Ashdown, Kisnorbo, Pugh, Brown, Gray, Thompson, Poleon
These are the players that made up Leeds United’s bench ahead of Tuesday night’s league game with Hull City; if anything should bring home the current state of this football club, maybe it is a glance at this list of names. While Jamie Ashdown appears on first impressions to be a very sound back-up goalkeeper, concerns have to be raised about the quality of outfield options; even during the darkest times of the League One era, I’m not convinced that the club ever fielded a bench as weak as the one Neil Warnock had to muster for this game.
I would have to confess my first reaction upon discovering who the substitutes were, was to work through the outfield players and conclude the following: too old (and injury savaged), hopeless, too old, too old, too young and too young; Ken Bates’ rhetoric – and that of those who follow his lead on club station, Yorkshire Radio – about the manager possessing a strong, competitive squad, both in terms of numbers and quality, exposed as an utter fallacy. While some may wish to make a case for Poleon being deserving of a run in the side, the truth is, teams that challenge for titles, automatic promotion spots and even just play-off places do not typically find themselves relying on a completely untried teenagers.
As it is, Neil Warnock is already finding himself leaning heavily on another young prospect, who like Poleon, was not even on the fringes of the first team squad at the end of last season. In Sam Byram, it appears that the club have unearthed a new gem from the Academy, his fearless and enthusiastic performances have so far been one of the highlights of the season; but rather than being nurtured and eased into first team life – the new boy looked after the experienced pros, it already seems that this young lad is having a huge amount of responsibility placed upon his shoulders.
Instead of being allowed a degree of freedom, Byram along with Rodolph Austin has suddenly found himself as one of the key men in the engine room. With the wholly ineffective Luke Varney (and at times, the almost equally ineffective Aidy White) on the left, and now the desperately off the pace Michael Tonge (1 Premier League start in 4 seasons at Stoke) completing the midfield quartet, the side find themselves relying on an 18 year-old and a new to the English game, Jamaican who Warnock would ideally like to rest following his international commitments.
With that in mind it is no wonder that Leeds are currently struggling; while the results show on the surface that every league game has been tight, with every victory and defeat being by the odd goal, in truth only exceptional goalkeeping displays by Paddy Kenny in Cardiff and Blackpool glossed over the huge dichotomy in class that was evident on both occasions. While the opening day victory over Wolves offered encouragement, it was achieved against a side that took over an hour to get into gear, and as much as supporters were left to bemoan the referee’s role in denying Leeds a maximum return against Blackburn, in truth, it was a game that the visitors should really have killed stone dead before El Hadji Diouf provided the Whites with a foothold in matters.
Last weekend, Craig Bellamy left the bench to set Cardiff on the way to victory, then minutes later, Neil Warnock saw his “Number 1 summer target”, Nicky Maynard, win the penalty that condemned his side to defeat. Blackburn had given a debut to £8m Jordan Rhodes the Saturday before; Blackpool were able to field Tom Ince and then bring Matt Phillips off the bench to turn victory from the jaws of defeat at Bloomfield Road…Warnock is expected to compete with a budget (now completed exhausted) that has allowed him to set his aspirations no higher than Andy Gray and Luke Varney.
The fact is, Leeds United are a club going nowhere, its fan base left with nothing more to do than to pray for the moment that they can once again start to go somewhere. What is clear is that will not happen without a change of regime: new owners with a new philosophy of putting football first and wholly willing to back their vision with financial muscle. Even as things stand, Leeds United should be a much more competitive outfit, but an inhibitive wage structure and player budget, put in place so as to prioritise building projects, serves to ensure they cannot even now hope to compete for the cream of the emergency loan market.
Add to this equation, the losses to injury of Paul Green and David Norris from the midfield, the experienced Adam Drury at left-back and most crucially, the confirmed absence of Ross McCormack for up to 2 months and Leeds suddenly have the look of a bottom 6 outfit.
Still though the chairman chooses to preach to those naïve enough to swallow his increasingly inconsistent and nonsensical programme notes, his problem now however, is that he finds himself writing sermons to an increasingly small congregation of believers. Too many times has Ken Bates cried wolf, too often has he insisted that his is the way and then emphatically failed to deliver.
