New Years Eve 2011, Leeds travel to Barnsley and close out the year with a humiliating defeat; a disjointed side outplayed in every area of the pitch, lacking ideas and desire – it was a real low point in a season of low points. It should’ve cost Grayson his job, but it didn’t, as much as the team needed fresh investment, it was obvious to all that it wouldn’t be forthcoming; Grayson was essentially a dead man walking, too restrained by the board to make the necessary improvements to the team and restrained by his own inability to fight for the funds.
Fast forward to last Saturday; another Yorkshire derby to see out the year with. The opposition, venue and scoreline may have been different, but the whole experience couldn’t have been more similar. Although the Whites were only beaten by a 2 goal margin at the KC Stadium, it couldn’t hide the shambolic and shameful nature of the performance – on the balance of play, anything less than 6-0 could’ve been construed as flattering.
Just like at Oakwell, Leeds were comprehensively outplayed, outfought and outthought; a team turned out designed to fit a 3-5-2 formation, but throughout, it was almost impossible to detect a pattern; inside 10 minutes the game could’ve been over as Jason Pearce, apparently playing the role of third centre half-cum-spare body, twice lost his bearings, his man and head…two very convincing penalty shouts, dismissed by the referee. Mercifully, Pearce picked up after that and was one of the better players on the day, the team performance however remained rooted in the same vein.
Despite playing wing backs, neither Aidy White or Sam Byram ever threatened in wide positions, yet Leeds were constantly stretched by the opposition. Despite having two up front, it took until the dying stages for Leeds to even muster an effort on target. Despite publicly praising Adam Drury after the Forest defeat, Warnock again chose to drop our most proven left back.
Part of the reason for Becchio’s absence was attributed to Warnock not wanting to risk the Argentine picking up a booking and missing a game through suspension…to be clear, that means the decision to leave the striker out was made to avoid the possibility he might miss another one? Had the decision made on the grounds of the best team for the game, it could’ve been viewed as an astute move, but when Davide Somma, with nothing more than a couple of 20 minute run outs under his belt following 18 months on the sidelines, is selected as his replacement, questions have to be asked.
Unsurprisingly, Somma was ineffective in the extreme and replaced at half-time, albeit by Luke Varney – with Becchio and Hall available, it was another mystifying decision with Leeds devoid of any presence in the middle or an outlet on the wings…Varney attributes appear to fall somewhere in between, but to a very limited degree.
Varney’s presence proved to be of negligible concern to Hull who continued to dominate and as soon as the first goal went in, the game was a good as over; there was no response, no getting stuck in, no storm for Hull to weather, just the short wait for an inevitable second…it didn’t take long.
So how then did Warnock respond? By replacing Norris, an attacking midfielder with Austin who sat deep. 2-0 down in a game against so-called promotion chasing rivals and the manager sets out his stall on a damage limitation exercise; while from time to time, Grayson would get it all wrong, he’s at least go for it; I can recall Leeds ending up playing 3-2-5 and snatching unlikely points on the back of it under his leadership.
It’s hard to feel inspired by a Leeds team that responds to a thumping at Forest by turning in an even more inept performance at the weekend; in turn it’s hard for the players to respond to a manager who appears unable to stop tinkering with the line-up, even during good runs. With Diouf consistently preferred to McCormack, Drury periodically called in from the cold then immediately exiled again and the likes of Austin starting games regardless of condition when better options exist, pockets of unrest may well be emerging at Elland Road.
One crucial difference however exists ahead of this transfer window. This time, if claims about sufficient funds and unequivocal boardroom support are true, the buck will have to stop with Warnock and nobody else. The manager is currently presiding over a squad, much of which is his making, but that is too lacking in pace, physicality, and in terms of last three away performances, spirit and desire on the road.
A couple of weeks ago, the talk was of one major signing, but now the rhetoric has changed and a “couple” are being spoken about, for me, four would seem more desirable. George Boyd has been linked to the degree that it now seems almost inconceivable that he won’t arrive, but assuming Boyd will play a free role, much as Taraabt did at Loftus Road, that means Leeds need a very strong, competitive engine room behind him and at the moment, only Paul Green and (when fit) Rodolph Austin appear to be the only ones good enough for regular central midfield berths – more cover is needed here, especially as Green has also shown himself to being very adept at linking up with Sam Byram down the right.
The side also requires a high quality wide player, in Ryan Hall, Warnock for now at least appears to have secured himself another squad player, but we need a regular starter – for me, the jury remains out on Thomas who has a tendency to drift in and out of games and provides precious little cover defensively in the troublesome left back area. Allowances also need to be made for Sam Byram who looks jaded and in need of a rest; should Peltier then be given a run at right back, that leaves us shorthanded at left back – Drury is good enough but not trusted and as for Aidy White – no thanks.
There exists a need for a significant squad makeover and investment will be demanded of GFH, but in turn, it is critical that Warnock matches the desires of those who now own the club and the thousands who follow it – if he wants players in during the window who see Leeds as a long-term career move, if he wants those at the club buying into his philosophies and aspirations, if he wants the club to have direction, then HE has to provide it.
Players typically don’t perform under managers who are alienating team mates and who are expected leave in a matter of months anyway; potential signings are far less likely to sign for a man who may not be around beyond the end of May. Without a definitive statement from Warnock, rather than the mixed messages in recent interviews, the club lacks direction; the dressing room needs galvanising, a commitment to stay at the club is needed now and a one-year extension to his deal agreed – if Warnock, having been publicly backed as the man the owners want in charge, but won’t commit himself, how can he expect of others?
Last January the club was directionless; the entire season frittered away as Bates and Harvey first dithered ahead of the inevitable departure of Grayson and then ahead of the recruitment of Neil Warnock – in the space of weeks, the whole season was lost. This time, it’s the manager whose actions will do more to define our prospects than those of other parties.
Time to sign up or sign off, Neil.