Thursday, 6 May 2010

The Believer

Well this is it.

The culmination of a season that has been anything but dull. Good in chunks, shite in wads, briefly glorious in the extreme. Second in the league. A win on Saturday and we are promoted; there is nothing any other team can do to overhaul us so long as we beat Bristol Rovers at Elland Road on Saturday 8th May 2010. Remember the date as the most important in Leeds United’s modern history.

On the back of the Charlton game which still leaves me feeling bitter I am trying desperately, in this most tortuous of intervening periods, to look objectively at Saturday’s game for what it is, a decent League One side with absolutely everything to play for at home against a team with a recent poor record, one eye on the summer holidays and nothing to play for.

But I just can’t shake the bitterness from the Charlton game. It’s not that we played particularly badly given the magnitude of the game and quality of the opposition, rather the consistency of the side in failing to get the result when it really matters. My bitterness actually is not about the Charlton game, rather everything that has gone before it that it represents.

Many of my postings (which have started to sound like a broken record) reference what in my view is the biggest failing of this side; their inability to handle the weight of expectation that comes with playing for our club. Their record in the biggest games is utterly abysmal; the only victory in recent years in front of over 35,000 at Elland Road was the no-pressure last game of the season against Gillingham. All the other performances have been abject to say the lease, and that is without mentioning Cardiff or Wembley – the lowest of the low.

The problem has always been about the mentality of the players at crucial times. We want to see winners. Winners are not just players who perform well on the crest of a wave. Winners are players who, when the team has a blip, change attitude to grind out results with an increased workrate, a greater determination than the opposition and cool heads. How many times have we been beaten by lower opposition simply because they were prepared to work harder than us? Something no Leeds fan can abide.

Having spent a calendar year showing me that he could instill this attitude into his players, Simon Grayson faced his first real test at the beginning of 2010. He had taken his third division players to victory at the home of the English (and recent European) champions, our most hated rivals. After this the wheels slowly but surely started to fall off what most previously thought was a immovable force at the top of the league. A few poor results, low confidence, no sign of a winning mentality. Rather than digging themselves out, they buried themselves. Poor performances, individually, collectively and consistently. What started as a blip grew and grew to answer in clearest terms the question always posed of the greatest teams: how quickly can you get out of your rough patch? In Leeds’ case, up to and including the Swindon game at home, not at all.

There have been different arguments about the cause of the slump, two of which have featured prominently.

The Beckford Transfer Saga

Our number 9 popped himself on the transfer list at the end of December (though news of this didn’t break as I recall until after the ManYoo game). This has been blamed as a source of unsettling the squad at a crucial time and being the catalyst for the 2010 slump. I’m not totally convinced by this argument; aside from other things, before the end of January Beckford was off the transfer list publicly declaring that he wanted to help Leeds secure promotion. As far as the rest of the squad is concerned that should be the end of that.

I think there is an argument that Beckford himself has been affected by this; lacklustre performances, goals drying up. All signs pointing to the exit door on the other side of which appears to be a premier league club who must surely have only watched videos of the goals and other limited highlights whilst at the same time refusing point blank to watch his ability to control or head the ball.

The F.A. Cup Run

January 3rd, remember the date... I know we’ll never forget it but if we don’t go up it will have lost much of its meaning for me; other than to record a moment in time when a third division football team beat the English champions in the F A Cup. The day we beat them at their own ground as their competitors in the Premier League will be far more momentous.

The start of the slump was almost instantaneous after this game. The column inches dedicated to Leeds hit levels I hadn’t seen since the Champions League days or, more recently the almost terminal financial implosion. It was difficult not to feel that the hype emanating from the press (to the effect of “Leeds must surely win League One at a canter”, “Leeds are far too good for League One”, “Some players will now be targets for Premier League clubs”) went straight to the players heads and in the following home league game the players had a reality check.

This hype was of course reignited for the fantastic trip to White Hart Lane and for about 50 minutes of the replay before the premier league men taught the league one boys a thing or two about football.

What followed seemed to be an inability to refocus on what had always been the most important task, promotion from League One. Would I swap the win at Old Trafford for promotion? Every time. It would (and hopefully will) be nice to have both but I am pretty sure that the impact of the F A Cup on the promotion push was real and significant; if a winner’s mentality requires an outstanding workrate, and arrogance eats away at this, then we had some pretty arrogant players during that run. By the time the run was over and it was clear that our league form was not good – injuries were hitting and the team looked disjointed, the management had its work cut out reinstalling the sense of work ethic, realism and belief.

