Leeds see the spectre of the playoffs approaching again

Swindon Town v Leeds United
26th of January 2010
County Ground, Swindon

Leeds United are having a peculiar run of form. What’s wrong with this picture?

Manchester United 0 Leeds United 1
Tottenham Hotspur 2 Leeds United 2
Swindon Town 3 Leeds United 0

Whether it is tiredness, whether it is elation or something more, all the signs are that the Peacocks are having a difficult time adjusting from the big days in the FA Cup to the workaday business of life in League 1. This has resulted in their 8 point lead at the top disappearing. It has led to Norwich overtaking them and Charlton closing the gap for second place and now it has led to their worst defeat of the season. That defeat came against a Swindon team who were competent but never outstanding but who could have scored six against their opponents.

This, in turn, resulted in the away fans who had arrived announcing that the Swindon followers were only in the ground "to see the Leeds" being robbed of what little articulation they originally had and resorting to call their opposite numbers "scum". There was little intellectual debate about the relative merits of the two teams to be heard amongst the fans of either team.

Personally, I prefer to ponder those things rather than shouting abuse but I would have been hard pressed to find any individual players who merited commendation where a few days previously against the Spurs there had been many. Then Ankergren played in a way that was, frankly, beyond his capabilities and Beckford looked like he deserved the inflated fees that his agent had tried to attach to him just a few weeks earlier. At Swindon, Snodgrass was once again bright and purposeful but didn’t achieve much in the second half and substitute Gradel looked overmatched against taller and heavier Swindon defenders despite his obvious enthusiasm and love for the game. And they were the best on offer.

The logical conclusion is that unless something can be done to right the ship, Leeds will again drift out into the post-season playoff games and their ability in those situations has not gone well dating back to the time when Billy Bremner was at the helm as team manager.

The cold night brought home a harsh reality of a defence that looked like it lost its shape too easily and couldn’t pick up players who needed to be marked at set pieces. The midfield looked like it lacked a play maker especially when Kilkenny was withdrawn at half time and that the policy of playing Beckford alone upfront in a League 1 game is foolish indeed.  He desperately needed Becchio to play off and to hold the ball up for him but by the time he was brought on the team were already behind and lost heart all together when the second goal went in.

So will Leeds trade automatic performance for the glamour of a cup run which brings bright memories but will not end in silverware? Well, on current evidence it is a real possibility.

From Hallowe’en to Fireworks

Place: Elland Road, Leeds
Date: 31st October 2009
Event: Leeds United vs Yeovil Town

Leeds, coming off the back of a 4-0 victory over promotion rivals Bristol Rovers, were expected to dominate their next opponents easily. Yeovil Town securely in mid-table and not looking likely to go much higher, were not perceived to be the threat that the Pirates had been but half way through the game it all looked like it might go wrong. It looked like we might be on our way to a hallowe’en- flavoured nightmare.

Leeds had begun the game with Ankergren in goal. Higgs was still unavailable. Ankergren is not the safest pair of hands but their only other alternative is young Alan Martin. In defence, Patrick Kisnorbo and Richard Naylor are a solid pair in the centre of defence. Leigh Bromby, at right back, looked solid as a feeder down the wing to winger, Snodgrass but less comfortable when under pressure from the Yeovil forwards. Left back, Andy Hughes, is not in his most natural position in that slot but did reasonably well in a team that looked flat and uninspired.

Micky Doyle playing immediately in front of the central defenders did okay in the first half but Leeds needed more playmakers to feed the front pair. In a game where Leeds’ main tactic seemed to be to bypass the central midfield as they sought to hump it upfield hard and fast when they could not carry the ball down the flanks, Jonny Howson and Bradley Johnson had really no role to play. Amazingly in the first half Leeds had gone in front but hardly looked like they deserved that lead.

Robert Snodgrass had been by far the brightest of the three forward players. Jermaine Beckford is, of course, a proven force but his partnership with Sam Vokes looks hardly worth the name. They look like someone needs to take them aside in the dressing room and introduce them. In the first half, they both sought to lead the line in their own way but, really, there was no interaction between them.

Beckford is lethal when he has the ball but does not impose himself or create space when he is off-the-ball. The players looked like they expected to win just by turning up. The goal when it had come on 42 minutes looked like the final touch had come from Beckford but later examination of video footage was to reveal that no contact was made and the goal belonged to Bradley Johnson.

