact that we were out of the top flight for eight full seasons in that decade. In that eighth season, 1989/90, Leeds steamrollered the Division and embraced every positive factor available in doing so, on a joyride of collective energy. The dichotomy with today is not just the fact that Leeds are about to end their eighth straight season outside the top flight, and the hint of resurgence has never seemed so far away. The main difference is that we have a fractured club devoid of the shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration between fans, management and players that gave Howard Wilkinson’s team a head start that no other club could match. Neil Warnock has finally recognised that and is doing his utmost to invigorate a dormant fanbase, comatose from a sense disenchantment and detachment from the thing they love. The recent West Ham game was a throwback to better times, a full ground, two teams going hell for leather in an absorbing contest, and a set of Leeds fans galvanised, if only for an anti-climactic 90 minutes.
On March 25th 1989, at the tail-end of the season before Leeds last gained promotion to the top flight, Howard Wilkinson paraded two new signings that signified his intentions, with Chris Fairclough and Gordon Strachan playing in a 1-0 win over Portsmouth. For the next four seasons the two players were integral to everything the club achieved, and they immediately stamped authority, class and experience on Wilkinson’s team. Having taken the noble step down from the top flight, they invigorated their team mates and with more tinkering in the summer, Wilkinson had the basis for his all out assault on promotion. This wasn’t a brick by brick approach, this was a structured and measured shot of ambition.
Today, due to the restrictions of the blessed transfer window that nobody in football has time for, Warnock is not afforded the opportunity to give his squad the immediate electrode bolt to the testicles it so clearly needs. The injection of characters, proven winners, men of steel, not just in physique but in mental fortitude, are what is required to get the ship sailing again. Arguably six or seven key players are required in the spine of the team….and the rest. Debate surrounds the most important positions we are lacking in, but certainly no player can be said to be sure of his starting position next season. Our fabled ability to score goals at will has dried up in recent months and with a hollow centre, a frail back line and an unconvincing goalkeeper, it is no surprise to hear Warnock talk of this being his biggest ever challenge.
Despite the numbers, this needn’t cost the earth, and let’s be honest, whoever comes in, there’s no way it’s going to. Warnock has been appointed because he knows people, he manages people, he gets the best out of players he can trust, regardless of their sometimes average ability. But Warnock is not in the mood to continue the tippy-tappy approach. He hasn’t got the time or the patience. Like Fotherby, Silver and Wilkinson agreed some time during 1988/89, a change of approach is required, and the time is now.
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