As I write this now I’m not sure that they have really succeeded and irrespective of how we finish the season this is something which needs to be comprehensively addressed.

And so to Bristol Rovers at home. At this point it’s all gone pretty negative, I know. The intention wasn’t to end up this way but I think it mirrors the path of every Leeds fan’s thought processes. Looking ahead to Saturday, I am instantly optimistic, as I always am before a game. Its only when you really think about it – the wasted opportunities, Swindon and Millwall hammering us twice, Walsall at home, Norwich away, Gillingham away, Charlton away – that the frustration, anger and consequently nervousness creeps in. In fact the swing in mood in the East Stand concourse as events unfolded on Saturday at the beamback perfectly illustrated this – jumping and singing one minute, cursing and despair by the end! In the build up to Saturday the conversations among Leeds fans will no doubt follow this path almost uniformly.

On the eve of the season I blogged the following (ignoring references to M K Dons and Tranmere!):-

“There is no doubt that this is going to be the toughest season we have encountered in this league given the number of bigger names in the division. Southampton, Charlton and Norwich were all our opponents in the Premier League in recent memory. Add to this M K Dons and Milwall who were our nearest rivals last season, along with the ever improving Tranmere Rovers and we are suddenly faced with a growing cluster of sides who we expect to be fighting at the top.

This makes our start to the season more crucial than ever. Sides who have won lower divisional titles in recent years have all started very strongly, leaving them with a comfort zone by the turn of the year and able to deal with any blips later in the season. Leicester, Swansea, Reading and Wigan have all been recent examples of this. This is where we must be...”

And here we are; second in the league after a strong start with a blip later in the season. The point I made at the time was that the only way out of this division was automatic promotion because we couldn’t handle the play-offs. I still believe this to be true, but it is the ultimate irony that the only way for us to guarantee automatic promotion is to produce the goods in a one-off “cup final” scenario.

The key word and seemingly the word of this week is “BELIEVE”. I believe that my club belongs in football competition much higher than it currently sits. I believe we are capable of winning on Saturday by some distance. I believe there is enough talent in the side to brush Bristol Rovers aside without even breaking into a sweat.

I also believe that Leeds’ capacity to screw up the most golden of opportunities in the biggest of games is almost completely overwhelming. I also believe that League One footballers lack the mentality to deal properly with playing for this club.

The question is therefore whether we have League One footballers at our club?


I believe we are going to be promoted on Saturday.


See you on the pitch...

Marching on Together

==========================================================================

Starting Eleven for Saturday...

Higgs

Hughes

Naylor

Collins

White

Watt

Kilkenny

Johnson

Snodgrass

Gradel

Becchio

Friday, 14 August 2009

The Duke


Sad to read today that it appears that the Duke is hanging up his boots (at least as far as English football is concerned).

One of the most gifted players I have ever had the fortune to see wear a Leeds shirt. Was a joy to watch when on form, in many ways on his day there were few strikers with such a brilliant all-round attacking game.

I hold many of the ex-players from the “living the dream” era with contempt for the way they treated the club and for the circumstances in which they left, though in most cases they have gone on to enjoy less money, less success and generally less of a career which I suppose placates me somewhat.

I never felt that with Viduka though, just enjoyed watching an intelligent player play football, even when he had left to play for Middlesbrough where he continued to shine before hopping onto the terminal Geordie comedy roadshow for its last trip around the block.

For a bit of nostalgia, watch this YouTube clip, and enjoy.

Marching on Together

Friday, 7 August 2009

Hello and Goodbye - 2009/2010 is our Year

I’m back! You’re back! Football is back!

As appears to be the norm now (well, three out of the last four seasons anyway) Leeds finish a campaign on a bitter low failing to achieve what is expected and I run off sulking like a spoilt brat until around about the time the fixture list is released.

It’s funny that the sight of the fixture list, seeing in print actual games that we’re going to play and that I’m actually going to watch, and suddenly all is forgotten; the performance away in the first-leg at Milwall, Orient away, Histon away, and perhaps more poignantly Becchio et al showboating after the Argentinian’s goal in the play-off second leg when they should have picked up the ball and sprinted back to the half-way line having only just got Leeds back into the game, rather than parading in front of the West Stand as if they’d won the Champions League. Grrrrr.......