The pre-match protest outside the East Stand by the same “morons” Bates is at pains to dismiss, week upon week as being of no concern to him was essentially just another simple reiteration of discontentment amongst what is (contrary to opinion) a largely articulate and well informed hardcore; while the ingeniously placed LUST advertisement on the lamp post outside the executive entrance, merely another PR masterstroke by an organisation that offers to supporters, the accountability and communication, never afforded from those running the club. Such actions are nothing new, albeit the clustering of supporters in the South Stand for the game displayed a more organised element of independent protest, somewhat necessitated by the anguish of nearly four months of playing the takeover waiting game.
None of these actions are likely to have concerned Bates more than they might normally do so, however, what may do was the verdict of the wider fan base, reflected in the attendance. Barely 12 months on from the last Elland Road encounter with Hull – which was incidentally another early season Tuesday night game, played against a similar backdrop of discontent of acrimony following a pitiful summer of investment in the playing staff – the gate had dropped from 22,363 to 19,750; a fall of over 2,600. Bearing in mind that the Hull City fans travelled in greater numbers this time and the fact that this season’s game was deemed ‘Category B’, meaning that adult tickets were in general, £5 cheaper, this represents a continuing trend of support sharply falling away – even allowing for more player sales (and who’s already wondering whether Lees, Byram or McCormack will still be here in February, should Bates remain?); it seems Bates can do little to sustain his tenure with income dwindling so drastically and future season ticket sales mortgaged against the cost of the East Stand redevelopment work. Surely an end is in sight?
In the meantime, the action on the pitch continues to accurately reflect the lack of ambition shown off it. True to work ethic that Neil Warnock has installed, the side started quickly against the Tigers, dominating the opening 20 minutes and took a well-deserved lead from the penalty spot; Becchio stroking home following a trip on Diouf. But, as things tend to go at times like these, one mistake was all that was needed to let the opposition back in, the hugely ineffectual Tonge tamely rolling the ball left from the edge of his own area, rather than taking the no nonsense option of launching it upfield or into the stand, allowing the rather more impressive Hull loanee, Elmohamady (55 starts in 2 years at the Stadium of Light) to run on to the loose ball and smash it home from 20 yards. From that moment, Hull were in the ascendancy; Leeds, having created a number of problems by getting the ball forward quickly to Diouf and Becchio, who’d been afforded the luxury of staying up front due to Steve Bruce’s decision to opt to play three centre backs, suddenly found themselves chasing shadows; Austin and Byram, essentially carrying Varney and Tonge were never in with a chance against a 5-man midfield. Six minutes on and Tom Lees lost Faye, free header, 2-1.
For the second consecutive home game, Leeds were there for the taking, but rather like Blackburn, the visitors seemed to lack the killer instinct to press on and finish off their opponents. While Blackburn had fallen apart following Diouf’s goal, Hull simply set the height of their ambitions at holding up the game at every opportunity, taking the sting out of any token momentum Leeds could muster – there wasn’t much.
Once behind, Leeds in general lacked creativity, players who could pick passes and a sense of positivity, only Diouf could oblige on all three counts, Austin and Byram on the latter. Most troubling was the complete and utter lack of pace in all areas of the pitch; indeed Aidy White, the only starting player renown for pace appears so incapable of using it to any constructive purpose, he may as well not have it.
Nothing emphasised the deficiency more than the introduction of Dominic Poleon just after the hour mark; his first two contributions were to run at players, and the team, suddenly afforded a new dimension picked up the tempo. Sadly it didn’t last as 15 minutes from time a corner for the home side turned into a break for the visitors, Leeds were hopelessly stretched at the back and Koren was able to steal in unmarked at the back post, rounding off the sort of fleet footed attack Leeds are just incapable of, to tuck in the third and seal the points.
Andy Gray grabbed a late second for Leeds as the referee’s assistant was preparing to deliver the news of there being 5 minutes stoppage time; that brought a brief surge of excitement but never looked like being the pre-cursor for a dramatic equaliser.
On paper, 3-2 looks like a narrow defeat, but nobody was fooled. Unless the club comes under new ownership very soon, a repeat of last season where the team effectively found itself anchored in mid-table with nothing to play for by March may yet prove to be more aspirational than we dare contemplate.