Has Bates got the right man? I reckon so…
As a Leeds United supporter, the two and a half weeks that followed the inevitable departure of Simon Grayson have proved nigh on unbearable. Day upon day has been spent, furtively scanning twitter timelines, WACCOE and the Oddschecker website, desperately hunting for concrete clues and news on the next incumbent of the Elland Road hot seat.Dealing with this process should be a lot easier by now; us supporters are now well versed in these helpless rituals, as the tortuous and spectacularly depressing ‘fruits’ of three consecutive transfer windows stand testament to. It wasn’t though; if anything it was even harder to deal with – the problem being, that we’ve been so conditioned to the underwhelming by our present chairman that a nagging undercurrent of pessimism underlie all speculation.
The announcement that Neil Redfearn was to be given a run of games did little to quell such concerns; it seemed the cheap fix was again the preferred option. When the debacle at Coventry killed any such aspirations, stone dead, the unruffled response by Bates just served to elevate fears further; as every new day passed, so the spectre of a Phil Brown or Paul Ince arriving at Thorp Arch grew larger in our minds.
Finally, on Friday, a first concrete hint that the torment was coming to an end; in the space of a lunch break, Neil Warnock had gone from being on the fringes of the betting at 6/1 to a racing certainty at 1/10. Of course, that wasn’t that – it never is at Leeds – one more night of uncertainty remained. By early Saturday morning though, twitter was awash with stories and one particular photograph of a meeting from the day before. Shortly before 10am, Chris Kamara finally confirmed the news, announcing that Warnock would no longer be on ‘Goals on Sunday’ as he had a new job to attend to.
My twitter timeline that morning was an exemplification of how quickly news spreads on that medium. In the space of minutes, there were over a hundred new entries, about half of which were either tweets or re-tweets of that photograph of Bates, Harvey and Warnock, sat outside a bar in Monaco. Each entry excitedly accompanied by remarks alluding to the arduous process coming to an end.
Amongst the sea of near indentikit tweets, one stood out above the others. The tweet came from Liz, a girl I consider among my very favourite tweeters, both on account of her ability to transform the most trivial aspects of life into engaging spectacles within the confines of 140 characters, on my timeline, and the high degree of sense she talks with regard to Leeds United, off it. Her reaction simply read:
“Bates + Warnock + Leeds United = The FA shitting themselves!”
The remark brought a smile my face and doubtless did for others too, for we all know that equation had a simple, irrefutable truth about it, and moreover, it reflected something that had been starkly missing at the club for some time.
I for one are delighted to pin my colours to the Neil Warnock mast; I’ve overtly campaigned for his appointment as the next Leeds manager since the day QPR dispensed with his services – indeed early on Saturday morning, one friend was quick to remind me of a semi-drunken pitch I’d made to that effect at a gig, while Grayson was still in charge. As much as I detest Ken Bates, just for once, I find myself having to congratulate him on making a sound football decision.
Now back to that tweet…
Warnock is not a man who’ll win Leeds United many friends; he’s managed to alienate pretty much every section of the football loving public at some stage, and has achieved such notoriety whilst managing a number of fairly inoffensive, nondescript clubs, ones who are regarded with a relative degree of ambivalence on the national stage. Now at a club that’s hated, almost by default, the possibilities appear infinite.
No matter how low Leeds have sunk over the last decade, there have still been opposition supporters, clamouring to mock our predicament – where Portsmouth have attracted sympathy, our decline was soundtracked by the muffled laughter of many, especially those of the ‘armchair’ persuasion who could often be found crawling out of the woodwork for the day in large numbers, especially to proclaim “You’re not famous anymore!”…the irony lost on them.
Even now, with arguably the least competitive, aggressive and physical team in the division, cries of “Dirty Leeds” remain commonplace, although one Middlesbrough supporting mate has recently shifted his stance – in view of the current spate of opposition sendings off, we’ve now been reduced to the label of “cheats”.
As a club, Leeds United are never going to be loved by the neutral, a begrudging respect is the best we can ever hope to achieve. In this club, it’s as if Neil Warnock has found his soul mate; a footballing institution, derided from most quarters, but ultimately at its best when feeding off that hatred and rubbing others up the wrong way.