Sorry, I said all is forgotten, so let’s move on!

The release of the fixture list for Season 2009/2010 brought everything quickly back into view. I’m not a fan of pre-season friendlies particularly because I think they are now over-hyped and effectively hide their real purpose, training matches which assess fitness and ability over a period of time giving the manager opportunity to settle his squad in his own mind. That said, whilst they never particularly deliver in entertainment terms, they do serve to remind me how desperate I am to get back to watching Leeds in proper competitive games.

So this is my own little warm-up to the season, with just over twelve hours to go until we face the giants of Exeter at Elland Road.

If I may be so bold this is a new and different Leeds United. It was born on Boxing Day 2008 under a new leader. That leader has ambition and drive, and significantly no room for sentiment, especially of the type that had Frazer Richardson installed as club captain.

Simon Grayson knows that this is our third season in the third division, that we are no longer visitors here and that, for now, we belong here. The stature and history of the club means something to the supporters (and the “scalp” value to other sides in the division) but this is sentiment. There is no meaningful league table of supporters, only for footballers, the teams they play for, and the league they play in. The manager of our new Leeds United knows that one fact always rings true; the league table does not lie.

In something of a testament to Simon Grayson, in a league table from Boxing Day to the end of the season, the new Leeds United were the best team in League One. I championed this fact right to the final whistle in the play-off second leg. At that point the statistic became completely meaningless. And, given the consistent inability of the squad (and some of its “bigger” players) to rise to the crucial one-off occasions, the truth to be told by the next forty-something games is the most important in the club’s history.

So goodbye to sentiment. Also, goodbye to Jonathan Douglas and Frazer Richardson, neither of whom have been particular favourites of mine over the last few years and neither of whom in my humble opinion have really met the standards expected at the club during the last five years. It is ironic that Douglas arguably looked most comfortable in Richardson’s right-back position during the latter stages of his time with Leeds, but that said his lack of pace was always going to preclude him from settling there on a permanent basis.

Having been very critical of these players, particularly on this blog, I would have expected to have felt feelings akin to “good riddance” but in actual fact given the revolving door this club has become in recent years they simply merge into any number of players who have been asked to play a part in the strangest chapter of our history and have now gone. It is a long list. They won’t be missed.

Also goodbye to Fabian Delph. There seems to have been an inevitability about him going. His raw talent was clearly of a much higher standard than most players in this league and there can be no doubt that he has the potential to make an outstanding player at the highest level. Whilst there are no hard feelings on this one, there is some sadness about the loss of opportunity though; the thought that he could have been central to a great future at the club, and also a sadness that his leaving is indicative of the modern game. Not so much that money talks which is nothing new, rather at under twenty years of age that Delph feels the compulsion (with a nudge from his agent?) to play in the Premier League right now - perhaps largely as a reserve - rather than in, say, a year or two with a bit more experience of continuous first team football under his belt.

I have no doubt that of the Premier League managers a young player would want to work with, Martin O’Neill is right up there. The desire in young players for immediate success, fame and fortune is something that is human nature. However at the time of the great Scum, Leeds and Liverpool sides of the 50s, 60s and 70s this was tempered by sensible and responsible club management together with strong and supportive parenting, usually leading to club loyalty and of course the close bond between supporter and player. Since the influx of vast sums of money into the game, especially over the last decade, this desire is now simply indulged, at the root of which lies a dreadfully regulated sport awash with money and greedy agents acting as “advisers” to players, as if somehow they are acting in their best interests.

I hope I’m wrong and that Delph remains rooted in reality with a steady head on his shoulders, that he takes on the world and wins.

Taking a step back to Richardson and Douglas, they are players who illustrate a continuing debate; the question of an appropriate “standard” of player at the club. Some will defend pretty much all players irrespective of technical ability, frequently reasoning that as a League One side “we should not expect Premier League quality”, whilst others will stand behind only the most gifted, anything less being unacceptable. As with all such debates, the extreme points of view manifest themselves commonly on web forums, and the answer lies somewhere in the middle. I derive much greater pleasure from watching players of greater technical ability than those with perhaps a stronger work ethic but less of a “footballing brain”. I think it fair to suggest that if we want to play in the Championship we should have a squad at least half of whom can cut it at that level – for reasons of continuity and gradual improvement. I think it a little defeatist to suggest that because we are a League One side we will not be able to attract players of a calibre higher than that seen at our level of the game. Nevertheless there must be an acceptance of where we are, what we have, and what we can realistically obtain.

