Leeds United Stories, Vol. 1
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rochdale 2 − 0 leeds united: remember the date

rochdale 2 − 0 leeds united: remember the date

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The worst part was realising, as Rochdale missed chance after chance on the way to scoring their second goal, that there was no fight left in Leeds United. The second goal was going to come, and we were going to do nothing to stop it.

The wonder in the end was that Henderson’s calm volley over Paddy Kenny’s head was the only one that went in, during a twenty minute spell when Rochdale could easily have turned a 2-0 giantkilling into a 5-0 massacre. 2-0 was embarrassing. I don’t know what we would have called 5-0, apart from ‘deserved.’ 

It was that lack of fight, as much as anything, that caused the abuse that rained down on Brian McDermott and the players at the end. In injury time, when United should have been chasing the game, to salvage some pride, they were instead chasing the ball, as for 50 uninterrupted seconds the Rochdale players sprayed the ball around Spotland virtually unchallenged. By giving Henderson so much time and space in the penalty area we had made him look like Pele as he stroked the ball under the crossbar; we ended the game by letting the whole Rochdale team look like Brazil circa 1970. 

The FA Cup Third Round has always been partly about embarrassment – only last Friday ‘Beckford Day’ marked the time we pulled Alex Ferguson’s pants down at Old Trafford. But the shock results that everyone loves to see are generally just that – shock results – not long, drawn out, shocking performances in which the bigger team are outclassed by the smaller. Defeat to a scrambled last minute winner in an intense cup tie is one thing. Being thoroughly outplayed by a Fourth Division team is quite another.

If the angry response of the fans towards the players was incoherent and unfocused, that was because the players’ response to the game had been incoherent and unfocused. No single player or tactic could be the lightning rod for criticism, because there was a justifiable case against each individual player and each individual decision, and at the end of the game every aspect of this failure was expressed at once. All the players could do was stand there and take it; all the fans could do was stand and give it. 

Even two days later, though, trying to pin down just where this went wrong is almost impossible. It doesn’t just come down to poor performances and bad decisions on the day. Those performances and those decisions were the result of the way the club has been run for the last year.

In one respect, we’ve been run too well, on the pitch at least. The recent surge into the play-off positions has left the perfectly sensible talk about a two to three year strategy for promotion by the wayside. The talk lately has been of signing players for a promotion push, as if it must happen this season. In a weird way, if results on the pitch hadn’t been as good – if Leeds were, say, 14th but improving – there would be more patience while McDermott rebuilds, and defeat at Spotland could have been shrugged off as a setback on the road to recovery from Warnock and Bates. Those two figures have receded into the distance, though, as good performances have left the past behind; and the return of 30,000 crowds to Elland Road, while good for the bank balance, isn’t so good for patient progress. The bar has been set high and set early, and the expectancy has risen to match.

The progress we have made so far, as I’ve mentioned here before, is fragile. The 3-5-2 formation was a boon, and when it works, it works well; but we don’t have a squad robust enough to allow even the slightest change without major unbalance. One of McDermott’s stranger choices at Spotland was to unbalance that formation, without seeming to make any major changes. I wrote after the Blackburn game that playing Byram further forward might be worth trying, so he could have greater influence on a game, so I was pleased when I saw that was what McDermott was trying to do. What I had meant, though, was Byram should go to the right side of a midfield three, with Peltier at wing back. What we got instead was not just a radical move to 3-4-3, with Peltier playing right midfield and Byram part of a striking three, but also Scott Wootton in place of Tom Lees, looking bewildered by the system he was being asked to play. 

Byram did pretty well, as he always will given his talent, but three players out of position down the right side gave Rochdale plenty to aim at, while the lack of wing backs exposed Wootton and Pearce in a way that unsettled the whole defence. When 3-5-2 was first introduced much was made of the fact that it had been used in training matches, that the Development Squad were adopting it too; you have to conclude that, in the three days since the Blackburn game, there wasn’t the same preparation for playing this way at Spotland.

Despite that radical change, an equally valid criticism is that McDermott didn’t change the side enough. The players looked knackered before Christmas, but the core of the team has barely changed in the three defeats and a draw since. Rochdale was a chance not to tinker with the formation, but to try a whole new approach, and give tired players a rest, too. It would also, frankly, have been a get-out clause for McDermott; seeing a reserve side knocked out would have been frustrating, whereas seeing a side with McCormack, Murphy, Austin and Zaliukas swept aside is unforgivable.

