The final Tuesday in July was a good day; I was in Cornwall for Leeds United’s pre-season tour; the previous evening the Whites had kicked-off their itinerary with a comfortable 6-0 victory against Tavistock; it wasn’t a great game, and at times it was a bit of a struggle, but it was early in pre-season so there was little reason for concern. Before that game, Leeds had confirmed the signing of four more players, while Robert Snodgrass was one of the first squad members to disembark the coach at Langsford Park, calming fears of a move away from the club. With the takeover seemingly imminent and the prospect of ‘marquee’ signings, the future was finally looking positive.
I spent that evening in Newquay; sat out with a couple of ice-cold pints of Cornish Rattler cider – hugely recommended, by the way – basking in the baking heat, under unblemished blue skies, drinking in everything around me as well as the contents of the glass before me; the golden sands, the rocks, the stunning clear blue waters as they stretched out towards the horizon and the pale callipygian girls, pink from a day’s beach activities, who paddled in them; the sounds of the waves gently lapping against the shore, the faint waft of fish and chips… an idyllic experience.
Four weeks on and now we’re here in Blackpool and the exciting new future we’ve been waiting to embrace at Elland Road still hasn’t arrived, nor have any major signings (bar the completion of Austin’s move), while Snodgrass has enrolled in the ex-player’s pension scheme over in East Anglia; the frustration, anguish and unanswered questions all remain; all that is different now are the surroundings.
Blackpool is hardly Newquay, and while the weather’s fair, the sands seem that little bit darker, the sea a bit grimmer, those glorious bikini-clad English roses have made way obese women in ill-fitting t-shirts and leggings, while any sounds from the sea are drowned out by the dual carriageway that separates the pub from the beach and the distinctive smell of cod and haddock, lost in a melange of kebab, pizza, ‘Southern fried’ chicken, donuts and candy floss aromas – back to reality!
With the takeover seemingly imminent and the prospect of ‘marquee’ signings, the future was finally looking positive.
They say a week in football is a long time; well the past 28 days of following Leeds United’s off the pitch activities have seemed like an eternity…and wholly unproductive to boot. The trip to Bloomfield Road at least offered fans the best possible barometer with which to measure on the pitch progress; with the end of season trip to Cardiff being United’s only away game since our last visit to the seaside; there could’ve barely be a more effective gauge of Warnock’s pre-season work.
In truth, there couldn't have been a sterner test at such an early stage; while Ian Holloway’s side aren’t amongst the bookies’ frontrunners for an automatic promotion slot, the side have been together for some time now and few changes had been made during the summer. Moreover, the pace and movement that typifies their style of play is exactly the what Leeds currently lack.
Logic dictated that a draw would’ve represented a fine result; a victory only likely as the product of a ‘smash and grab’ job, built on a heroic defensive rear guard action, and for a while, it all seemed possible. Having dealt with early Blackpool pressure, Leeds took the lead; Tom Lees powering home a Ross McCormack corner – suddenly a huge result seemed possible; even Tom was moved to smile. So, to the tick sheet for the classic away performance:
Weather early storm – TICK
Score (set play desired method) – TICK
So far so good, and now on to coping with the home side’s response… and Leeds did, just about, making it to the interval ahead.
The distinctive smell of cod and haddock, lost in a melange of kebab, pizza, ‘Southern fried’ chicken, donuts and candy floss aromas – back to reality!
Now was the time to address the issues; while Leeds led, they only did so on the back of number of fine Paddy Kenny saves and the performances of Peltier, Pearce and Lees. Everywhere else the home side were comprehensively outperforming their opponents. The ball didn’t stick when it was hit forward to the front men, while the midfield, seemingly running about dazed in a ‘no man’s land’, were completely peripheral to proceedings. Matters on the pitch had to be addressed, but they weren’t and eventually it cost us.
The most sickening aspect of conceding the equaliser was the manner in which it came; just as supporters were wondering whether sheer good luck and determination at the back would prove to be enough, Luke Varney undid 75 minutes of toiling in an instant. Having failed to prevent the ball running out of play for a throw-in, he inexplicably stopped it from rolling away; Stephen Crainey took advantage, galloping into the void of empty space vacated by the out of position forward, playing a one-two to bypass an exposed Sam Byram, before squaring to Nouha Dicko to equalise.
The winner was as inevitable as it was swift in its arrival; substitute Matt Phillips, stroking home after a Byram slip let Tom Ince storm to the by-line unopposed. Seconds earlier Warnock had sent on Danny Pugh for a woeful Aidy White, his introduction almost seemed a valedictory acknowledgement that the game was gone, even at 1-1. In truth, I would've been able to empathise with such logic.