For me, our manager sees the middle ground of this argument and I am grateful for that.

And so to the new season. As ever I am absolutely optimistic, the polar opposite of the feeling I was left with last season, and the season before that and the season before that. And so on.

There is no doubt that this is going to be the toughest season we have encountered in this league given the number of bigger names in the division. Southampton, Charlton and Norwich were all our opponents in the Premier League in recent memory. Add to this M K Dons and Milwall who were our nearest rivals last season, along with the ever improving Tranmere Rovers and we are suddenly faced with a growing cluster of sides who we expect to be fighting at the top.

This makes our start to the season more crucial than ever. Sides who have won lower divisional titles in recent years have all started very strongly, leaving them with a comfort zone by the turn of the year and able to deal with any blips later in the season. Leicester, Swansea, Reading and Wigan have all been recent examples of this. This is where we must be, and this is where I believe Simon Grayson will come into his own. For me, his strength is the quietness with which he has got on with the job. Players who, in my ignorance, I’ve never heard of. Kisnorbo? But the reports are good. Blackwell, Wise and McAllister all enjoyed the spotlight in one way or another. With Grayson you get the impression that he is not interested in the spotlight, not interested in being the centre of attention. The impression is of someone who has always acted quietly, assuredly and given the boxing-day-to-end-of-season league table scenario, extremely successfully.

I couldn’t write this blog without talking about Jermaine Beckford of course. Love him or hate him or, perhaps more commonly, both(!) the goals output from this striker over the course of the season cannot be underestimated or, at short notice, replaced. The mutterings are that approaches are coming in, bookies are rapidly lowering odds of his departure from Elland Road.

Experience of the past few years tells me one thing loud and clear. The only way we are going to get out of this league is to win the whole damn thing. That has to start tomorrow and it needs the kind of goal tally Beckford can offer. To sell Beckford now, at least without the immediate replacement by a striker capable of producing an equal goals tally, would be disastrous.

So this is it. Another year of ups and downs. It has to be this year...

Marching on Together

Friday, 20 March 2009

BECKFORD, BIG 'ED, BATES ON THE BANDWAGON

Lots of stuff to blog about this week. Let me have your thoughts on some, any or all of the following…

WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON, BRUV?

An interesting consequence of the current crop of players lucky enough to wear a Leeds shirt in League One is how they have managed to divide opinion amongst the supporters so starkly. There seems to be a line dividing those who expect to see and are therefore only interested in players of greater footballing ability and those on the other side who would say that their expectations are more "appropriate" to our place in the football league rankings, without much common ground in between. Players like Andrew Hughes and Jonathan Douglas are examples of those vilified by the former and championed by the latter; Andy Robinson and Neil Kilkenny perhaps examples of the reverse.

I have always believed that our needs as Leeds supporters are relatively simple. We love our heroes. They unify us. This is not a unique phenomenon nor exclusive to Leeds but it certainly is apparent at the moment as the broad spectrum of opinion on just about every player at the club right now illustrates this lack of a single focal point for our united affection.

The most topical at the moment is of course Jermaine Beckford. Twenty-nine goals already this season – an outstanding achievement in itself (it’s not even April yet) – would make him an ideal candidate but this is tempered by failings in the other areas of his game, not least his first touch and his temperament. The latter of these has been the catalyst for the recent explosion in the debate about our number nine.

Beckford is in fact the greatest example of the division between the supporters; between those who would have him first on the team sheet every week and those who yell from the terraces at every mistake, every misdirection of his frustration and, well, every miss. And there have been plenty.

The middle ground is, I think however, something to explore with Beckford. 29 goals is unarguably outstanding and shows that he is prolific at League one level. The transformation from RAC man to goal machine at Scunthorpe was something to behold, but this was of course via some abysmal performances during his first spell with us and relegation from the Championship. Since that relegation and Beckford’s recall to Elland Road he has become a regular goalscorer delivering tallies we have not seen since Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. That said, at the same time it should be remembered that when thinking about most goals he has scored I can recall at least another chance he should have put away and I'm talking about golden opportunities during tight games. Each as a result of a simple lack of footballing basics; concentration and control.

