As the final whistle blew after Leeds United’s most recent defeat at home to Derby County, in many ways it just seemed like business as usual. The team had huffed and puffed, flattered to deceive, taken the lead through a goal of genuine quality and then finally – as seems all too normal – frittered away a fragile advantage to end up with nothing. It could be a metaphor for the entire season, or even for the whole three year period since United dragged itself back, by the skin of its teeth, to the second tier of English football which represents the very minimum acceptable status for a great old club. It’s been three years of hollow promises, screwed-up priorities, bizarre transfer activities and chronic instability.
The last point – that lack of stability – has been felt even more acutely than ever these last few weeks. Ever since Neil Warnock made his first wistful noises about wanting to be in Cornwall with his family and his Massey-Ferguson, the alarm bells have been ringing. The one thing above all that any sports team needs is a high degree of certainty as to where it is going and how it proposes to get there. Take away the certainty, the sense of direction and leadership, and – try though the individual team members might – the fine edge will be taken off that team’s performance. In a game of fine margins, as any game is at a high professional level, the lack of that edge makes all the difference.
It’s actually been worse even than that for Leeds. Rumours of a second takeover won’t go away, and memories are returning of the long and drawn-out saga of last summer, with all the disruption that entailed for any planning and preparation for the season ahead. Those rumours have gathered pace, and have come to a head at about the same time Warnock made it clear he was sidling towards the exit door. So not only does the team itself lack for leadership and the security of knowing who’s calling the shots on the football side – the whole club is embroiled once again in a fever of speculation as to who will own it, or various discrete chunks of it, by the time the next transfer window opens, and the all-important work has to start in order to ready us for a tilt at promotion next time around.
The past week has seen 10% of the club sold off to a “strategic investor”, but there is no clarity as to what this might mean for team-building. Is it any wonder that the mood among fans, despite reduced admission prices, is one of apathy at best? Now it has been confirmed that Neil Warnock has indeed parted company with Leeds United, so a club in a state of anguished flux must seek the right appointment at a time when it’s difficult to see any credible candidate being tempted to take up the challenge of restoring direction to a once-mighty ship, now seemingly rudderless and hopelessly adrift.
So we find ourselves speculating on two fronts, as this season sputters to an uninspiring close – always supposing that we don’t get dragged into an unseemly scrap to avoid relegation. Fans are bound to speculate after all – it’s in the nature of passionate support that we will be preoccupied by what, if anything, the future holds. But at Leeds United, more than at most clubs, that speculation is undertaken in an information vacuum and in almost complete darkness in terms of what’s going on behind the doors.
What we can and should do, with some degree of self-righteousness, is point out that the changes taking place now regarding team management might more usefully have been accomplished weeks ago, when there was still a realistic chance of making the play-offs, and when the introduction of a degree of certainty might have paid dividends. The points so carelessly tossed away in recent weeks as Warnock has yearned for his tractor from afar, taking his eye right off the ball, would have seen Leeds bang in contention. Last minute equalisers conceded at Wolves and Leicester, silly home defeats to Huddersfield and Derby, awful beatings at Ipswich and Barnsley, all these avoidable calamities add up in terms of points we could and should have taken. A Mick McCarthy at the helm, or maybe a Nigel Adkins or – dare I say it – a Simon Grayson, and I’m convinced a good proportion of those points could have been snapped up, and we might yet have found ourselves occupying a play-off berth right now. The club, the new owners, have let a golden opportunity slip through their fingers, from the moment those alarm bells started to ring.
Now, they simply have to get it right. There’s been a bit of talk around the city this last few days – wouldn’t it be strange if the Leeds Rhinos and Leeds United both had a winger called Ryan Hall, and a coach called Brian McDermott. Maybe that could now come to pass, and I for one wouldn’t object – as Mr McDermott has done a genuinely competent job at Reading, and was possibly unlucky to get the sack there. But whoever we get, he has to be installed, made to feel happy and welcome, and backed financially to undertake the surgery the squad still undeniably needs. The right appointment would still get the crowd back onside, as would some definitive statement of intent from the current owners about their plans. It has to happen, and it has to happen soon, or we can write off another season in the long-term quest to return to the top flight – it will now be a minimum of ten years out of the Premier League and a club like Leeds simply has to aim to be there in order to have any chance of fulfilling the potential that its still-devoted fans and its global profile afford it. A return to the top, then, is now a matter of increasing urgency.
So here we are again, at yet another crossroads, between managers and with everything up in the air for the umpteenth time. Situation normal. But it can’t go on. Whatever happens between now and August, one thing we know beyond doubt is that we certainly can’t afford another season like this one.