qpr 1 – 1 leeds united: been down so longBack
When somebody sits down to write the definitive history of Leeds United, 2000–2020, no doubt they will pause when they get to February 2014.
They will hold their laser-quill for a moment above the sheet of hover-paper, and think. How do I get this all down? How do I write this so that a modern day Hu-borg, downloading the Book-capsule onto their Knowledge-drive, can easily understand what went on?
It’s for history to judge February 2014, and all its actors and provocateurs. All we can judge, right now, is how much leeway we give those actors; whether the people at the sharp end of a month at Leeds United that won’t be forgotten any time soon deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Right among them at the sharp end is Brian McDermott. If the last four weeks at the club were historic, Brian would no doubt agree with the old aphorism that history is just one damned thing after another. It started with him losing his job, and ended with him back in his job, but with growing numbers of supporters wondering if he shouldn’t have stayed sacked, after all.
Charlton haven’t helped. Their progress in the FA Cup, combined with the shenanigans in the build up to the Huddersfield game, meant that Brian McDermott didn’t manage Leeds United in a home game for the whole of February. The last home match McDermott took charge of was the 1–1 draw against Ipswich, when Varney refused to play and Massino Cellino tried to force his successor into the dugout. Ever since then, Brian McDermott has been on the defensive.
Four consecutive away matches might not seem like much to contend with – it’s the same game, just in different surroundings. But away teams play differently to home teams, a fact Ronnie Hilton recognised as long ago as 1964. “Get two at home and one away; that’ll do,” he sang in At Elland Road Baht’at, back when it was two points for a win. The logic is simple and still holds true. At your own ground, with your own fans behind you, you play your own way and you play to win. Away, you play to not lose. Win at home and don’t lose away and you’ll come out alright.
A month of playing not to lose can wear anybody down, though. McDermott did try to raise some good cheer halfway through, declaring that Leeds need to “really attack games” for the rest of the season – although he why he said it two days before playing against one of the meanest defences in the division is a mystery. The nil-nil draw at Middlesbrough was predictable, but still frustrating.
It was compounded by being followed by a trip to face the meanest defence in the division. QPR aren’t proving to be quite the force of nature they looked like being at the start of the season, but their defence – Neil Warnock’s lost son Clint Hill and all – is tough, experienced and has let in less than a goal a game. It was going to take more than Connor Wickham, less than two days after signing, to get three points from Loftus Road.
Wickham played well, though, as did Butland in his second game, but while bouquets are being delivered to Cellino for paying to bring them in, bricks continue to be chucked McDermott’s way for signing Stewart and Kebe. At least one of those bricks looks well deserved; it’s hard to think of the words to describe Kebe’s performances for Leeds so far, because the most accurate words – ineffective, ineffectual, invisible – just don’t seem harsh enough. The one saving grace is that his signing will only be made permanent if we’re promoted, and there’s not much danger of that.
Cameron Stewart is a different matter, although his performances so far are much too similar to Kebe’s. He at least looks capable and interested, and there seems to be a confidence factor involved; he’s only had one decent run of games since a cruciate ligament injury kept him out for nine months in 2011, and that run was earlier this season for Charlton. His best moments there – at least, the ones that made it onto YouTube – showed him cutting inside from the left and scoring from distance; but they also showed him being left in acres of space to do it, space you don’t get when playing left wing for Leeds United away at Middlesbrough and QPR, and Stewart is struggling to make that adjustment.
Those two now shoulder the responsibility of creating chances for McCormack and Wickham, and they didn’t do it against QPR. A missed penalty and a deflected free kick into the net from Ross, and a shot wide from a chance he created himself and a close range header from a set piece from Wickham, were about all Leeds had going forward. Although we looked well capable of beating QPR, especially in the first half, you could pretty much forget about a chance coming from open play.
Whether that’s due to negativity on McDermott’s part, the difficulty Stewart has playing away, the difficulty Kebe has playing generally, or the quality of QPR’s defence, probably depends on how much leeway you’re willing to give.
Popularity has its part to play. Butland and Wickham at the moment can do no wrong, because they’re ‘hungry, young England players who we should be signing.’ They’re also England U21 team mates of Tom Lees, suggesting he belongs in that bracket with them; but while blame is piled on Lees again, for losing Jermaine Jenas for QPR’s goal, Wickham’s debut is hailed despite his only getting one of his four shots on target. Our perspective on Wickham might be different if we were fans of Sunderland, who have seen very little return for the £8m they spent on him, until he dropped back down a division with Sheffield Wednesday, and now with us; Lees might look different if we’d just got him on loan from Liverpool. It’s all about leeway, and how much you’re prepared to forgive, and for some reason we’re more forgiving to the new boys on their debuts than the young players who have given us over 100 games already.
Wickham’s was a fine debut, though, and he already showed signs of a good partnership with McCormack; the pair of them put in serious effort, both ending with limps that proved their commitment – the kind of limp you’ll never see Kebe playing through. We didn’t get the full benefit of McWickmack against QPR, but then we haven’t had the full benefit of anything for the last month.
4–4–2, with two wingers and a big man and a little man upfront, is a classic attacking home formation, and it’s clearly the plan McDermott has been building towards since the day he arrived; the appeals in the two transfer windows so far for that one player “with extra”, the line up and wave before games that was meant to bring the fortress ideals back to Elland Road, the eventual signings of Kebe and Stewart. But just as that plan came together, McDermott was let down three other ways: the owners let a stranger sack him, Kebe turned out to be a shadow of the player Brian knew and trusted, and United were sent out to play a series of road games like a baseball team of the 1930s.
Kebe might never come good, but there’s an old rule of thumb of Howard Wilkinson’s that for every five players you sign, only two will fully work out (if you’re Harry Redknapp, who has signed more than 19 players this season, you can basically massage these figures any way you want). The bigger problem than Kebe being rubbish is systemic: Leeds United only have one permanent winger on the books, and even he doesn’t sign for good until June. Kebe is a sticking plaster on a problem McDermott has been trying to solve with one arm tied behind his back for a year; it’s no wonder, and no real judgement against McDermott, that the plaster has peeled off as soon as it got wet.
McDermott can change things though, but first the circumstances of his job need to change. The first change comes now: the next two games are, at last, at Elland Road, with three more following quickly. Brian can bring it home and stand in his own dugout for only the third time this year – and he can tell his team to play 4–4–2 and attack. Second is the standard of opposition; Middlesbrough and QPR have two of the best defences in the Championship, but Bolton, Millwall and Doncaster have the worst. If Brian were to have kept his ‘gung-ho’ powder dry until after he’d signed Wickham and then targeted these games to go all-out, he might have got an easier ride.
The third circumstance that needs to change is that history needs to leave Leeds United alone for a while and make the day-to-day running of the club a little less momentous. Even last week didn’t pass by without a surprise court appearance and a legal bill. There’s not a lot anybody on the playing side can do to change that, and there’s not much hope that the repercussions of the historic events of February 2014 ended neatly on the 28th; we’re stuck with the saga for a while yet.
But as Brian McDermott will tell you, two out of three ain’t bad. For every Kebe, there’s a Butland and a Wickham; for every QPR away, there’s a Bolton and Millwall at home; get two at home and one away, that’ll do. You can’t do a lot when history is against you; but you have to play it right when the odds are on your side.
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