In the wake of Leeds United’s recent failures on the road against inferior local opposition, it’s well past time to take stock of the problem behind this unwelcome phenomenon, which is set fair to drag us down and keep us away from the top level – if it continues as it has in past campaigns. It’s to be hoped that, in the new Darko Milanic era, things might be different. There were some promising signs against the Wendies the other week, but away from home against pumped-up (yet lower-class) opposition, some fight is what’s sorely needed.
Firstly, let’s put to bed any foolish suggestion that the local opposition aren’t inferior. They are – by definition. Leeds do not and never have in living memory played local derbies where they are the underdog in terms of club size and history. We’ve been the biggest club in Yorkshire – by far the biggest, and the only one with a global profile – for the last fifty years plus. Whatever the relative squad merits – and for 90% of the time, Leeds have possessed demonstrably more accomplished players too – any meeting between Leeds and a smaller Yorkshire club has seen the Elland Road outfit cast as Goliath to some horrible, backstreet David. The real question is – does such superiority of status confer any advantage at all? The answer to that would appear to be a resounding No, and a reminder that, horrible and provincial though David might have been, he still gave Goliath one in the eye.
The extent of the problem may be brought into focus simply by comparing two different sets of results over the past few years. If you look at league games against other Yorkshire teams, together with a selection of upstarts around the country who have a similar chip on the shoulder, as compared with our reasonably regular Cup meetings with Premier League clubs over the past three or four years, the contrast is startling – and it says a lot about what it has taken to motivate our white-shirted heroes.
Taking league games first, and looking at the locals – the likes of Barnsley, the Sheffield clubs, Huddersfield and Hull, together with self-appointed rivals like Millwall – the results have been unacceptably bad. Barnsley in particular have visited embarrassment upon us in match after match, often by a significant margin, whilst keeling over to most other clubs and usually only escaping relegation by the skin of their teeth, prior to their welcome demise last year. Our relatively close West Yorkshire neighbours Huddersfield are nearly as bad for our health. The other season, these two clubs met on the last day, and over the course of ninety minutes, first one and then the other seemed doomed to the drop. In the end, both escaped because of events elsewhere – and what did both sets of fans do to celebrate their shared reprieve? Why, they joined together in a rousing chorus of “We all hate Leeds scum” of course. This tells you all you need to know about what motivates such dire and blinkered clubs – but at least the motivation is there.
And the motivation is there for Leeds United, too – just not, seemingly, on those bread-and-butter league occasions when we need it. What seems to turn your average Leeds United player on over the past few years, is the glamour of the Cup – either domestic cup will do, apparently. Results and performances in these games have left bewildered fans scratching their heads and wondering how such high achievers can then go on to perform so miserably against the envious pariahs from down the road in Cleckhuddersfax. Look at the results – going back to League One days. A narrow home defeat to Liverpool in the League Cup when by common consent we should have won and Snoddy ripped them up from wide areas. The famous win at Man U when we went to the Theatre of Hollow Myths and showed neither fear nor respect in dumping the Pride of Devon out of the FA Cup. Draws at Spurs and Arsenal, beating Spurs, Gareth Bale and all, at Elland Road. Beating other Premier League sides such as Everton and Southampton in games that had you wondering which was the higher status club. Great occasions – but of course we haven’t the squad to go through and win a cup, so these achievements ultimately gain us little but pride. And, naturally, when we draw a Yorkshire “rival” away in a Cup, we contrive to lose embarrassingly as per Bratfud earlier this season. It’s just not good enough.
Often we will sing to daft smaller clubs’ fans about the Leeds fixtures being their Cup Finals, but this is becoming a joke very much against us. The teams concerned seem to take the Cup Final thing literally, they get highly motivated, roll their metaphorical sleeves up, the veins in their temples start to throb and the battle cry is sounded. Their fans, normally present in miserable numbers, are out in force – and they are demanding superhuman endeavour. Faced with this, too many Leeds teams over the past few years have simply failed to find a comparable level of commitment and effort. There’s no excuse for that – it has meant we’re almost starting off a goal down – even when we swiftly go a goal up.
The sheer number of local derbies will count against a team which allows itself to suffer this disadvantage, this moral weakness. For Leeds, since we came back to the second tier, there has usually been one Sheffield or another, usually Barnsley or Huddersfield or Hull, Middlesbrough perhaps – even the just-over-the-border outfits like Oldham and Burnley feel the same ambition and desire to slay the Mighty Leeds. It amounts to a sizeable chunk of a season’s fixtures – if you fail to perform in these, then you’re struggling. The pressure is then on to get results against the better teams at the top end of the table, and we don’t fare too well there either.
It’s easy to say that it’s a matter of getting better players. Largely that’s true. But we’ve usually had better players than these annoying little Davids, and yet the slingshot has still flown accurately right into Goliath’s eye and knocked us over. Professional football is a game of attitude, motivation, mental readiness to match the opposition and earn the right to make your higher quality tell. This, over a number of years, is what Leeds United have signally failed to do.
Can it change? Well, so far this season we’ve played Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield at home – plus Millwall, who qualify as a southern member of the chip on the shoulder brigade, away. We’ve four points out of nine to show from that little lot, which is the difference between our current position and sixth – in the play-off zone. Even three of those lost five points would see us just a point off the top six places. And the thing is, ALL of those games were distinctly winnable, so it’s no pipe-dream to look at where we might have been. The difference is down to attitude; our opponents have had it and – with the notable exception of the Huddersfield performance – we simply haven’t.
It’s a sobering message at this stage of the season, with only three such games played – and plenty more to come. But it’s a message that should be heeded, or the effect on our season will become more profound as it goes on. The potential is there for us to take advantage of games against inferior but highly-motivated opposition, to match the attitude of these teams and to reap our rewards. The failure to do this will see us endure yet another season of under-achievement. We have to overcome the “Cup Final Mentality” of certain other clubs, mainly those in Yorkshire but elsewhere too.
The Rotherham game next Friday night is an ideal opportunity for this new, tougher mental attitude to kick in. Again, we have small local rivals who nurse a fierce and unrequited hatred of Leeds United – and they have the odd old boy in their ranks as well as a wily manager who has been busily bigging us up. Our heroes will include a number of quite new foreign signings, who may still be a little wide-eyed and naive on occasions like this. So the ingredients are all there for the relative big boys of Leeds to turn up, find the environment not to their liking – and roll over once again in abject surrender. Please, let it not be so.
Leeds United – you just need to get psyched-up and go out to win some of these pesky and troublesome “Cup Finals”. Darko can inculcate his principles and make a pretty pattern of play – but when blood and guts are needed, some fight and some grit – then it really is up to you lads who wear the shirt we’d all of us out here be willing to walk on hot coals for.