I wouldn’t consider myself as one of life’s great narcissists by any stretch of the imagination, but like most people, I am prone to the odd bout of inner smugness, and at the moment I’m happily dining out on a small banquet of self-congratulation in the depths of my subconscious. “What’s that waiter? Oh, the bill? Stick it on Mr Warnock’s tab, and include a little something for yourself.”
While I’m a guilty as any Leeds fan of periodically identifying apostles of false promise (Mike Grella, anyone?); I’ve not let a patchy track record to deter my absolute conviction that Warnock is the right man at the right time for Leeds United. Two weeks into his reign and I find myself tiptoeing on the fringes of insufferable git territory, rather than being a misguided bell end (again).
Yesterday’s performance against Southampton delivered everything I had expected from a Neil Warnock team – and a little more, if I’m completely honest – I was looking for an organised back four, a discernible pattern of play with clearly defined roles for those involved, and above anything else, a huge injection of passion and commitment.
As it happened, I witnessed 90 minutes of football from a team that was barely recognisable from the abject collection of individuals who trooped off the pitch at the Ricoh Arena, little over a fortnight ago. Michael Brown and then Aidy White set down early markers for the levels of effort expected, both sprinting back to hurl themselves into challenges in the opening exchanges – for a Leeds supporters, such moments should be the norm, but have been so rare in the last 12 months, that they alone were enough to fire up the sparse crowd out of what seems to have been never-ending comatose state.
The early tempo never relented throughout; Brown suddenly looking like the inspiring ‘old head’ he’d been heralded as, rather than another has been, sleepwalking through his final pay day, Clayton after months of treading water, reminding us that his displays in August and September were something we excitedly witnessed, rather than some fantastical vision lodged in our collective subconscious, and then there was Luciano…after months of sulking, he’s finally foregone his fetish for grass munching and remembered what, when he puts his mind to it, he’s bloody good at – playing the target man.
Where the team did exceed expectations was in just how cohesive and organised a unit they appeared. The transformation after only two weeks on the training ground (compromised by the international break) was startling. While by Adkin’s own admission, Southampton were a long way short of their best, there was a lot to admire in the defensive display, especially considering that due to Bromby’s injury, an early rejig was required for the second consecutive Saturday.
More impressive still was the midfield area, where in addition to Brown and Clayton’s partnership, both White and McCormack acquitted themselves well within the new system. Encouragingly, as the second half progressed, the individuals involved also adapted very well to the changes in personnel; the introduction of Webber and Sam would’ve been as likely to spark confusion as momentum a couple of weeks ago, yesterday the players adapted seamlessly, Snodgrass completing his day in the centre of midfield.
The performance of Webber himself was an unexpected bonus, certainly appearing sharper than we might’ve had reason to expect. With Becchio finally back as the fulcrum of most attacks and rejuvenated by the prospect, there are now at least elements of what fired the Whites to a top 2 position 14 months ago re-emerging… although sadly, it was also a reminder of what the team is missing.
There is no doubt that if Leeds were to perform to such a level, week in, week out, the current squad could make a very credible play-offs push over the course of a season; while I’d suggest there are at least half a dozen stronger sides in the Championship, there is always scope for a well organised, hardworking outfit to sneak a top 6 finish.
However, the club don’t have a full season to play with, only 12 games, and they don’t just have to compete with better teams, they have to outperform all of them – many by a significant degree! From those remaining games, realistically 9 wins are probably needed to secure a play-off berth and many of those fixtures are against the Championship’s stronger sides. If there’s one thing the game illustrated it’s that while commitment and organisation can take you a long way, there are other crucial factors: luck (which you can do little about) and quality that invariably come into play. In situations such as Leeds’ a combination of all four are needed, in abundance.
Southampton are a case in point; they have excellent players in all areas, including the bench – Billy Sharp or Billy Paynter? – and on the basis of the opening day drubbing at St. Mary’s they remain the best footballing side I’ve seen in the division. Today they didn’t show up, but the those assets essential in any successful side remained evident: they defended like their lives depended on it, they enjoyed the luck, and when the opportunity presented itself, they had in Rickie Lambert, the quality to ensure that they capitalised on it.
While nothing can be taken away from Kelvin Davis’ sensational performance, it’s still a concern that on a day when the side couldn’t have possibly given more, Leeds despite coming up against a top side having an ‘off day’ were still unable to score. Yes, luck deserted us, but there were times when, as Warnock alluded, only poor finishing could be blamed. In the closing stages as more and more men were committed further forward, we also found ourselves relying on Connolly and Pugh to deliver from wide positions only to be repeatedly disappointed, and unsurprised, in equal measure. Would Southampton have been so profligate?
At the back too, as churlish as it seems to criticise, both Bromby and especially O’Dea lost concentration and their man on the one occasion they were most needed. While every defender is prone to such lapses, the best are rarely culpable, too many Leeds defenders are regularly found out.
Warnock couldn’t have done more inside 14 days to deliver his side of the bargain and the players couldn’t have responded more admirably. The ovation afforded both at half-time and the final whistle a deserved and striking reflection of the supporters’ recognition of the fact. It’s not often that such a large proportion of the crowd have left Elland Road buzzing on the back of a defeat, but for the first time in a long time, it felt like we were watching a Leeds United side. Warnock’s post-match comments that such a performance represented the least expected, music to the ears.
I can only wish Southampton the best; I hope they do go up – while Nigel Adkin’s men essentially mugged Leeds today, and while their usual classy, flowing brand of football was scarcely evident, their grit and spirit, if nothing else, was to be admired. They also exemplify the fundamental importance of backing the manager to bring in good quality players and build a squad.
I’ve not given up on the play-offs just yet, nor I’m sure – despite his protestations – has Neil Warnock. With the current side though, even if they continue to run through brick walls, I fear we’re going to inevitably come up short. So many games in a division so competitive are decided by the finest of margins, often luck, but also regularly by individual moments of brilliance, whether in the form of a goal preventing tackle, a goal creating assist or a goal scoring finish. Does Leeds United possess individuals capable of such acts? Yes. Do we possess enough of them? I don’t think so, nor evidently does Warnock.
A fortnight into Warnock’s reign and so many things have already changed for the better and the positivity on the terraces stands in stark contrast to the atmosphere that prevailed only 2 home games previously. The one area that has thus far remained a depressing constant has been the failure of the club to attract – the unattached Danny Webber, aside – any of the new manager’s transfer targets. Listening to Warnock’s guarded comments about his long term future, you rather suspect he remains as sceptical about Bates and Harvey as the supporters.
Yet again it’s over to the owner and his lap dog. Just for once, don’t let everyone down, eh?