In a word, no.
True, the home defeat to Burnley – United’s second reverse at one-time fortress Elland Road already this season – was depressing, dispiriting, deeply disappointing. Brian McDermott had no complaints about the merits of the visitors’ win, simply stating “They were the better side.” What evidently stuck in the manager’s craw was sending out a side designed to get at their opponents from the off and seeing them getting, in his words, “beaten up” by a Burnley side that could have been ahead already by the time Scott Arfield rifled home an acute finish to give Leeds that sinking feeling again.
As at Reading in midweek though, the blow of going behind came hard on the heels of an excellent chance for Leeds to take the lead, Luke Varney fluffing his lines in front of goal. And Leeds continued to press and to make and spurn chances for the remainder of the first half, before shoddy defending left one-time Whites loanee Sam Vokes in ample space eventually to force the ball past Paddy Kenny. 0-2 and the damage was done. Things improved in the second period, but sub Matt Smith’s header with ten minutes to go allowed only a brief flicker of hope, extinguished by the lack of any real chance to secure a second that might have denied a deserving Burnley outfit.
The Elland Road faithful had not been pleased by the performance of referee Probert who had denied the home side a penalty after Sam Byram appeared to have been brought down in the box before the interval, but McDermott chose to focus on the lack of cutting edge that is costing Leeds a realistic return on chances created. “We have to score more goals here”, said the United boss. Indeed.
This campaign is starting to define itself now, and it’s a veritable model of the truism that speculation is usually the father of accumulation. The rich are starting to pull clear at the top of the table while Leeds are roughly where they might be expected to be, with a patchy squad, an excellent manager, plenty of progress off the field and woefully inadequate investment on it. Much was made of the signing of Luke Murphy in the window, for that magical million-pound figure, a bar that hadn’t been cleared by Leeds United since 2005. But the Championship is a big time division nowadays, and the clubs at the top end are investing big money to try to ensure their parachute payments don’t fade away before they’ve hoisted themselves back up into the League of Milk and Honey. Leeds, for the time being, are just not on the same financial plane as those eager sprinters QPR and the others who have shelled out on the potential to take the Championship by the scruff of its neck.
Some of the comparisons are yet more sobering. Yesterday, even penniless, potless Birmingham benefited from an enlightened recruitment policy, their loan signing Lingard from Man U blitzing the startled Sheffield Wednesday with four goals on his Blues debut. The story behind that performance is of a virtually unplayable Chris Burke – the winger deemed “too expensive” for Leeds at £600,000 – torturing Wednesday as he supplied the new forward with his chances. So why weren’t Leeds in for either or both of these players who so ruthlessly put the Owls to the sword? The apparent short-sightedness of this policy, whereby Leeds will not shell out a chunk of money to give themselves a chance of reaping many times that with promotion, is a glaring flaw in the overall strategy. That said, it’s a sign of the times that we must necessarily be talking about promotion in terms of financial reward anyway, in a game that – remember? – used to be about glory.
What is certain is that, the way things currently are at Leeds, there is no real expectation of promotion this year – the powers that be have said as much in so many words. It follows that there is no need for actual panic in terms of results and that steady progress towards a more realistic challenge next time around would be acceptable – though whether such a pragmatic view will be forthcoming for the fans, who regularly empty their bank accounts into the Elland Road coffers, is another question.
For the time being, we have to glumly chew on the bitter pill of mediocrity that results from the paucity of playing resources in crucial areas of United’s squad. We know we have a manager of the necessary pedigree and one moreover who has endeared himself to the notoriously hard-to-please home crowd. McDermott is a diamond worthy of polishing and treasuring, but he’s being asked to rebuild a fortress with tools that are more suited to fashioning a sandcastle. We have to understand that – keep the faith – and leave that panic button alone.