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...