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

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