The second half started in exactly the same vein and the crowd was growing quiet as that feeling that we were going to take this slender lead into the late stage of a game in which Yeovil might just grab a share began to develop.

And then on the hour came Simon Grayson’s masterstroke. In one moment, he showed why he is the mostly highly rated manager in the lower divisions. Leeds needed a big change in midfield and someone with spark and play-making skill and Grayson had just the move in mind.

In a double switch, he brought an end to this developing hallowe’en and gave us the fireworks a few days early. On came Neil Kilkenny to replace Michael Doyle who really was an unneeded presence on this occasion. Most significantly, Andrew Hughes was pulled off to make room for Max Gradel, a loan player who has come in from Leicester.

It was Gradel who was to prove the difference in taking this team from their flat first hour to a final third of the game when they tore Yeovil apart.

Gradel ran himself forward at every opportunity. He wrapped the defence in knots. He outpaced the full back to make the vital cross on numerous occasions and he wasn’t afraid to try a snapshot himself. Indeed, it was Gradel who with a goal of brilliant individuality made it 2-0. This came shortly after he had providing a dangerous opening for Beckford and shortly before he fed Howson for another chance.

Beckford and Vokes finally met when the former fed off the latter’s flick to give a three goal lead.

Shortly afterwards, Beckford the goalscorer made way for Tresor Kandol who was later to add a fourth goal.

There were even more fireworks after the final whistle when Kandol seemed to get a little too lively in exchanges with opponents. There had been other chances during the actual game and Leeds were unlucky not to make it more than four.

A jubilant crowd eventually moved away having forgotten the woeful beginning to this game. Leeds can’t afford to become complacent. Perhaps a permanent deal for man-of-the match, Gradel could provide an on-going spark that they were so sorely lacking in the first hour.

Threw it All Away

Leyton Orient 2   Leeds United 2
7th April 2009 @ Brisbane Road, London

Leeds United dominated the first half of both halves of this game so completely but managed to undo their chances of a conclusive win by taking their foot off the pedal the longer both sections of the game went on.

Robert Snodgrass was the star for Leeds and he scored a goal in both halves of the game. The second came from a penalty given when Demetriou handled to keep out a shot from Luciano Becchio.

Becchio, as always, worked tirelessly but there was little contribution from his strike partner, Liam Dickinson (currently on loan from Derby County) who was in the team to cover for the injured Jermaine Beckford. Dickinson seemed over-matched and lightweight against opposition that had little to offer until the closing minutes of the second half. He was eventually replaced by Andy Robinson.

Demetriou’s handball saw him red-carded and this meant that Orient were functioning with 10 men for the last half hour making it even more embarrassing that Leeds did not press home their advantage.

Fabian Delph showed invention and vigour but Howson and Kilkenny, his midfield partners, were very quiet and Leeds missed having Jonathan Douglas in midfield. Douglas has been slotted into the right back role since injury to Frazer Richardson left a vacancy in that role.

Captain Richard Naylor was forceful in defence and well-partnered by Rui Marques who was restored to the team because of injury to Sam Sodje. Marques was firm and showed real class but along with goalkeeper, Casper Ankergren may have been responsible for the first goal Leeds conceded.

Leyton seldom looked like scoring but somehow scrambled a late equaliser and Leeds were left with only themselves to blame. Church’s 85th minute goal sent the Orient fans into surprised ecstasy. They only just out-numbered the visiting fans and it was the home team who had looked like they expected to lose from the beginning – the fans took their lead from the demeanour of the team and were as quiet as a mouse until they crept back in and stole a point against all the odds.
 

Live in Leeds

A periodic update on the fortunes of my football team, Leeds United

When I first visited Elland Road in 1972, Leeds were the best team in the old Division one of the English Football League (what we would now call the Premiership). At that time, Cheltenham Town were in the old Southern League Division One (a non-league team, in short). Somewhere along the line, history changes things and now both teams are in the Football League, League One (third division, when I was a boy). All these name changes make it very hard to describe historical development in the life of football teams but to cut a long story short, they got much better, we got much worse.

