Having endured an outrageously extrapolated summer recess, a tortuous 15 weeks made all the more unbearable by the takeover saga, here it was at last; a chance, if just for 90 minutes, to do what we do best, to put aside concerns about the long-term future of Leeds United and concentrate on finding more immediate ‘on the pitch’ concerns to despair over.
Working under the financial constraints that continue to shackle every manager under the Bates regime, Neil Warnock appears to have accomplished some sterling work in the transfer market during the summer. His planning so far has been faultless; his first signing was the defensive lynchpin the team have do desperately lacked since Kisnorbo ruptured his Achilles over 2 years ago, and in Drury and Peltier has added a degree of ‘know how’ and class… words very rarely uttered in dispatches about Darren O’Dea and Alex Bruce.
Behind those we now have Paddy Kenny, proclaimed by Warnock himself as his most important signing – it would be hard to disagree: after watching over a long procession of keepers, all of whom were ticking time bombs, accidents waiting to happen – none more so than last season’s pair – to have an able AND confident last line of defence is the most novel and welcome change of the lot.
In the midfield a flurry of inexpensive, unspectacular new faces initially padded out the squad; not names to excite, but competitive, reliable and hardworking; the very antithesis of Clayton and Pugh. More recently, David Norris was brought on board to add a little attacking intent, then along came Rodolph… add Luke Varney and suddenly we no longer have a team of pushovers.
So we’re now solid and competitive (oh, and rid of Andy O’Brien), we now just need match-winners…ah, bugger! Sadly this is where the manager’s plans have fallen down – through no fault of his own, it must be added – players who win games by scoring goals, creating them for others, who excite: these players cost money, serious money… yes, even in excess of the £500,000 we forked out on Danny Pugh! While defensive solidity and a competitive streak are a pre-requisite for any Championship side with designs on promotion, class wins games; while it’s not inconceivable that a collection of unremarkable grafters could scrape a play-off berth, candidates for top 2 slots have pace, creativity and goals in their line-ups. We have McCormack and little else.
This shouldn’t have been an issue; having sorted out the defensive side of things, having built a competitive midfield unit, Warnock should’ve been spending the last few friendlies integrating the marquee signings he’d planned his summer around. Snodgrass is gone, yes, but one pacy forward (Maynard? Beckford? Cox?), a similarly quick wide player on the right, and because I’m greedy, an exciting young attacking midfielder to revel in the freedom afforded by Rodolph’s anchor role, then suddenly the squad would be looking very good… it’d be almost as if we’d replaced everything that our woeful contract negotiations track record has forced us to sacrifice over the last 12 months.
But we haven’t, and nobody seems to know whether Warnock will ever have the chance to do so; so here we find ourselves, the first competitive home game, and there he is, warming up on the pitch – El Hadji Diouf! Sadly now it seems that needs must and if Leeds want to recruit a forward with a degree of pedigree, this is once more, what we’ve been reduced to.
So here we are again, it’s not even kick-off and Elland Road is divided; the need for more firepower is clear, but few supporters would’ve elected to recruit a man who’d most likely rank below a vivisectionist in a ‘Humanitarian of the Year’ poll. It’s not the best omen to kick-off a season with.
Mercifully, every other aspect of the afternoon was more positive. While Diouf’s inclusion on the subs bench predictably drew very audible booing, the absence of Pugh, Connolly and Paynter had me somersaulting inside. Tom Lees was absent, but that allowed Sam Byram – impressive at Deepdale – a start (he impressed again), indeed amongst the first XI there were 8 debutants; while most felt such a drastic turnover of players was needed, I’m sure many doubted it would be achieved.
On the terraces, the mood was mixed; very positive towards the players, but tinged with the desire to express anger at the ongoing events at boardroom level. ‘Bates Out!’ chants were regular throughout, along with a fresh ‘Shoes off! Bates out!’ variation; while Paddy Kenny’s new ode quickly attainted cult status…sadly “Sausages and Burgers at Warnock’s house” has yet to make the transition from the pre-season tour.
On the pitch, a slow start allowed Shrewsbury a couple of early chances and afforded Kenny the opportunity to prove his worth; Leeds on the other hand were sparked to life by the opening goal; Becchio slotting in from 6 yards after Austin’s long range effort reached him via the keeper’s fumble and the defenders stray leg – try telling Rodolph it wasn’t his assist. The advantage was doubled within 6 minutes, the assist McCormack’s, the goal, Varney’s after more charitable defensive work.
The second half was fairly comfortable and put beyond doubt mid-way through as Norris struck home Varney’s knock-down, then McCormack hit home a penalty on 70 minutes; his little signing gesture celebration in front of the Kop, hopefully a hint of positive forthcoming news. The four goal cushion was the signal for changes, including Diouf; his introduction receiving the expected mixed response – a word of advice though, if you do insist on abusing Diouf, then do so from the safety of the stands, he looks like he’s been doing some serious weights this summer!
In his 15 minutes Diouf showed some nice touches, but a lot of rustiness too, barely ever threatening to go past a defender, although off the pitch, when warming up and at the final whistle, his efforts to appease by repeatedly applauding the Kop were evident; chin up El Hadji, Barry George had few friends at ER until he revealed his LUFC affinity…