Sprake, Reaney, Cooper, Bremner, Charlton…

When I was a boy, at this time of year, you knew which players were going to be in the squads of the significant Association Football teams of the coming season. They were, in short, largely the same players as were contracted to the club the previous year. Growing up in Yorkshire a number of us at school followed Leeds United. The team we knew was Sprake (later Harvey)- Reaney-Cooper-Bremner-Charlton-Hunter-Lorimer-Clarke-Jones-Giles-and Gray. It was almost a playground chant. Anyway, we knew those names by heart. It came as rather a surprise to me a number of years later when I looked back on the line-ups for that era to find that the particular 11 mentioned with Sprake in goal only appeared in a grand total of 1 game for Leeds. That was in a game, in the FA Cup, against Mansfield Town on the 7th of February 1970 which Leeds won 2-0. The 11 mentioned never lined up at the start of a game in the Football League.

How can we account for this?

The answer to this seeming conundrum can be found in two simple words.

Paul Madeley.

Madeley sadly passed on the 23rd of July this year.

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We All Agree…

I was born in the 1960s and from a young age had a passionate interest in football. In 1972, my father decided to take me to a live football game for the first time and gave me the choice of either going to Elland Road, Leeds, to see United (recent F.A. cup winners, several double decker buses leaving from Barnsley Bus Station) or Oakwell (home of local team, Barnsley, within walking distance from the same bus station and struggling in the fourth division).

Not a difficult choice.

That day Leeds beat newly promoted Norwich City and gave a text book account of their great ball skills, solid defensive game and creative attacking flair.

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Redfearn and Leeds

The last time I wrote an article about Leeds United was after Neil Redfearn’s last game in charge as caretaker manager (see https://twilightdawning.com/2014/09/25/ch-ch-changes-2) before Darko Milanic took over the reins for a brief period in charge  – which matched the length of appointment at Elland Road previously only associated with the dark days of David Hockaday, Brian Clough and Jock Stein.

Now Redfearn is back in permanent charge (whatever that means under Massimo Cellino – oh, sorry we’re meant to believe that he has no current involvement in the club’s decision-making process as he is an unfit person), I decided it was time to give another survey of how the team has changed and so I will do so concentrating my energies on the two recent home games against Watford (3-2 loss) and Ipswich (2-1 win). Let’s see what we can learn…

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Ch..Ch..Changes

A visit to Elland Road these days requires that you buy a matchday programme. Not for some interesting half time reading … but in order to identify the players. The team (indeed the squad) has changed beyond recognition and many of the players are new to the UK. So being able to pick out the numbers on the shirts and check them against the list in the programme is the only way forward.

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To ‘Ell And Back Again

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.

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Back at Elland Road…..

It’s 19 years since I was able to attend an opening home game at Elland Road, Leeds. It’s around that time that I moved to London from my Yorkshire home. It’s 38 years since the first time I attended an opening game there. I guess that me and Leeds United go back a long way. I always get back to Elland Road but it’s a long time since I’ve seen a game there in August.

Arriving at the ground, I was greeted by the bizarre sight of Nigel Clough (son of Brian) walking the Derby team from the bus towards the ground having insisted that the coach stopped on Elland Road itself for the players to walk the rest of the way. This brought echoes of the film "The Damned United" which I finally viewed a couple of weeks ago and which tells a very different story from the one which I remember growing up. It’s interesting that Nigel Clough was seeking to emulate something which the film says his Dad learnt from Don Revie many years ago but which several Leeds players including Peter Lorimer (who is one of the few Leeds players to have anything good to say about the film) say never actually happened. History, fiction, memory and incident all get intertwined as we get older but by any standards this is a peculiar twist of events.

There will be few Peter Lorimers on display in the Leeds team today but I’m guessing that Lash allowed himself a wry smile when the Derby fans tried to get the Leeds fans going by singing classics like "If you hate Don Revie, clap your hands" and "Brian Clough’s a footballing genius". Something odd about the tenses in both of those and the fans singing them could probably not have been alive when Clough and Revie were at the helms of today’s two sides.

So two teams haunted by their pasts and on this evidence Derby doing much better at trying to recapture glory days than Leeds. Derby went ahead through a goal from ex-Leeds striker, Rob Hulse. Luciano Becchio levelled things only for the referee and his assistant (who had exceptionally bad days) to give a dubious penalty to Derby which carried the three points out of Yorkshire as it ended the scoring.

So who was on duty for Leeds in Simon Grayson’s extensively re-tooled line up?

Goalkeeper: Kasper Schmeichel. A new signing from Notts County who proved a popular choice which might be surprising given that his dad filled a similar spot for arch-rivals Manchester United. Schmeichel was Leeds’ best player on the day with a crucial double-save at one point doing a lot to get the Leeds faithful on his side. After all, you don’t get to pick your parents.

Defence: Paul Connolly, playing on the right side of defence, 27 years of age and recently signed from Derby County! Connolly acquitted himself well particularly in the first half. He played with an arm heavily bandaged and strapped but didn’t seem to notice that too much. He defended well and was a good distributor of the ball.

Federico Bessone, another debutant. The Argentinian who moved from Swansea had a quiet game on the left side of the defence. He did little wrong but his work rate will need to improve if the defensive performance of the team is to do likewise.

Neill Collins who sent some time at Leeds on loan last season and has now joined them permanently, was paired with captain Richard Naylor in central defence. Perhaps it was that Collins was not in his best position but the two looked out of place against the lively and energetic Hulse and Commons. They were outclassed and over-matched with Collins perhaps enjoying the better performance of the pair.

Midfield: Leeds crammed the midfield and all the central midfield players performed well. Jonny Howson, Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny all did their best to feed the wide players and to provide defensive help for those behind them. Unfortunately each of these players is more inclined to push forward which left those behind them a little exposed particularly since the defence was out-matched for speed.

Width was provided by loanee Sanchez Watt and new signing, Lloyd Sam. Sam who has joined the team from Charlton looked like he didn’t know quite where he was meant to be playing and he was the first of the Leeds team to be withdrawn to make room for Aidan White. Sam will have to show much greater confidence and application if he is to succeed in West Yorkshire. Watt did better but seemed a little lightweight and was too easily knocked off the ball. In the second half. Kilkenny was also substituted for another debutant and loan player, Adam Clayton. Clayton did okay but all the central midfield guys looked to have similar skills and with one of the wide players drifting through the game there was too little invention to feed the lone central attacker.

Attack: That lone central attacker was Luciano Becchio who also provided the lone Leeds goal and 90% of the opportunities that came Leeds’ way. He was asked to do too much and when eventually offered a partner in Mike Grella who replaced Howson after 86 minutes, it was expecting too much of his tired legs to take advantage of this very late, almost token, change.

So what does the season hold for Leeds? Despite today’s defeat I don’t think the season is going to be too bad. We have a lot of new players who will take time to find their feet and one another. With a few tweaks, some players back from injury and a lot of settling in, I would expect Leeds to finish in the top half. 

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.