This Sunday’s clash with Middlesbrough marks something of a deviation from the norm; traditionally, fixtures at The Riverside Stadium have always appeared to have mattered more to home supporters than those in the away end. Of course in the realms modern day football, where anything other than a win can spark recriminations and a talks of a crisis amongst fans, that’s not to say Leeds fans have ever made the trip north looking for anything but a 3 point return, it’s more a reflection how clashes with the Smoggies are regarded by the opposing fan bases.
While – especially in the absence of any North East opposition at Championship level – home supporters accord Leeds with the status of traditional (and strongly disliked) ‘local’ rivals; Boro in contrast are more commonly regarded by Whites as just another side, another fan base with a dislike of our club – when more than just a handful of away trips every season can offer very similar experiences, it’s hard to afford any particular opposition extra credence; recent experiences with Hull, Barnsley and Huddersfield always provoke the same feelings of indifference.
This time it is different though, it’s different because what happens on the pitch really matters; make no mistake, Sunday’s game represents the pivotal moment in Leeds United’s season; where victory could potentially spark a momentous play-off push and anything else, a pragmatic spell of experimentation as Warnock prepares for an August promotion assault. Some have already written off ambitions of challenging for the play-offs, I prefer to focus on the possibilities our next two games offer; a clean sheet and a win on Sunday will be enough for some to keep the faith, if that’s followed by victory in front of a buzzing Elland Road against West Ham (a team Leeds traditionally fare very well against), then anything’s still possible.
I’m personally backing Leeds to snatch the much needed victory; we remain unbeaten at The Riverside in our nine meetings there and have won the last couple, so my thoughts are based on a mixture of confidence, history and some overdue luck in front of goal. But, even if the side do fail to oblige and we find ourselves resigned to another season in the Championship with the best part of two months of the season still remaining, I shall still be walking always from The Riverside in a far more positive mind set than I had just three weeks previously.
Now seems a very appropriate time to assess the initial impact that Neil Warnock’s made at the club, especially, as has just been inferred, with a ‘make or break’ fixture on the horizon, it’s important to establish a sense of perspective should the result disappoint; secondly, having essentially managed the team for 3½ games – I’m taking the liberty of regarding his half-time involvement as the start point of his reign – there exists the perfect opportunity to compare his impact with that of Neil Redfearn’s caretaker stint.
To me, Warnock has completely changed the mood at Elland Road and he’s achieved this through a combination of positivity, a passion to succeed, common sense and an evident degree of self-confidence. The majority of Leeds fans welcomed the arrival of Warnock and I sense that many of the doubters have since changed their stance; from the off his enthusiasm and desire have shone through.
When the club announced his appointment, Warnock was supposed to stage his first interview on LUTV on the Sunday afternoon; yet he couldn’t help himself and was on Yorkshire Radio within half an hour of the final whistle at the Doncaster game. He revealed how he’d shelved plans to start on Monday as he didn’t want to risk wasting a game then went on to talk plainly about what he’d observed on the pitch and the changes he already had in mind – most of it was common sense and a lot of it seemed screamingly obvious, having been discussed long and hard on forums and twitter for months on end, yet the points made were they same ones that had been long overlooked by Simon Grayson. To hear those words reinforced the good feeling many already had about Warnock and immediately had others warming to him.
Since that evening, Warnock has continued to say and do all the right things. The decision to give Snodgrass the captaincy, a prime example – could anyone understand the logic of having a goalkeeper as captain; especially one who’d been dropped during his time at Preston after undergoing a crisis of confidence?
Most heartening though has been Warnock’s view on player recruitment. In his comments he’s dispelled fears that under his charge, the club are going to mainly trawl the loan market again, remarking that:
"…Before pre-season, you have to have people who care. With all respect to loan players, you can get some good ones. But when the chips are down and you have to put your head in then loan players, quite rightly, think about their own future, whereas, once you have signed on the dotted line permanently then you care that little bit more. That is what I look for…”
Moreover, he’s also made clear that he is not in his role to be another lapdog to Ken Bates:
“We have that relationship where I respect him and he respects me, and we’re both at an age where we want to do well. Make no mistake about that. I think we excite each other…I think he does a lot of good things and I’m not trying to creep round him by saying that. But there are times when you need to tell him what you think is right for the club and he’s got to listen.”
It is that final sentence that resonates more than anything else heard we’ve so far. As expected, in Warnock, Leeds has a manager who’s experienced enough and confident enough in himself to be able to stand up to our owner. While many fear fireworks, I welcome the initial noises emanating from Elland Road suggesting the chairman-manager relationship is likely to be more akin to a partnership than the typical master-servant dynamic that Bates was able to enjoy with the previous, inexperienced incumbents of the ‘hot seat’.