Herein I think lies the primary motivation for Beckford’s detractors. An inability to demonstrate consistent concentration and therefore ball control makes him unreliable, increasing the likelihood of mistakes at crucial times, particularly during key games. Given that this is League One – a fairly elementary level for those footballers with genuine ambition to succeed – the logical argument is that if we do get out of this division he would be shown up by the standard of the game in a higher division.

Add to this Beckford’s inability to keep his cool and this unreliability and unpredictability leaves some supporters’ feeling he is untrustworthy. Unshakeable Beckford supporters will point to the recent sending off at home to Swindon, and the punching of our tunnel cover, as evidence of how much Beckford cares and that, at this level, in excess of thirty goals a season is simply enough of a contribution, after all one man does not make a team.

Looking at this middle ground both sides have valid arguments. As a lover of attractive football I find Beckford continually frustrating. At times it seems almost inconveivable that a player capable of scoring brilliant sublime goals (that goal for Scunthorpe, or the chipped goals for Leeds against Hartlepool last year and Chester this year in the Carling Cup) could look so woefully incompetent on so many occasions. The two don’t match.

The unreliability argument can of course work both ways; you can always expect the unexpected with Beckford so from nothing you can have your matchwinner. I’m not sure that this has proved to be the case often enough for me, the play-off final at Wembley being the most poignant, disappointing example of a missed opportunity for Beckford to rise above the mediocrity of the division and propel himself and the club onwards and upwards.

Of course the debate and the arguments will continue in a continuous circle without much chance of resolution. But there are some common elements to take from it. We want to get out of this division. Now. With a tally of almost thirty goals Beckford is undoubtedly the man to spearhead that effort. The frustration with Beckford is that he could be the hero we crave so he is scrutinised most heavily and every mistake takes him further away from this pedestal.

History – based largely on statistics - will no doubt be kind to him and it is difficult to say that he would not deserve it.

Suspended tomorrow. Let's hope it doesn't cost us!

DAMNED IF YOU DO…

The opening of The Damned United takes place on Friday. The film, based on David Peace’s outstanding “factional” novel about Brian Clough and his 44 days at Elland Road in 1974, has generated a great deal of interest and has resulted in many printed words from journalists and ex-players alike, not to mention the numerous television programmes being broadcast reminding us what “Old Big ‘Ed” was like.

Cloughs brief tenure at Elland Road is a little before my time but I have read numerous articles, stories and anectodes about it over the years. A couple of things always stick in my mind. First of all was that Clough should never have been Leeds manager; at least not at that time. Don Revie, the man who had turned Leeds into one of the greatest club sides in the world, made his recommendation to the board for his successor. Jonny Giles, A man who knew the club inside out and in whom Revie saw the future by way of continuity. This was a model for success used by Liverpool so well over time. The board ignored him in what, historically, appears to be the most crucial misjudgement in the history of our club.

Having said that, Clough was clearly an outstanding manager which he showed over a long, distinguished and highly entertaining career. With the board having made its selection, the Clough debacle seems then to have been an enormous waste of an opportunity, caused in no small part by arrogance and disrespect on Clough’s part towards successful, seasoned professionals and what they had achieved (more than Clough at that point). However this was an ageing squad with maybe twelve months left as a competitive force and no provision had been made for youth development of the sort that provided the bedrock for Revie’s side over ten years. Some have even suggested that Revie left for England because he couldn't bear to break up that side.

There was always going to be a clash between manager and players in this scenario but it seems that upheaval is what may have been required to make sure that this aging squad didn’t disappear without adequate provision for the future. We unfortunately will never know whether Clough could have rejuvenated and revived the squad to enhance the longevity of the club's success. This is of course a much greater debate, one I would interested to be a part of at some point in the future.

Norman Hunter’s impressions of the new film were in The Times this week and make an interesting read, shedding a little light on the real opinion Clough held of the players. Well, some of them anyway!

Enjoy it if you’re going to see it.

HOPPING ON THE GRAVY TRAIN

Since the judgement of the F.A. panel that Carlos Tevez caused, singlehandedly, West Ham to survive the drop at Sheffield United’s expense, rather than Sheffield United being generally shit and therefore the cause of its own downfall, an unnecessary can of worms has sprung open which seemingly knows no bounds. First and foremost the judgement is dangerous. Football is a game with so many endless possibilities to narrow the facts down as the panel did was in my view erroneous.

