The last four days have been a microcosm of Leeds United’s existence in the Championship since their return in August 2010; conceding dramatic late goals, scoring dramatic late goals, living on the edge, but in general, by the skin of their teeth, just about maintaining an upward curve.
Tuesday night’s 93rd minute equaliser, conceded to a Coventry side whom we had dominated for the opening 45 minutes and should have put to sword, was one of those calamitous, Keystone Kops episodes that Leeds fans have just come to expect in the last 18 months. We, as fans, have become fantastically adept at taking the rough with the smooth; if you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Conversely, fast forward to Saturday lunch time and having conceded an 88th minute equaliser to 10-man Peterborough nobody should have been surprised that we managed to keep Pacemakers-R-Us in business for a few more days by scrambling home a 95th minute winner, to the disbelieving rapture of the demented masses.
But no Leeds fan wishes to subscribe to the Kevin Keegan school of football management. We don’t actively seek the violent mood swings and the perpetual tightrope walking that envelopes our central nervous system until the 96th minute of every single game. Whilst we derive Schadenfreude by the gooey, lip-smacking bucket load in beating Darren Ferguson in the dying embers of Fergie-time, as we did today, I would much rather beat him comfortably within the 90 minutes, and deprive him the opportunity to bemoan the referee’s interpretation of stoppage time in the manner his Dad has perfected to a fine art.
It is fine to suggest that this Leeds United team “never knows when to give up”. Indeed, this is a great quality to have for any side seeking promotion from the toughest league in the world, however, my issue is that this team bares little resemblance to last season’s team when pretty much the same things were happening. Only Connolly, Howson and Snodgrass have played a significant part in the whole of Leeds Championship rollercoaster over the last season and a quarter, and many of the newer components this season are showing much the same traits as last season’s incumbents of the famous White shirt; that being a seemingly sadistic desire to shoot oneself in the foot and see how difficult you can make the task of hopping about one-legged whilst achieving your original objective.
Clearly, the one common denominator must be manager Simon Grayson. Or is it his coaching staff?
I am not going to turn this into a singular criticism of the Leeds boss, because the nett effect of what is happening is that we are very healthily placed in 5th position with a game in hand; win that and we could be second on goal difference. Being realistic, that is a great position, particularly given our muddled start to this season and particularly given the perceived lack of investment in the first team squad during a seemingly disorganised transfer window.
For me, Grayson is doing a fantastic job with the resources available to him. The lack of investment doesn’t really wash because free transfers and loans such as Pugh, O’Dea, Keogh, Vayrynen and Forssell still cost money. Whether that’s what the club intended when they said they wanted to ‘kick on’ from an impressive first season back in the second tier is difficult to say, but the fact is that Grayson has had to scratch around for these signings and, despite the impression that many of the signings were off-the-cuff with seemingly little strategic planning, so far they have produced the goods for him. Add to that the fact that Academy youngsters Tom Lees and Aidan White have appeared in the first team to positive effect and Adam Clayton has risen to the challenge of a fair pop at a first team place and all in the garden looks relatively rosy. Again, whether the promotion of youngsters to the first team was more by luck or design only the inner sanctum can tell us, but it’s working.
What frustrates the majority of Leeds fans, looking solely, as difficult as that may be, at what is happening on the pitch, is that we have a disturbing trait of throwing points away. If you attack and defend with the gay abandon we seem to, by definition, it will not always go your way. This season alone, which is a mere 12 games old, we have drawn games to Coventry at home and West Ham and Brighton away which were evidently winnable. We have lost to Ipswich away having dominated for the opening 45 minutes and lead 1-0 at half time. In addition, we have won two games with late winners (Crystal Palace and Bristol City) having surrendered an early lead achieved with relative ease.
I would much rather beat him comfortably within the 90 minutes, and deprive him the opportunity to bemoan the referee’s interpretation of stoppage time in the manner his Dad has perfected to a fine art.
Looking at these games as a whole it is easy to suggest that the team cannot hold onto a lead and close the game out. Undoubtedly, that is true, so it must be down to Simon Grayson’s tactics right? Certainly the second half against Coventry on Tuesday night saw Leeds wrestle an unlikely draw from the jaws of a certain victory, with an inexplicable concession of control which allowed an average Coventry team back into the game.
On the other hand, what can Grayson do about Patrick Kisnorbo skewing a clearance expertly into his own net at West Ham a minute after we had deservedly equalised? What can he do about Leigh Bromby defending like a pensioner at a tea dance for all three goals at Brighton? What can he do about debutant goalkeeper Paul Rachubka spilling a tame cross in the 93rd minute against Coventry? What can he do about the referee’s questionable decision to send off Aidy White at Ipswich?
Whilst Leeds can be criticised for inviting pressure whilst in a winning position, that, unfortunately, is what happens in football. Sometimes you have to give credit to the opposition. It is inevitable that any team chasing a winner or an equaliser will put you under pressure; that is the nature of the game. What Leeds lack in those situations is a leader and a dominant midfielder to quell that tide. But quite honestly, most teams in the league are also after such a rare commodity. We are told our squad is full of leaders, but time and again we cannot take a game by the scruff of the neck and see it through.
So if we agree that many of the points Leeds have lost this season are down to individual errors, where do we go from here? The lucky dip that Grayson indulges in with his central defensive partnerships has appeared to have finally borne fruit. The settled duo of O’Dea and Lees have looked solid in the last four games and that can only improve with time spent playing together. Other centre halves in the squad can count themselves unlucky that Grayson did not have the same patience with them, because undoubtedly, changing the partnership every game cannot help and at times it has looked like kneejerk reactions have cost an unfortunate player his berth.
Ultimately, it is true that we can point to individual errors but it is also true that an element of coaching must come into how those errors can be eradicated. The tangible effect of the coaching staff is negligible at best, their influence cannot be seen by the naked eye, only, we assume, the influence of the manager. However, we have been watching these same kind of errors for 18 months now and the joke is wearing thin. To put it bluntly, promotion-winning teams do not make these errors, they don’t ease off and let teams back in, and that is why we finished outside the play-off’s and that is why we are sat outside the top two now. You have to say this is our rightful place until we can attain a solid consistency, and until we can form a unit capable of absorbing pressure and seeing the job through, like real champion sides do.
Cut out the errors and promotion is ours, sounds simple, but the frustration is borne from the fact that we are not too far away. Our goals for tally tells us that much, again, counting on the evidence that the players scoring goals for us this season (McCormack, Clayton, Nunez, Keogh, Pugh) played little or no part in our similarly impressive goals tally last season. So Grayson must have something. Despite his many critics, despite those that cannot cope any longer with the blindfolded, stab-in-the-dark approach to winning games, Grayson clearly has something.
What we need now is an end to the entertainment; we need to find a balance. It’s been a great journey and we’ve all enjoyed it, but what will ultimately see us to our goal is a resolute procession of turgid 1-0 wins, a George Graham approach to nullifying any semblance of positive thoughts once a goal has been scored in our favour. We need to be spending the second half of most games gnawing our finger ends off at the sheer tedium of events before us, as long as we are 1-0 up. We won’t win many friends, but we haven’t got many anyway, so let’s revel in the unpopular side of football that has always been our forte, what is there to lose
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