All of Leeds United’s successes have been built around teams that play at a high-tempo, who spend the 90 minutes in the faces of the opposition, who aren’t afraid to put their foot in… and who, win, lose, or draw, always ensured the other team left the pitch, knowing they’d been in a game. Even David O’Leary’s ‘babies’ – arguably the Leeds side most warmly regarded by neutrals – were built around that philosophy, complementing it with a fantastic brand of attacking football.
High levels of effort and commitment are a given for a good team, and the first demand the Elland Road crowd make of any player – skill and ability is a blessing, but not enough in isolation; supporters want players who are ready to run through brick walls for the team, anyone doubting the value placed on the most basic attributes need only look at the affectionate regard that Andy Hughes is still regarded. Leeds fans demand utter dedication to the cause as minimum, and as they’ve demonstrated on numerous occasions, will not tolerate anything else, much like Warnock.
As Warnock re-instils a competitive edge at Elland Road, no doubt the potential for on the pitch flare ups will increase – although no doubt, an FA shit storm awaits and while El Hadji Diouf was the main propagator, I was still in some perverse way heartened to witness the large scale ruck at the final whistle yesterday; it was as if the players had finally woken from a long, complacency induced coma. With this rediscovered passion, no doubt media scrutiny will intensify and with it a new re-energised wave of Leeds baiting. I for one can’t wait for that moment; although it’s human nature to like to be loved and appreciated, at Leeds it’s a long-held truism that the level of hatred directed towards the club is almost directly proportional to how successful the side is. Moreover, Leeds more than any side can feed off a siege mentality, and in Warnock have no greater exponent.
But it’s not just Warnock’s abrasiveness, his broad shoulders and his love of fighting the fight that makes him the ideal candidate; to reduce him to such a reactionary stereotype would do a man with 7 promotions under his belt a grave disservice.
Warnock has a great record of dragging teams out of a malaise and galvanising them in time frames most of his peers would consider unrealistic; most significantly, he’s achieved that in both of his most recent roles at QPR and Crystal Palace – a true man for a crisis. He’s a man who won’t suffer fools; so many of the performances this season that have been attributable to “slow starts”, a “lack of luck” or plain “disappointing” wouldn’t have been regarded in such a favourable light by Warnock. Neil Redfearn – a dignified if ineffective caretaker – saw fit to praise the players’ “fantastic efforts” during his stint; ask yourself: would Warnock regard those displays similarly?
Crucially, Warnock can organise a side. He can develop a disciplined system of play, where players know their roles, and where any amount of good attacking play isn’t likely to be undermined by repetitive defensive lapses. Furthermore, when things do go wrong, then as long as his players give their all, he’ll back them to the hilt – he’s a man who demands everything, but who in return gives everything back, a man who players will put in a shift for.
Then there’s arguably the most important of all factors, the passion Warnock has for the post of Leeds manager. It’s been long known in local media circles, the high regard our new man has for the club and how he’s longed for the opportunity at some stage to take on the job. A Yorkshireman by birth and having spent long stints of his career in local football circles, he knows all about the Leeds United and has been quick to state that the job represents both the biggest challenge and most prestigious role of his career.
Yesterday alone at Elland Road was proof enough for many of the (few) remaining doubters. Having been appointed on the Friday evening, most managers would be expected to take no more than a watching brief in the stands, but not Warnock. The new man chose to speak to the players both before the game and at half-time, and by his own admission, spent more time on the phone to the dug-out than he’s ever done. While the team started the day playing to Redfearn’s game plan, they finished it clearly under the influence of Warnock’s ideas. Having got used to the sad spectacle of watching Grayson, then Redfearn, stood motionless in the technical area, presiding over matters but barely reacting to them, it was heartening to Warnock so pro-active.
Before the game, Leeds United’s resident gimp, Ben Fry announced that LUTV would be the first place to hear from our new manager when an interview to be filmed on Sunday afternoon would be available for viewing – again, Warnock could not wait that long and within 45 minutes of the full-time whistle he was discussing his thoughts and ideas with Eddie Gray. He was only on air for 5 minutes, but was able to talk more constructively in that time about team affairs than Grayson did in the entirety of his final 12 months; gone was the tired repetition of sound bites, broken promises to tackle recurring difficulties – Groundhog Day, finally banished.