And how we are seeing the consequences.

West Ham cheated and should have been punished, of that there is no doubt. In the context of the guaranteed £30 million premier league survival reward, their punishment was trivial, ill-thought and delivered with too much haste. This judgement has only exacerbated the problem. Having agreed to pay £25 million to Sheffield United all and sundry, including Uncle Ken, are keen to get their “due” from the troubled London club.

I have to say on the one hand that you cannot blame Bates. The judgement has been handed down from a court and any losses consequential to West Ham’s breach of duties should be properly recoverable. Whether those payments are recoverable is another matter of course but if they are the money would I'm sure come in very handy.

The problem is where do you draw the line? Can relegated teams now seek redress from anyone, to the point where failure in football is never the responsibility of the failed side, at least legally speaking? Also where does the responsibility of the offending party end? Can supporters sue for the emotional distress caused by relegation? Clearly some of these assertions are ridiculous but they illustrate the possible danger of how far-reaching this judgement could be.

Watch this space.

AND FINALLY…

Crewe away tomorrow. Three points crucial. We are on a good run of unbeaten form but these away games continue to be a thorn in our side as the recent trips to Oldham and Bristol proved. The fact that Crewe are on good form does not make a good omen but as ever on the eve of a match I am optimistic and, or course, expectant.

No Beckford. Dickinson in? A new hero? Three points please!

Marching on Together

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

A repost to long standing vilification...

An outstanding article in today's Times about Don Revie, written by Rick Broadbent who has penned extensively on Leeds over a number of years.

If you're interested in reading about our beloved Whites, his book "Looking for Eric: In Search of Leeds Greats" is absolutely terrific.

Anyway, enjoy!

Marching on Together.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

It's All in the Mind

Well once again its been a while; sadly work commitments (particularly late working hours), are making it difficult to blog at all. If I could just be less long-winded...

The last blog centred around the difficulties we encounter with the “Champions League semi-finalists” label hanging round our necks. In the last eight days we were presented with an outstanding opportunity to get back to near the automatic promotion spots with two away games. Sadly these games have resulted in us throwing away four "massive" points rather than gaining two.

I think this goes to continue to illustrate the theme of the players unable to handle the expectation levels. I have lost count of the number of times since we were relegated from the Premier League when the chips have been down, the players have dug deep, produced unexpected results and, with other results fortunately going our way, put us in a position where our progress is in our hands, only for us to throw it away.

I recall the championship play-off season when, during January of that season, Sheffield United were slipping up and we were picking up points. Suddenly it was in our hands and, as soon as we were in that position, we threw it away. Last season, having worked tirelessly to get rid of the points deduction, to climb the table, we were within reach and it was in our control. That started the run of abysmal results and performances culminating in Blackwell being sacked.

The play-offs last year were another example of us being written off earlier in the season (with a massive points deduction) only to finish strongly, to pull ourselves back into it through the play-off semis, then to throw it away in the final (still hurts).

This all boils down to expectation. Expectation that having shown the grit and determination to put our destiny in our own hands that we should not fail. It is this expectation which I think weighs greatly on the players and it is this area of mental preparation where Grayson still has much work to do.

The defence now play as a unit. The reintroduction of Kilkenny into the centre of midfield has brought some much needed stability, ball playing and possession and has for me been the catalyst for some better football and a lot of decent chances being created. Some more clinical finishing and things may be much different. It seems that the season is creating something of a mirror of itself; earlier in the campaign, before the collapse of the defence, we were playing good football and creating lots of chances.

So back to talking of expectation. Yeovil at Elland Road tonight. I expect Leeds to win. Why? Well, after the Hereford game I wouldn’t but as I said, we have turned it around, unbeaten in four and playing relatively well. So once again I expect success. Though the difference would only be four points, victories in the Oldham and Bristol Rovers games would have put a very different perspective on our league position.

There are undoubtedly many more ups and downs before the season is out; I have written us off countless times this year. But how many more times can we put ourselves in the position of underdog, overcome the odds and throw it away when we have control?

Tonight is a must win. Nothing else will do.

Marching on Together

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Welcome to “Leeds United, Champions League Semi-Finalists”

As seems to be commonplace now with my blogging the time which elapses between the start and finish of an article – in this case Gary McAllister’s dismissal to the week after the Carlisle match – grows ever longer. I hope that this does not spoil it too much and I hope to be able to blog a bit faster in future, and a bit more regularly!