Come the final whistle, there were few positives to be had; perhaps the most philosophical view was that at least we got away with only a 2-1; even allowing for the crossbar’s intervention, Leeds were only a ‘Rachubka’ away from shipping five goals again, and it wouldn’t have flattered the home side. On reflection, the game did at least affirm the belief that we now do have the makings of a very solid backline; Peltier has been especially impressive in his short time at the club.
Matters on the pitch had to be addressed, but they weren’t and eventually it cost us.
The problems lie with all the questions that were posed beforehand, those that the game was hopefully going to provide some reassurance about – it didn’t. Blackpool’s pace, fluidity and speed of movement not only exemplified everything the Leeds side currently lacks, but also ruthlessly exposed the new look midfield.
While Warnock was especially critical of the front four in his post-match interview, and in fairness Becchio and McCormack didn’t hold the ball up effectively, those playing behind them, to a man, were abysmal. Norris was anonymous; Austin, so effective on Saturday was reduced to chasing shadows throughout; Varney’s only contribution of note was his role in the equaliser, while Aidy White contributed absolutely nothing going forward; though very effective on the run, White seems incapable of beating an opponent from a standing start, his passing too was woeful.
Warnock himself should not escape examination either; his tactics were baffling. With the Leeds team already struggling with width, where was the sense in having White start the game on the right of midfield, especially when it necessitated Peltier also playing on his unfavoured side of the pitch to accommodate the move?
With Tom Ince’s attacking prowess likely to be a key factor, the decision seemed all the more mystifying, especially with Adam Drury sitting idly on the bench. And where was Michael Brown? With the midfield so embarrassingly over-run and Austin really struggling, surely somebody with his experience was needed out there in the middle?
Blackpool’s pace, fluidity and speed of movement not only exemplified everything the Leeds side currently lacks, but also ruthlessly exposed the new look midfield.
On the basis of Blackpool, it would seem very much to be the case of ‘as you were’ with regards to progress on the team building front; Kenny unquestionably has the look of the solid goalkeeper the club have lacked for so long; in Peltier, Pearce and Lees we have three quarters of a very strong defensive unit at this level, that Drury will hopefully in time, complete. But cover is still an issue; if Warnock can bring in another centre-half, then with Peltier, Lees and Byram able to play at right back and White and Drury competing down the left hand side, it would seem very much a case of “job done” at the back.
Midfield is more of a concern. While in Austin, the club may have just landed themselves a bargain, as Blackpool showed, the transition to the pace of the English game may not quite be a seamless one. Elsewhere, recruitment policy has delivered a collection of grafters, rather than game changers.
Norris may be good to contribute a few goals, but hasn’t shown too much evidence of possessing the sort of creative spark we lack; Green is an honest player, guaranteed to put in a shift, but is now out for eight weeks, while Varney seems to be something of a compromise between a winger and a striker. His height will doubtless be an asset, but in a serious promotion chasing side, surely more of a bit part player than a regular?
Up front, Becchio and McCormack have proven themselves to be effective players in the Championship, but neither possesses the pace to trouble sides on the break, or to take on defenders. Looking at the bench we only have Andy Gray and Dominic Poleon and the possible emergence to fall back on; like the midfield, strength in depth and quality are issues.
But cover is still an issue; if Warnock can bring in another centre-half, then with Peltier, Lees and Byram able to play at right back and White and Drury competing down the left
On the back of that defeat, the obvious merely seems increasingly so; quality is needed and quickly if Leeds are to figure in the shake-up. While the arrival of another centre-back would be excellent news, the areas of greatest need are in midfield an up front. In the middle the side lack a creative spark and the loss of Green leaves Austin and Brown as the only legitimate ball winners (forget Pugh), while the lack of a genuine, goal-scoring winger and striker, blessed with natural pace and the ability to take players on remain key to completing a side that can not only keep enough clean sheets, but score enough goals.
It’s sickening that the two of the most suited candidates for those roles (Gradel and Beckford) are amongst those lost on the back of the club’s hopelessly misguided approach to contract negotiations – that, at least appears to be now being addressed.
So not the best night out…rather like 90% of recent Tuesdays on the road with Leeds United; yes we can defend, but not necessarily yet as a unit, while as an attacking force, we’re a long way short of the mark. There’s now only eight days remaining of the transfer window remaining and one only man standing between the club and a concerted push for promotion that the arrival of two or three big money, high quality players can herald.
Seems like we’ve been here before…
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