The lack of fight is what hurt most, but I’m still prepared to be charitable; I don’t truly believe that, deep down, players like Austin don’t care. He’s only missed one game all season, and whatever you say about fitness and conditioning, players like Austin, Pearce, McCormack and Murphy are being stretched beyond what they seem physically able to give.

McDermott seems stuck at the moment, though. Looking at the bench, and the players in reserve, there isn’t really a single one that we need to know anything more about. It’s all very well to say Varney should have a chance in the team, or that Green should have got a run out, but is there anything more we can learn about Varney or Green that we don’t already know? Who, that didn’t play, do we really need to know more about? 

There’s an argument for Ariyibi, as a new signing, and the youngsters like Dawson or Thompson, but after over a year under GFH-C and nine months under McDermott, there is still nothing in the squad beyond the first team. McDermott must feel the same way, otherwise he would be playing them, and wouldn’t be so insistent on the need for new players this January. 

This isn’t really McDermott’s fault, but he takes the flack. You’ll be able to sense the disappointment if, against Sheffield Wednesday, the same old team trots out on to the pitch; but equally, you’ll sense the worry if a team runs out featuring Varney, Green and Norris. Maybe it’s not surprising that he should fall somewhere in the middle at Rochdale, caught between resting his first team and not wanting to risk the reserves; but the surprise comes because McDermott had, until now, seemed able to rise above mistakes like that. Indecision hasn’t been a problem for Brian so far, who has seemed clear eyed and determined about what he is doing to improve Leeds United. Spotland was the first time that he didn’t seem to know what he was doing anymore.

The causal chain, then, leads us to the ownership. Why, after a year, does Brian not have the reinforcements he needs? Some of it is down to the transfer system, bad luck and the Warnock legacy. Were it not for transfer windows, perhaps the rebuilding process could have continued over the last few months, McDermott adding players here and there, and selling others. Equally, if Dexter Blackstock hadn’t been unlucky enough to be injured after the loan window closed, he could have changed the dynamic of our attack – or been replaced, if the rules allowed it. And had Neil Warnock not left such a disastrous squad – nearer relegation last season than promotion, no matter what he says about cake and icing – McDermott might have had more resources to change things. I’ve got the back of an envelope here that reckons paying Diouf, Norris, Green, Tonge, Brown and Warnock (S) to hang around doing little will have cost around £1m in wages so far this season. I’d rather Brian had the cash, and I suspect he would too. 

But the cash he requires is being promised now by David Haigh’s consortium, which creates its own sorts of problems. For one thing, making that promise at the end of November means there is an open question five weeks later about why the takeover isn’t completed yet and the money spent – leaving aside that the transfer window was barely open in time to make a difference to Spotland. 

But retrospectively, too, it raises the question of whether McDermott has been backed as fully as he could have been in the transfer and loan windows so far. Takeovers don’t happen overnight – certainly not at Leeds – so with the Haigh buyout on the horizon, did the GFH-C tap stop running, except for essentials? The positivity tap has kept on pouring, with fan promotions and cheap beer galore, but those things cost little, and good footballers cost a lot. While building the club is always to be encouraged, the football team has felt like it has been on pause since it became apparent that GFH-C were willing to let Haigh take the job on himself, and his various companies began to take up the investment slack. 

We don’t need investment in positivity any more, or in Twitter platitudes – gates are regularly up around 30,000 now, and the fans are, essentially, back. The job now is to keep them back, and words won’t do that. The next necessary steps are to complete the takeover and improve the team. Nothing else will do now.

In a way we’ve been a victim of timing this weekend. If this game was to be played at the beginning of February rather than the beginning of January, it might have been a different matter. A completed takeover; a successful transfer window; and a squad with flexibility to change, improve and rest the side; McDermott could have had all he needed to steer us into the fourth round with ease. The timing can’t be used as an excuse, though, when it has been in the club’s power to change any of those things since the day GFH-C arrived. 

Leeds must, instead, use the date as a catalyst for change. There can’t be any complacency now – the next three weeks can’t just drift by without action. Last Friday was Beckford Day, which has brought with it since the first anniversary an argument about whether it should keep on being celebrated; I always came down in favour of remembering a bright spot and a unique achievement in what has been a dark era for Leeds. We’ve a new date to remember now, though, that pretty much obliterates the good feeling that remembering Old Trafford can generate. It’s in the power of the club and its owners to solve all the problems that combined to cause this weekend’s defeat, and the line has been drawn now, below which we must not fall again. The change at Elland Road from a year ago is a change of mood, of outlook, of attitude; the change a year from now must be to the football team. January 4th: remember the date.

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