And so the era of Simon Grayson’s management of Leeds United has passed and is now but a moment in history. Nothing surprising there but what has surprised is the way in which the appointment of Neil Warnock has seemingly, just for a moment, quietened the doubts of Leeds fans. His every word is rested upon and it seems he is indeed the Messiah or at least Moses come again, to lead us to the Promised Land of the Premiership.
Consequently and with nothing but good in mind, I journey to Elland Road for the first time in the Warnock era. Leaving aside my London occupations and realising that I have been attending games at Elland Road for 40 years, it is with good hope that I arrived back in Yorkshire. 40 years. Now that makes me feel old but my only excuse is that I started attending young – long enough to see Peter Lorimer going from hero under Revie to some strange kind of villain in the Bates’ pantomime. Mmmm, strange days indeed.
Tonight, Leeds play Nottingham Forest and from my seat near the dugout I’ve set my task to observe the team that Warnock has selected, the changes in tactics that have occurred with his coming and the manner of the way he marshals his troops from the sidelines.
And come 10 o’clock in the evening what have I learnt? Well, I might be writing a little from shellshock but there is little positive to report except for the fact that I’ve just learnt that the result which I took to be the worst I’d ever seen in my time attending Elland Road is apparently the worst in a longer period. Indeed, the worst here since the club first graced these blades of grass in the 1920s. And so the promised golden age is another false dawn…. and the promises made to the great Revie that we would be the greatest team in the land are to go once more unfilled….? Let’ s survey what actually happened on the pitch.
Andy Lonergan. It’s difficult to find anything positive to say about someone who’s just conceded 7 goals. The only observation I have is that once a few had gone in, there was a clear loss of confidence and the rest seemed inevitable.
Paul Connolly. Connolly fell out of favour a couple of times under Grayson but has battled to see himself restored to the rightback position since Warnock’s arrival. Warnock clearly wants a grittier defence and doesn’t require his defenders to be breaking forward in the wing-positions and Connolly on the right and Robinson on the left-side are obviously suited to filling those roles. What may have worked against less-accomplished teams just didn’t work against Forest. Rough-housing West Ham unsettles them, trying to be solid and unimaginative against Forest, who have had to do that all season just to survive, simply didn’t work and Connolly and his cohorts were all at sea.
Tom Lees. Lees looked the most accomplished of the defensive players in the first half but lost his way after the break as the goal count increased. Amongst a collective defensive collapse, he was one of the few to come out with some merit.
Darren O’Dea. O’Dea has collected more yellow cards than any other Leeds player this season and perhaps best suits Warnock’s defensive intentions on the evidence so far gathered – solid and unimaginative . Tonight, he was awful and the goals that leaked through the defence and the players who were not picked up during attacks seemed more down to him than Lees. He is not someone I would be looking to sign when his loan comes to an end.
Paul Robinson. Robinson looked strong in the first half but he looked every inch a central defender and not at all a player that I would have placed at left back. His strong headers out of defence cleared our lines on a number of occasions but his influence declined sharply in the second half and when Warnock talked post-match of those who were over-tired by two games in 3 or 4 days then he must have been top of the list. I would have placed him in central defence rather than O’Dea but a conversation about match fitness wouldn’t go amiss.
Michael Brown. Like Connolly, Brown is another player who did not do well under Grayson but has come to the fore since the arrival of Warnock. Not as young as he once was, he is a gritty defensive midfielder who also gets forward and struck a very sweet shot for the third Leeds goal. He looked twice the player he did before Warnock arrived and was one of the best of a sorry bunch on the night – but he is hardly a player for the future. His age is against him.
Adam Clayton. Clayton is a player I favour but tonight he was almost invisible. The midfield seemed mainly to want to play heading tennis or bully their opponents. The former achieved nothing, in the latter they were overmatched.
Aidan White. If Clayton was nearly invisible, it might have been better for Leeds if White had actually disappeared. Too lightweight for the bullying game, curiously at sea with whatever tactics Warnock had given before the game and seldom putting a foot right, it was no surprise when he was withdrawn at half time.
Robert Snodgrass. Snodgrass was far and away the best that Leeds had to offer. Endless energy and vigour. Very firm in the tackle and a little lucky to escape without a card of some kind when he went nose-to-nose with the assistant referee after one too many decisions had gone against him. Whilst Brown was solid, Snodgrass was the only player with any imagination and he had a raw passion about the game that allowed him to make something out of nothing.
Ross McCormack . McCormack did very little all night and it would have been him that I substituted rather than Becchio.
Luciano Becchio. Becchio was the only one in the team who had a hunger to feed from the balls that Snodgrass provided. He was replaced 9 minutes from the end (because of tiredness according to Warnock) but would have at least provided some kind of foil for the other’s work if he had remained on the field.
Danny Webber. Webber was better than the hapless White but was a forward pressed into midfield duty in an emergency. In the circumstances, he did okay but you would not pick him in that role from the beginning of a game.
Danny Pugh. Pugh would have been the player to use if you wanted an attacking fullback from the beginning. He has been noticeably relegated to the bench since Warnock arrived. By the time he arrived tonight the game was already lost.
Billy Paynter. Once in a while, Leeds sign a player who is so unsuited to the club that he becomes a forgotten figure and the butt of the fans’ humour. Paynter fills this role in the current squad. Having refused a loan move a few days before, the fact that he was thrown on with a few minutes to go emphasises how bad things had become.
The Leeds fans will mostly conclude that this is a sign of how bad the squad which Simon Grayson had assembled was. The difficulty with that assessment is that there were no results as bad as this during Grayson’s tenure. It shouldn’t either be taken as a sign of Warnock’s unsuitability – although those who are looking to watch scintillating football in 2012/13 as Leeds seek promotion would be warned to give Elland Road a wide berth.
Rather the worrying sign is that by appointing Warnock at the end of the transfer window – rather than at the beginning of the window or at the end of the season – those in power at Elland Road have left him with a squad which is unfit for the kind of game that he likes his teams to play. They are Grayson’s players being used in a most un-Grayson like manner and at some point they were destined to fail and fail badly.
My only surprise is that it came in this game – but then I knew precious little about a guy called Gareth McCleary before kick-off. Look for him in the Premiership before long – but not in a Nottingham Forest shirt.