Obviously Leeds fans are long past the point where the obligatory, fill-in-the-blanks, regimental optimism of pre-season sees us gullible old fools sucked in by the promise of ‘focussing on only one goal’ or ‘having the squad ready to challenge for promotion.’ Yeah, it’s a ‘marathon not a sprint’, but that applies equally to treading water furiously in mid-table whilst your season plummets into a collapsing trough of mediocrity, as much as it does to a structured and strategic assault on football’s Holy Grail.
Forward-planning is a term not heard in the shadowy corridors ofElland Roadsince the blossoming of Howard Wilkinson’s tenure over twenty years ago. The club has suffered recurring bouts of whiplash, as it jerks uncontrollably from one crisis of abject mismanagement to another. And so it goes that whilst Simon Grayson fed on the equivalent of the ill-fitting, shop-damaged jeans on the last day of the Next sale, that you can’t be arsed to try on because it’s all that’s left, so Neil Warnock’s squad-building plans in the summer were similarly skewed.
The promise of ‘investment’ in producing a squad specifically aimed at gaining promotion in Warnock’s final hurrah as a Manager, looked spectacularly empty come the season’s Kick-Off. Warnock’s very public claim that this was to be a balls-out, everything on the line and sod the consequences, gung-ho, Leeds-shaped blitz on the upper echelons of the Championship, bore the steely foundations of a vacated wasps nest come early August.
Once we had failed to land the campaign-defining target of an unknown £500,000 full-back from Portsmouth called Joel Ward, all the familiar hallmarks of a Leeds transfer-window were there. Starting the season with no number nine in the squad and with Michael Tonge on loan, a player who had started just 12 games for his parent club in four years, meant hopes of improving upon the 2011/12 descent into self-harmingly excruciating tedium were unlikely.
That said, Warnock had done okay with the meagre funds he did have available. Singings such as Paddy Kenny, Adam Drury, Jason Pearce, Paul Green and David Norris were seen as decent recruits of genuine Championship pedigree, rather than the doomed punts on inexperienced Premier League loanees we had become accustomed to. Also, in Rodolph Austin we had a Jamaican international who offered the heart-fluttering potential of a hitherto long-forgotten phenomenon; a cult hero. Not only that, he was a player that other clubs actually wanted.
So having off-loaded as much chaff as we could have reasonably expected, and with the heady indication of incoming investment and an end to the unpalatable tyranny of the Bates regime, the general feeling come the start of the season was bordering, almost implausibly, on the positive. Now what’s happened since?
What’s going right?
Well, results-wise no one can say things have gone to plan. The opening day defeat of Wolves offered dazzling promise and ticked all the boxes of the disillusioned faithful desperate for heroes; a competent performance with a brilliant winning goal from Becchio, against a newly-relegated team, a clean sheet and a star performance from the Bionic Man that is Rodolph Austin. Since then, however, things have taken a familiar turn for the unexpected. Whilst we are by no means alone in bearing the inconsistent characteristics that make the Championship the most bizarre division this side of whatever league Sport Billy played in, we are certainly a conundrum to the bookies.
Most matchdays resemble a classic Two Ronnies sketch where you enter a shop expecting to make a particular purchase, and exit said shop 90 minutes later, bamboozled, and owning something completely different. Although it’s invariably something you don’t want, and there are rarely any laughs.
Things that have gone right include impressive wins over Wolves, Forest, Crystal Palace, Leicester and away at Huddersfield. In addition, we have performed majestically in League Cup wins over Everton and Southampton, which have offered brief insights into the magical fervour of excitement that Warnock can bring to a club.
The most enjoyable thing that has gone right, however, is probably the emergence of youth. Tom Lees has settled into a consistent and reliable performer, whilst 19-year old Sam Byram has appeared from nowhere, and as if by accident. He has become indispensible and a real puzzle as to where his best position is, such is his composure, intelligence and all-round ability on the ball.
What’s not gone right?
Aside from the obvious inconsistency, we have not seen the expected unity and organisation from Warnock’s team. Granted, we have had key players injured such as McCormack, Norris, Green and now Austin, but when a team is organised and a strong unit they are hard to beat, regardless of their individual merits.
Only four clean sheets in the league suggests issues still lie in the defence. The midfield lacks authority despite now having the energy we have been starved of in recent seasons, and we have had no width or pace until the recent addition of Jerome Thomas on loan. Up front we are chronically slow and predictable without McCormack’s vision and movement, and too often we can’t play to Becchio’s strengths, albeit he has still managed to notch a decent tally of goals. Add to this, the fact that Kenny, whilst I like him a lot, has not quite added the comforting authority I thought he would do, and the full backs, nominally, Byram and Peltier, are both in my opinion playing out of position, we have covered pretty much the whole team.
