wolverhampton wanderers 0-1 leeds united: momentumBack
Stephen McPhail’s retirement this weekend reignited some good old debates about the career of the player Eddie Gray was convinced would outshine any of Leeds United’s other Academy products of the nineties.
A lack of physical attributes in an increasingly athletic Premier League, a string of injuries, and eventually serious illness severely restricted the impact of McPhail’s delicious left foot at the very top level, but even so, when it comes to the top level, McPhail was there with Leeds United.
As part of the case for McPhail, the team photo from the UEFA Cup semi-final first leg was produced, with McPhail there, playing his part as Leeds attempted to reach a European final for the first time in a quarter of a century.
That match should never have been played, of course, after the murders of Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight the night before. But even apart from the tragedy surrounding the game, looking at the team in that photo now, I wonder just what we were thinking, and how that group managed to get us so far.
It wasn’t just McPhail. Next to him is Matthew Jones; then Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell, Ian Harte, Lee Bowyer, Michael Bridges, Eirik Bakke. All were talented; but what they knew about elite European football — or even, in some cases, about the Premier League — you could write on a postage stamp. Experience, such as it was, came from Nigel Martyn, Gary Kelly and Lucas Radebe.
I’ve had similar thoughts about Garry Monk’s team this season, especially before games like this weekend’s at Wolves, when Liam Bridcutt, Stuart Dallas and Pablo Hernandez have all been absent. The gradual disintegration of our squad over recent years has been well documented, but sometimes it’s worth remembering that, since Sam Byram left, our longest serving player is Alex Mowatt; a 21 year old enduring a McPhail-esque struggle for consequence.
Looking around the lineup at Molineux you can choose to see either a positive freshness, or a worrying lack of experience. Ronaldo Vieira came into midfield and Kalvin Phillips stayed there; an eighteen year old and a twenty year old, with less than 35 games between them. Down the wings were Hadi Sacko — a twenty-two year old, twelve games into his Championship career — and Kemar Roofe, a little bit older at twenty-three, but still under 100 career appearances, and still trying to get to grips with life two divisions above the league where he made such an impact with Oxford last season.
Even players like Pontus Jansson, Kyle Bartley and Luke Ayling are new to the club, if not the game, in the last few weeks; Robert Green is a special case who ought, with his experience, to be immune to phase in any situation. Chris Wood and Charlie Taylor were the only players on the pitch with more than one season of first team football for Leeds United under their belt.
We might be a better team on paper with Bridcutt, Dallas and Hernandez adding their experience to this young crew, but on the pitch where it matters, Leeds have found something crucial that links them to that early O’Leary team: momentum. Even though results haven’t gone their way since the international break, United haven’t lost the momentum they had going into it, with those six wins in seven games; they’ve come close, but held on.
That’s less to do with youthful enthusiasm and more to do with finding something that’s worth defending. This run of form has been valuable, and there’s a tangible determination to keep hold of the good things that have been happening, even if a defeat or a last minute equaliser have threatened our parade.
Defending has been the platform on which the Leeds revival — and it is a revival, we’re fucking tenth! — has been built; since losing 2-1 to Birmingham in the first home game of the season, Leeds have only conceded more than one goal in a match once more, at Nottingham Forest. That includes seven clean sheets in fourteen games; long lost stability that ensures a even just one goal is normally enough for some sort of positive result.
Leeds had to work hard for it at Wolves, with Jansson inevitably putting his body on the line and finding extra inches to stretch his legs for goal-saving clearances. They were fortunate, too; take away the chances Jansson blocked or Green saved, and Wolves still had enough going on up front to score.
That’s football, though, and you can’t score them all; while Leeds had enough going on up front, too. Hadi Sacko put in the quintessential Hadi Sacko performance. One shot was skewed so far high and wide you had to laugh. Another smacked the bar so hard you had to gasp. And then, when Wolves’ left-back inexplicably dodged the ball and let Sacko run with it into the penalty area, Sacko found his accuracy with a ball across the six yard box that was put over the line by Silvio.
That was tough on Kemar Roofe, who was a step behind Silvio and could have used the touch to claim his first goal for Leeds. Hopefully his confidence will be boosted anyway; it’s significant enough that Roofe had got into the six yard box ready to score, given how isolated Wood has looked in attack at times.
Wolves, admittedly, are poor. Four winless games before Leeds came to town; Walter Zenga — who Leeds were linked with over the summer — is attempting his own rapid rebuild, and it’s not going right well. But once upon a time Leeds wouldn’t have taken advantage of that. Indeed, we didn’t against Derby or Wigan — those games were there to be won. But after Norwich in the League Cup it’s Burton next, at Elland Road, and surely there’s nothing to fear there.
After that things get a bit more real. Games against Norwich, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Brighton and Reading all come in quick succession, teams that have better squads and better form that any we’ve played since losing so badly to Huddersfield. The questions that affected and ultimately defeated the O’Leary boys, and McPhail in particular — how good can they be? And for how long? — are going to be pressing upon Elland Road in the next few weeks.
Fortunately, we can look forward to answering them. We’ll find out a lot about this side over the next couple of months; can youngsters like Vieira become Championship regulars? Is Jansson really everything we think he is? Can Sacko and Roofe find the consistency they need?
But with a mid-table position to start from, and a sense that the players are able and willing to perform above themselves, and above expectations, and to meet challenges, watching those questions being answered might actually be fun.