As the not so famous song starts “a new era dawns". So welcome (back) to Leeds United Simon Grayson, our new manager. To be honest I don’t think I have ever watched a Blackpool game in my life so I am in no position to comment on Grayson’s qualification to manage Leeds, or to offer any critique about playing style and the things which are going to remain important to us as Leeds fans over the term of Grayson’s tenure.

No doubt this will develop as we move on through the season.

Gary McAllister

I feel a need to mention our outgoing manager. The speed with which he was appointed mirrors the speed at which he has been sacked. And, in this blink of an eye it is easy to forget his contribution. A fabulous player and captain for the club, unjustly labelled “Judas” when he left, if leaving is the right word for the way he is alleged to have been treated.

I had my reservations about McAllister coming back as manager at a time of genuine crisis but I must say he really did surprise me. The football we have played under his management has been at times outstanding, certainly better than anything I can remember us playing since the early part of the millennium. To actually be entertained at Elland Road – by the men in white – has been something of a novelty this last 10 months and for that alone he should be remembered fondly. The turnaround from the relegation form of Dennis Wise’s solo effort (post-Poyet) was quick and seamless and brought us back round not only storming into the play-offs but also a committee-decision away from automatic promotion.

There have been the questionable decisions; Fraser Richardson as captain being the stand-out one for me; a decision I still cannot get my head round and from which I cannot see one single ounce of benefit to the side. Others include the absence of Andy Robinson early in the season, though I am beginning to feel that Robinson’s contribution to Swansea’s season last year is a little overstated, given that they are relatively comfortable without him in the Championship. Furthermore, whilst Robinson’s decision to join was clearly based on an educated gamble that we would win at Wembley in May, I’m not sure he has yet shown enough professionalism in his game to hide his disappointment when given the chance to shine.

The biggest problem of course has been the defensive problems which have made us look so devastatingly inadequate. I wrote when were still winning games regularly that the biggest underlying threat to our success was our ineffectiveness in front of goal; we were scoring but the ratio of goals to the glut of gilt-edged chances being created was far too low. I was however, wrong. We may have been scoring and winning, but we were also conceding. The football being played and the chances created papered over the crack (or chasm as it turned out) of the defensive frailties which began to take over the consciousness of the team; it didn’t matter how hard the midfield and attack worked if the centre backs couldn’t get up to head the ball at a set-piece. At this point the rot really began to set-in and McAllister, undoubtedly a visionary in football terms, simply had nothing in the armoury to redress the dreadful absence of confidence and defensive organisation.

I hope and believe that history will show McAllister in a very positive light for all he has done for the club. I think that the fact that the supporters who have been quick to call for previous managers’ heads have stayed silent on this one during matches (though not on the message boards) has been a real mark of respect for the man.

Goodbye and good luck.

On On On (quickly)...

I am not saying that McAllister could never have turned things around but his appointment was made on a short-term basis so he would never have been given the opportunity. And this is the way the club, and the fans, have seen and continue to see our stay in this division. The current “crisis” has at the time of writing taken us fifteen points from the summit of the table, though this may be much more by the time I finish this post and this is simply too far now, in my opinion, to win the league. Automatic promotion is at this stage a distant dream and if we make the play-offs can the players really show sufficient mettle to handle the pressure and expectation of playing for Leeds United at Wembley.

But actually I think this goes to the heart of the problem of the Leeds United players, whether they are at Wembley or not.

We are not just Leeds United. We are “Leeds United, the Champions League Semi-Finalists”. It may sound grandiose but in fact this is no badge of achievement or honour, rather a noose that hangs around all our necks like a curse. It means different things for different people, though largely leading to the same outcome...

For the supporters this means the demand of instant success at this level. We’re Leeds United, the players should be wearing the shirt with pride, they should be thanking their lucky stars that a club of our stature has asked them to play for it and they should be giving absolutely everything, every day of the week. Looking at the squad list, this should mean success.

For our opponents throughout the course of the season, it is without doubt the one they look forward to. It is as if they actually believe they are playing against Kewell, Ferdinand, Bowyer and Viduka, rather than Marques, Johnson, Prutton and Becchio. Victory is therefore sought after and celebrated accordingly. Histon is a perfect example. Had Cheltenham lost to Histon, would there have been the furore? No, of course not. The non-leaguers would have no doubt been delighted and yes it might have led to a little chuckle at the giant-killing exploits of a non-league side but we may as well have been back at Cardiff in 2002 for all the hype that surrounded the defeat.