I believe it is this more than anything that has given supporters cause for optimism; as much as reaching the play-offs would be fantastic, the prospect of another transfer window in the summer like the last three we’ve suffered, with more free transfers, trialists and loanees… it’d be just too much for some to stomach. The same mistakes repeated again and again as a manager desperately tries to satisfy Premier League expectations with a mid-table ‘war chest’.
You suspect… no expect, a far more productive pre-season case with Warnock, not only because of his reputation, but also due to the canny game he’s played since he’s arrived. By building a gentleman’s agreement into his contract that allows him to walk at the end of the season, should things not work out, he’s essentially got Bates over a barrel. Admittedly, such an admission has also had the fan base concerned, but over the last week there’s been a change in tact; Warnock’s statements in the media have been very much been made with repeated references to next season, perhaps a sign that he now feels suitably assured about receiving suitable financial backing.
In fairness, Warncok has certainly earned the right to expect a little more boardroom ambition from the club. While his reputation alone dictates he should be entrusted with sufficient funds, his impact on the pitch resoundingly strengthens the argument. On paper, the statistics from his first three games rather undersell the impact he’s made: one defeat, two draws and no goals: proof positive that you can prove anything with numbers. On the pitch there has been a marked improvement; the transformation of the defence has been quite remarkable, a backline that could’ve shipped 5 or 6 against Doncaster, infiltrated only once in 270 minutes. Bearing in mind that – Lees apart – the personnel involved have been those found regularly culpable throughout the season, and in Connolly, include Warnock’s third choice option (after Bruce and Bromby) at right back, such a turnaround is testament to both the work of the coaching staff and the response of the players. The addition of Paul Robinson can only help further, providing an aggression and vocal presence that’s been sorely lacking at the back for an age.
In addition, after an almost interminable period in the doldrums, Warnock has also completely re-invigorated Luciano Becchio; after months of sulking and falling over, the Argentine is back towards his best form where he’s dominating defenders and running himself into the ground. Then there’s Michael Brown; undoubtedly a player possessing a great pedigree, but in the eyes of many, another in the long line of players at Elland Road for a final pay day…until Warnock arrived. Known inside out by his boss from his Sheffield United days, Brown suddenly looks more than capable of doing the job Grayson bought him for; the yard of pace that’d looked to have deserted him is back, the crunching tackles suddenly perfectly timed rather than representing a booking waiting to happen.
Yes, things are a long way from being perfect. The lack of goals being the last thing you might expect from a Leeds United team, though a sense of perspective is needed in this regard. While at Portsmouth and Hull, the side didn’t create a plethora of chances, there was certainly enough clear cut openings on the south coast to ensure victory on another day, and on Tuesday, it would be remiss to not acknowledge that the home side’s clean sheet was their sixth in seven games. In between there was the Southampton game – I’m sure not many would criticise our attacking play that evening.
That’s not to say the lack of goals should be totally dismissed; the forward line on Tuesday was undoubtedly a long way off resembling a cohesive unit and you sense a lot more work on the training ground – and arguably the substitution of one striker with another midfielder or specialist wide player – is required over the coming weeks.
However, to rob a cliché, all successful sides are built from the back, and although Leeds haven’t scored since Warnock officially took over reins, it’s not inconceivable that we could’ve quite easily found ourselves with 7 points from 3 games, rather than just a couple.
Only three weeks have passed since his arrival at the club and Neil Warnock has already taken a group of players that have sleepwalked through most of the season and restored a passion, belief and desire into the team. Even in defeat, the Southampton game is arguably the most positive Elland Road experience that many supporters have enjoyed in months, certainly the buzz after the game and the atmosphere throughout suggested so – Leeds fans respond above anything else to effort, and finally it was back and there for all to see. What’s more, these same players, guilty of having made error upon error defensively, have suddenly been fashioned them into a solid, organised and hard to beat unit.
I’m not expecting Sunday to be a purist’s wet dream, nor indeed a faultless showing, and that goes for the remainder of the season. Indeed, I’m sure ‘solid but unspectacular’ will be the mantra for the coming months, but, if the progress on the pitch continues and the hint of a sea change at board level manifests itself into something concrete over the summer, then this new found positivity amongst supporters will flourish… so even if that crucial victory does evade Leeds at the weekend, there are still finally reasons to be cheerful.