Forget the goals, the crescendo of boos, the finger pointing, even the dejected figure of Brian McDermott, the defining moment for me from yesterday’s shambolic display at Hillsborough was something that the TV highlights, the newspaper reports and post-match discussions will most likely not even touch upon. Midway through the second half it came, with Leeds already a well beaten side and with nothing more to play for than their pride; Zaliukas received the ball just outside his own 18 yard box, he had time, he had options, he could’ve played a simple pass or taken a touch, instead he casually back-heeled ball back into his own penalty area, nearly gifting his opponents another goal.
Although nothing did come of it, that moment was symptomatic of a slack, reckless display from a player who prior our recent slump in form had been pivotal to our resurgence. On a day when every player left the pitch with their heads bowed, Zaliukas still stood out, his slack distribution had set Wednesday on their way to scoring their crucial second goal and if the back-heel had given the impression that he’d ceased to care, his pathetic mistakes that handed Caolan Lavery the final two goals of the afternoon resoundingly sealed the case for the prosecution.
As awful as he was, it may seem unfair to single out Zaliukas on a day when Leeds provided six assists without actually scoring a goal, but the point is that the 30 year-old is the closest thing Leeds have to a leader on the pitch; he’s the one who upon his arrival two months ago brought a semblance of organisation and a cool authority to the back line, but like all those around him, when the going’s got tough, he’s buckled.
It’s a sad fact that any debate about leadership should focus primarily on a relatively recent arrival, as opposed to the skipper, but that is where we are at the moment. In Rodolph Austin, Leeds United have a team captain in name but nothing else; Austin isn’t a great talker and rarely leads by example, he’s resembled a shadow rather than a leader over these last six games, when stern or supportive words have been called for in the midst of crisis, he’s typically been on the receiving end, rather than the one delivering them.
In recent times, only Ross McCormack and Paddy Kenny have continued to inspire on the pitch, the former through his continued work rate, the latter through his cajoling, but Leeds need a leader in the middle, in the thick of matters, where the opposition can be stifled and the control of games is there to be wrestled for. Leeds do possess some good players, a number of them, in fact (seriously), but are terminally afflicted by a paucity of leadership that undermines everything.
Leadership by definition is something that comes from top: the mandate, plans and expectations first have to be set and facilitated in boardroom, it is down then to the manager to ensure the dressing room is geared to meet those ambitions. Thus far, the board and McDermott have made for the perfect bedfellows, both parties winning the approval and patience of supporters on the back of canny PR and phlegmatic expectations about the rebuilding job necessary in the aftermath of Bates and Warnock.
This month however could mark the first profound shift in expectations at Elland Road during McDermott’s tenure. Having successfully negotiated a testing first year in charge at Elland Road, David Haigh and company now appear ready to finally flex their financial muscles and assert themselves in Championship circles, McDermott must now follow that lead in the dressing room.
Having finally got his wish for wide men, McDermott has a duty to use them, to be bold and stamp his authority and identity on squad that is increasingly composed of his own players. Yesterday demanded a 4-4-2 formation, instead McDermott delivered a compromised 5-4-1, delivering a team sheet that read more like a suicide note, it baffled everyone before the game and convinced nobody during it, it was a system that not only nullified the point of playing wingers but confused the entire team. The manager resolved that Rochdale would act as a “driver’ for the rest of the season, then duly oversaw a performance even more shameful.
McDermott must use the coming days and the remainder of the window to grasp the nettle, and only by providing a strong lead can he hope to succeed; no more compromises, he needs players on the pitch he can trust, playing in systems he believes in. Most of all he needs somebody who can share, instill and reinforce those beliefs for him on the pitch. A striker remains a necessary addition to the squad, but by far the most important acquisition this month is a leader in the middle in the park, somebody to provide a backbone to an often spineless team, who doesn’t simply bow his head when things are going against the team, who readily grasps at the honour of the captaincy, rather than asks for time think over the offer.
If history teaches us anything, then it’s how crucial to every successful Leeds team an inspirational captain and his relationship with the manager is: Don Revie and Billy Bremner were practically joined at the hip, Gordon Strachan was Sgt. Wilko’s most trusted foot soldier, while Lucas Radebe brilliantly nurtured David O’Leary’s babies through their early footballing years, before the club naively tried to run before it could walk.
McDermott needs a similar figure, not necessarily as gifted as those aforementioned but with the same aura, confidence and authority – a leader of men who rallies in the face or poor performances rather than be complicit in them, who can be relied upon to play consistently well, pick a pass and keep his composure, somebody who can ease the burden on the likes of Mowatt, Murphy and Byram and allow them to go out and express themselves.
After a decade of being handicapped by those at the top, there are hopeful signs that Leeds United’s owners in waiting are finally taking the initiative to lead the club in a positive fashion. Brian McDermott’s primary imperative is to now ensure that mantra filters from boardroom to pitch level. For too long, Elland Road has been host to countless individuals who have proven themselves incapable of handling the pressures of representing the club, our manager must now prove himself not to be amongst that number. McDermott needs to be bold, assertive and ruthless, to go with his beliefs, and most crucially, end the month with an individual he can implicitly trust to reinforce them on the pitch every 90 minutes.
No rudderless ship ever reaches its desired destination.
Follow Fear and Loathing on twitter.