During the interview Warnock didn’t put a foot wrong; he was honest, incisive and upbeat, he also spoke frankly about all the issues – large and small – that have niggled Leeds fans for so long. His first observation was about the lack of leadership on the pitch; the second was about the folly of leaving Snodgrass to play out wide, especially when teams doubled up on him…he then uttered some magical words, about how he wanted to engineer our formation to get Snoddy playing in the hole, immediately acknowledging that our best player should be the fulcrum of all our attacking movements – maybe us supporters are not always crazy to question tactics after all! There were other observations too; finally it seems the day off having 11 men back to defend a corner might be behind us; in the future we’ll not have 3 players hanging back to mark a solitary front man when we attack; it also seems that there are big plans to re-energise Luciano Becchio, including a change in emphasis to bring our midfield closer to our front line – many have questioned the Argentine’s body language this season, but when there’s often no supporting midfielder within 30 yards to pick up his headers or support his hold up play, it must be disheartening.
Warnock concluded his chat by ensuring he got his point across about the support; partisan, aggressive, unrelenting and vociferous, at its best, much like the man himself. He’s been a Leeds enough times to witness Elland Road in full cry and knows that when the ground is bouncing, the atmosphere is almost incomparable – his hunger to be part of that, week in week out was tangible in his voice.
While some will remain who aren’t completely sold on Warnock, I suspect that those numbers will continue to dwindle over the coming weeks. I can understand the wishes of individuals who would’ve liked an Eddie Howe or Brian McDermott type who could’ve maybe moulded the team into the next Swansea, but ultimately, I don’t have the same confidence such an appointment would’ve work. Ken Bates has a long term strategy, a vision, but that only applies in the areas of ground development and the expansion of corporate facilities, on the pitch, regardless of funding, he still expects instant results – evolution, doesn’t sit with his strategy.
Similarly, after so long in the wilderness, I’m not convinced the fans would possess the patience necessary. Fans at every club have high hopes, it’s why they continue to support their club, but hand in hand with those hopes are rather more modest expectations. At Leeds, certainly at Championship level, there is little differentiation between hopes and expectation. To cope with the pressure of the situation the club needs a big man, an experienced man, a man who’s done it before and can live with the pressure. It’s no coincidence that West Ham, a club under comparable pressure, decided to forego their footballing principles in order to go with a ‘sure bet’ in Sam Allardyce – as expected, he’s delivering. Warnock stands as our best bet to deliver in the short-term; the club were never in the market for a Mourinho, but maybe we’ve secured the ‘Smart Price’ equivalent – devoid of Jose’s looks, class, his sophistication and his track record at the highest level, but when operating where money is tight, almost without rival.
The only question marks that remain now are in regard to our own chairman. Two of the key reasons I hoped for Warnock above all others are that he’s a man who’ll fight his corner until the last (a deficiency that I fear ultimately undermined Grayson) and he is of sufficient stature in the game that I could only assume that his arrival would be conditional upon reassurances regarding player investment. Looking back at Bates’ appointments at Leeds, and further back during his Chelsea days, appointing such a character wouldn’t seem to sit easily with our chairman, while promises of squad investment run counter to his claims about trimming this seasons’ playing budget.
So what next; has Bates finally accepted the shortcomings of his excessively frugal policies, alarmed by falling gates and the sudden emergence of LUST as a wholly credible opposition? Is this a signal that, counter to his arguments, credence has been paid to the case being made that the club needs to speculate at least a little to accumulate? Or best of all, after so many years of false promises, is the money coming from elsewhere; after seven long years, Bates has finally found an investor to come on board, or more likely, buy him out? Whatever is the case, the coming weeks promise to be VERY interesting.
The one thing I can say for definite is that yesterday, despite the obvious deficiencies on the pitch and my continued reservations about Bates and Harvey, I left the stadium feeling genuinely optimistic – it’s been a long time.
Over to you Neil…