What lies in store for long-suffering Leeds?
Last Sunday saw the network premiere of The Damned United, the celebrated film that recounts Brian Clough’s brief spell in charge of Leeds United. It must be galling for supporters of a club with such a rich history to be reminded of such a turbulent period, overlooking plenty of past successes in favour of further coverage of Clough’s inglorious reign.
The reality, however, is that the name Leeds United stirs emotions. The name attracted Clough and, although it has become a byword for failure in recent years as mis-management on and off the pitch saw third-tier football arrive at Elland Road, it is a name which now adorns the Championship league table once more.
The fixtures computer played along. Leeds begin life back in the Championship with a home game against Derby County, the side Clough left before driving through the gates at Elland Road. That is followed by a trip to the City Ground to face Nottingham Forest. Clough may have spent some time there too.
But enough of Clough. Too much, in fact. It is finally time to look forward for Leeds supporters, led by one of their own.
Doing things differently
It seems fitting that a Leeds fan and Yorkshireman, Simon Grayson, has overseen the restoration of the club’s fortunes. Indeed, it would only have been slightly less fitting had his predecessor, the Leeds legend Gary McAllister, managed it previously.
And where McAllister failed partly because of the ubiquitous, unsavoury and unpopular Ken Bates, it appears that Grayson has so far achieved despite the presence of the former Chelsea chairman.
Leeds should be using their promotion as a springboard. Their players were too good for League One and logic suggests that their success last season should have created a winning mentality throughout the club, perhaps with a star player to lead their assault on a new set of opponents.
However, Leeds seem to enjoy making things awkward for themselves so it all happened very differently at Elland Road. The drum roll, crescendo, big finish and finale all arrived at the same time – not in May as most clubs would organise, but in January when Manchester United were dumped out of the FA Cup at Old Trafford.
After that show-stopper, the monotony of League One football was too much to bear. Leeds wilted, eventually limping over the line with a final-day victory at home to Bristol Rovers. As far as momentum goes, the exuberance caused by that season-ending ecstasy is the most that can be said in the Yorkshire club’s favour.
The B word
Even then, the winning goal was scored by a player now at Everton. Jermaine Beckford is a name Grayson probably hopes to hear as little as possible over the coming months, because references to last season’s top scorer are likely to mean a lack of goals this season.
As things stand, Billy Paynter must bear the significant weight of being labelled Beckford’s replacement. A completely different type of player, Paynter is nevertheless likely to line up alongside Luciano Becchio in attack and will be unable to escape the unfair comparison.
It must be remembered that Championship football would have been a step up for both Beckford and Becchio, never mind Paynter.
An important aspect of Grayson’s preparation for the new campaign, in addition to ensuring that his players learn quickly from Tuesday’s 4-0 defeat at Bury, must be mastering midfield. Perhaps the most valid criticism of Leeds on the field over the past three years in League One has been their lightweight nature in the middle of the park.
Elsewhere in the side, Grayson has muscle to call upon. The likes of Paynter and Becchio, along with centre-backs Patrick Kisnorbo and Richard Naylor, are up to the physical exertions of the Championship. In Robert Snodgrass, Leeds also have a player who should be able to score and create regularly from the wing.
Centrally, though, it is a different story. Now bereft of last season’s loanee Michael Doyle, who has returned to Coventry City, Leeds face the same problems they had in League One and even fewer second-tier teams will allow Neil Kilkenny and Jonny Howson to play pretty patterns around them without imposing themselves on the inconsistent pair. Grayson appears to lack leadership in that crucial midfield area.
Marching on together
Once again, a large burden will fall on the long-suffering Leeds faithful. Not just financially, through the astronomical prices still charged by Bates, but also vocally. Elland Road can be an intimidating venue if the home fans get behind their team, a duty they can very rarely be accused of shirking.
Unless Grayson re-inforces his midfield, most opposition managers can reasonably expect their players to silence the Leeds crowd by keeping possession and cutting the supply channel to the dangerous Snodgrass and new recruit Lloyd Sam on either wing.
After those first two clashes with the East Midlands rivals, Leeds will put on a warm welcome for the visit of Millwall. And after Kenny Jackett’s hard-working Lions have visited the cauldron of Elland Road, we will be far better-placed to judge what sort of season Leeds United’s loyal supporters can look forward to.