For the board and management team there is also the expectation of immediate success, particularly given the facilities available to the players and the gate receipts generated by the many thousands turning out to watch them, not to mention the wages paid.

And so all of this is in the face of the players each week; the expectation from employer and supporter, the opponents in their cup final. This is undoubtedly a huge amount of pressure for the players to face and clearly it works to our disadvantage. The “on paper” fantastic squad we have does not play like anything of the sort.

I should perhaps clear up at this point where I am taking this. I am a supporter which means my expectation levels are high. I do not talk about the players in these terms because I feel sorry for them. I do not. Not one bit. But the reality is simply that the players are at the moment unable to handle the double burden facing them; expectation from those wanting them to succeed, and pressure exerted by opponents with a greater desire frequently prepared to work and fight much harder and for much longer.

Because the problems appear to me to be psychological rather than physical, this is the reason our decline this season has been so rapid – in the modern game a lack of confidence can spread through a team like wildfire and I think this has been evident. It is also the reason Leeds United has become something of a player’s graveyard; players come in with glowing reputations (and often one can recall a great performance against us for another team) and end up wandering aimlessly around Elland Road in a Leeds shirt with every spark and aspect of creativity drained from them.

It also of course can work the other way. Take the spirit and unity of a much weaker squad during the first third of last season as a prime example of this. Marques and Michalik are testament to the way a modern footballer’s game can go to pot if his head is not right. These are less than shadows of the players who were in excellent form no more than 18 months ago.

And, fittingly, talk of our centre backs takes me to the happenings on the pitch and the Carlisle game. As you know it is not my intention to use this blog for match reporting purposes, there are some excellent blogs to quench your match-report thirst. But the performance against Carlisle spoke volumes for the general mood in and around Elland Road at the moment and I think has been something of a watershed for us. Though 2007-2008 really was a momentous season for so many reasons, this was supposed to be the year we re-emerged; debt-free with a strong squad – promotion, maybe even the title. Onwards and upwards.

Half-way through the season and we are going precisely nowhere. The feeling now appears to be one of weariness; another new manager, another series of bad performances, another set of players who promise so much but deliver so little. Coupled with the kind of defensive mistakes which means that Leeds have to score in every game just to be in with a chance of getting a point.

Now, of course, a snapshot of the table puts us 5 points off the play-offs and no-one would doubt that this snapshot is more positive than twelve months ago when we were playing relegation football under Dennis Wise.

What is different this year is that there is no adversity; no points deduction, no-one to blame, no injustice. We are at the right place in the league because our performances deserve it. And though the play-off places are still so close they feel to me to be so out of reach. If they are, our season is over, and if the season is really over we can only look to next year in League One and another attempt to escape.

The problem is, as I have said before, that this is our last year as what you might call “visitors” in this division. The mindset that our stay anywhere below the Premier League is temporary – matched by the turnover of management staff in a short space of time – is starting to fade as the weariness grows, along with an acceptance that this is actually where we belong. Whether this depressing picture is right is perhaps for another blog, a greater debate, another day.

But if this lethargy and acceptance is setting in we are at something of a crucial point in our history. Therefore much depends on the quick success of our new manager.

Simon Grayson

So welcome Mr Grayson (albeit belatedly) to Leeds United the Champions League Semi-Finalists. We know little of you and what we have seen so far (P3 W1 D1 L1) falls squarely with our league position. The players you have inherited are massively underachieving, some might call them disgracefully disinterested underachievers. They have little or no mental strength in a modern game (and division) where confidence and team-spirit seems to be everything, and where playing for Leeds United means they must be even stronger. That can be changed and it can have rapid impact. But it is you and your management team who can achieve this, not me the supporter, and dare I say it not the disinterested underachieving player himself.

Also, sort out the bloody defence.

Your mandate will be simple; get us out of League One, and fast. That is your reason for being here, not to build something over time, not to mull over the long-term future of the club. Not the easiest place to be, I accept, but that is the job. You must instill the mentality of winners into the squad otherwise you will be nothing more than another feature of the Leeds United annual managerial merry-go-round.

Put simply, your unexpected achievement at Blackpool is the minimum expectation here.

Marching on Together