On Saturday, we met at Elland Road. Cheltenham are struggling to stay in League One without much success (they are bottom of the table). Leeds are fighting to get out of League One without much success (we are well out of the automatic promotion places and four points below playoff qualification at the time that the game kicked off). Both teams could have used a win but in the end Leeds came out on top by a two-nil advantage. Jonny Howson, a player that I would have left out of the starting line-up, scored both goals. I was there and I’ll take a moment to review the performance of the Leeds team, player by player, and look at what I think this means for the future.

Goalkeeper

1. Casper Ankergren. Leeds United’s Danish goalkeeper is hardly the safest pair of hands in the division. He seems to lack confidence and seemed to be anticipating losing control of the ball – which he did on a couple of occasions. He conceded a goal which was disallowed but the clean sheet he maintained probably had more to do with Cheltenham’s ambition to play for the draw. 4/10

Defence

22. Andy Hughes. Injury to club captain Frazer Richardson left midfielder, Hughes, playing out of position at right back. An innocuous performance which saw him withdrawn in the first half. Nothing wrong here but not much right. 5/10

5. Rui Marques. The African central defender seems to have lost confidence since he was a target for some Premiership teams a year or two ago but he is faring much better now than he was at the tail end of Gary McAllister’s time as manager. He marshalled the limited resources he had around him well and made few mistakes. 6/10

36. Richard Naylor. Recent signing, Naylor is club captain in Richardson’s absence and there are whispers that might become permanent. Despite this Marques seemed the more significant influence on those around him. Naylor produced a solid but decidedly unspectacular performance. 5/10

19. Ben Parker. Injury and the end of Carl Dickinson’s loan period has handed the left back slot to Parker who is 21 and has some promise. On Saturday, he did enough but no more. 5/10

Midfield

4. Jonathan Douglas. Douglas is probably capable of playing at a higher level but is temperament is a little suspect. He keeps the midfield organised allowing Delph room to roam and be creative. 6/10

15. Fabian Delph. Talk in the transfer window had Delph departing from the Premiership for anywhere from £2.5 million to £8 million and to anyone from Fulham to Arsenal. In the end, he went nowhere and to be honest, he is far from the finished article. His ball control is good and he is inventive and skilful but too many of his passes go astray. Having said this he is still far better than most of the meagre feast on display. 7/10

14. Jonny Howson. Two goal Howson skied a few other chances but didn’t seem to do very much else. A game to remember for him because of the goals but he will need much more than enthusiasm to stay in the team. 7/10

Attack

18. Andy Robinson. Ex-Swansea man, Robinson began wide on the left but moved to the right when Hughes left the field. Last time, I covered a Leeds game, I mentioned his suspect temperament and his tendency to drift out of the game. He has conquered the second of these. He looked like the most committed and dedicated man on the park on Saturday and he was involved in everything that was good about Leeds. However, he was also involved in a running battle with ex-Leeds man, Ian Westlake which saw him gain another yellow card. A player of real passion, skill and ability. 8/10

10. Lucian Becchio. The big Argentinian is at his best with his back to the goal, holding the ball and laying it off for his strike partner. Problem was that on Saturday, he was the only natural central attacker in the team. Options to partner him were Trundle and Grella who were on the bench for the majority of the game. Becchio though is determined and did well in less than ideal circumstances. 6/10

23. Robert Snodgrass. Better as a wideman, Snodgrass was drawn in a little to provide help for Becchio. This didn’t really work but Snodgrass still had a good game when he could use his speed and flair to good effect. 7/10

Substitutes

8. Neil Kilkenny. Usually out of favour under new manager Grayson, Kilkenny had most of the game to impress. However, used out of position, he was little in evidence in this game. 5/10

35. Lee Trundle. After missing a penalty against Hereford, Trundle (on loan from Bristol City) was left out of the starting eleven. In the short time he was on the field, he had a couple of chances and gave the impression that things might have been better if he’d have partnered Becchio from the beginning and Snodgrass had been given more room to get out on the flank. But then Howson would have been left on the bench so who knows……. 6/10

13. Mike Grella. Grella entered the game in time added on and touched the ball once. A pointless substitution.

I really don’t think this team is good enough to get us into the playoffs. When Jermaine Beckford returns from suspension, and provided he can remain fit, we will have a better chance but it will still be an outside one.

Another season in the third division (I can’t get away from the old terminology) seems a dire prospect but most likely. Perhaps then Grayson can add some new faces – permanent signings, please – and better times might lie ahead.

 

Sereyna (my daughter) and Darren

Lee Trundle and Sereyna