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