I’m being flippant of course, and as key players such as Green and McCormack have returned we have improved as a unit, and the areas of concern have looked more solid, whilst still lacking that indefinable ‘something’. Only one shuddering capitulation in the league (6-1 at home to Watford, and neatly ignoring the League Cup exit to Chelsea) suggests improvement, and on that tenuous thread I am prepared to move on.
Got the right manager?
Definitely. Given the turmoil brought about by the exasperatingly elongated takeover affair, it was crucial that we had an experienced manager to steady the ship in the ever-turbulent environment. In the darkest days of October, when there appeared no end to the TOMA-induced agony, it felt like Warnock was the only semblance of stability and sanity left at the club. If he had have walked, which given the series of empty promises that had been broken he was perfectly entitled to do, you genuinely feared for the club. It may have turned our stomach at the thought even 12 months ago, but Warnock was the best man to make sense of the chaos, and still is.
Warnock has even used some form of subliminal witchcraft to hoodwink us into worshipping El Hadji-Diouf, although I would seriously question his handling of Lee Peltier. Somewhere within Peltier is a good player, and I don’t go along with the general condemnation of him. However, he is not captain material and Warnock is now in a dilemma of playing him out of position at left back and not dropping him, despite his obvious discomfort in that position. A miscalculation somewhere along the line by Warnock, but I’ll forgive him that for the sly digs at Bates transfer policies in recent weeks.
A scarcity of choice, but a number of players have produced cameo dalliances of consistent form. Diouf, Austin, Lees and latterly Thomas and Tate have had us nodding sagely at the unexpected nonpareil of a stand-out performance. But for consistency throughout the season, and for sheer hope and vitality, the star performer so far this season can only be Sam Byram.
Who would you like to sell in January?
Every season Leeds seem to have a fresh recruitment of unfortunately-procured driftwood blocking up the sluice gates of progress and sucking vital life sources from the club. This years’ crop is Danny Pugh, Ramon Nunez, Paul Connolly and Paul Rachubka. Players you forget are actually contracted to the club such is their permanent residence on the black sheep’s naughty step at Thorp Arch. They must be gone, or paid off, although of course, just to compound the tragedy, two of them in Connolly and Nunez, have long term injuries.
Who do you want to sign?
Whilst we are desperate for pace, creativity and players with spark to shift us off our dormant a*ses I don’t necessarily yearn for the return of Beckford and Gradel. They are the sort of players we need, but for the price and wages they would inevitably incur now, there are probably better players out there. More savvy perhaps to have secured their signatures for a much more reasonable cost a few years ago, eh? But what do I know?
I am quite confident that Warnock will throw us a curveball in January, as he did with Tate and Thomas, and frankly, until GFH Capital lift their vow of silence, which as I write they have not, it is difficult to gauge as to which market we are competing in. Having said that, I’m not getting excited.
The best singing we can make, I would add, is Warnock himself for another season.
Best Chant So Far?
‘Simon Grayson is a Leeds fan’ at Huddersfield, simply because it is factually correct and in being so will forever irritate certain sections of a fan base already bitter and twisted to quite exceptional proportions.
Best opposition player/team you’ve seen?
Blackburn showed signs of class but defended poorly. Crystal Palace looked excellent, and in beating them we showed what we are capable of when all the planets and stars are aligned correctly for that one ninety minute period per season. Wilfred Zaha looked every inch an Arsenal player; lithe, agile, pacey, at one with the ball and f*cking huge.
Biggest **** of the season so far?
In diverting attention away from the idiotic attack on his own goalkeeper by condemning every Leeds fan in the known universe as a ‘vile animal’ for singing about himself, Dave Jones may have been attempting to offer a wider context to the unsavoury scenes at Hillsborough back in October. All he succeeded in doing, however, was to make misguided generalisations and ignore basic and unavoidable evidence. ie. the chants about Istanbul and Jimmy Saville from his own fans. Thus he made regrettable and inflammatory sweeping statements without foundation, exactly the thing he was accusing Leeds fans of, however correct he is to condemn a minority of Leeds fans for still persisting with the frankly tiresome and groundless attack on him. Own Goal.
In a close second is Adam Clayton, recipient of demi-God status from some Leeds fans at the start of last season after a sprinkling of encouraging performances, but sold in the summer. His ‘on-the-knees’ celebration in front of Warnock after scoring a penalty for Huddersfield was classless and premature, regardless of Leeds eventually winning 4-2, as in the papers the day before the game Warnock had admitted he was forced to sell Clayton for financial reasons and against his will.
End of season prediction?
I expect us to show some improvement over the second half of the season, but maybe not enough to enter the promotion picture. However, Warnock signing a new contract and some momentum going into next season would be sufficient after another turbulent campaign.