The New Year of 2016 dawned with that familiar feeling for Leeds United fans of high hopes that we more than half expected to be dashed. December had been OK, and we had been promised an active January transfer window to add some quality to the squad. So, despite that dash of caution and reserve which comes with having been lied to so often before, many United fans felt something approaching optimism as the old year took its last feeble gasps.
Needless to say, it turned out that the caution, reserve – even cynicism – was fully justified, and that any apparent cause for optimism was just another mirage; all promise and no substance. Additions were made to the squad, and one big departure occurred, as is almost traditional for Leeds at this time of year. The new recruits look decent, which might be expected with a manager who, unlike certain of his predecessors, seems to have an eye for a good player. There were two loans and one actual bought-and-paid-for signing but, crucially, we missed out on any real injection of quality in the creative areas of the team. For it is goals, the making and scoring thereof, that have long been a thorny problem for this Leeds United team.
A glance at the time since that half-decent December shows starkly the level of poverty the team and the fans are struggling through in terms of that goalden currency you earn by hitting the back of the net. Those of a delicate disposition might wish to look away, as we squeamishly examine the team’s league output since the start of January. It’s a worthwhile exercise, though, nevertheless. As David Coleman memorably remarked when Kevin Keegan scored during Liverpool’s 1974 Cup Final demolition of Newcastle United, “Goals pay the rent“. Leeds won the League title that year, beating the Merseysiders into second place. There were no rent arrears for the Whites back then, in what was a season of glory for Yorkshire and England’s premier team. But Coleman’s pearl of wisdom is as true today as it was 42 years ago.
And how those famous words resonate for us now. In the seven league games since the turn of the year, four at home and three away, Leeds United have scored a grand total of four goals, one a bizarre last-minute own-goal to secure a home draw against MK Dons. Souleymane Doukara scored early against Ipswich before Leeds slipped to a 2-1 defeat and he scored again at Elland Road to beat Bristol City. And Mustapha Carayol notched one to hold Brentford to a draw at Griffin Park. And that was it, the sum total of the Leeds offensive output since this year began. The last two home games have yielded zero goals in over three hours of playing time. In a goalless draw with Middlesbrough that didn’t entirely lack merit, Leeds mustered two shots on target. In the previous home game, a 0-1 defeat to Nottingham Forest, Leeds did twice as well in terms of shots on goal, but still failed, as they say, to trouble the scorers. That’s quite frankly not good enough; it’s a record that screams out for corrective surgery to the squad.
This is why the January window was so disappointing and represents so much of a missed opportunity. With injuries to key personnel up front and the loss of Sam Byram‘s considerable potential to create and convert chances, it was obvious to any observer with any football knowledge at all that attacking reinforcements were needed. And it wasn’t just a matter of a late push for the play-offs. Relegation cannot yet be entirely ruled out – and there is also the small matter of allowing the manager to recruit and “bed-in” his own players over the remainder of this season, with the aim of hitting the ground running for pre-season 2016-17. The fact that January was all about lying to us, and then trying to let us down gently, is a savage indictment of the man who holds the purse strings at Elland Road. And, whatever Steve Evans might say with his diplomatic head on, he was clearly champing at the bit to add to his squad – and he’s obviously a disappointed man now that even the loan window looks like bearing no fruit.
I wrote a month ago that Cellino deserved to be judged on his commitment to improving the squad during the January window. Now I say that he palpably failed that test. Leeds United fans must make up their own minds about the likelihood or otherwise of sufficient investment in quality during the summer to come. This blog fears that it may yet be just another window of opportunity wasted in “managing our expectations” – which is the euphemism of choice for lying to us a bit more.
One thing that seems certain is that, if he is not given a fair shot in the transfer market, then Steve Evans is a dead man walking at Leeds. Some may welcome that – I think it’s rather a shame. There’s a decent manager there, working under the usual difficulties at Massimo Cellino‘s Leeds, and a man who seems a sound judge of the type of player needed to succeed at Elland Road. It’s to be hoped that Evans survives and is able to make a convincing case for substantial levels of investment.
Because another thing that seems certain is that – without significant improvement – our beloved club will face another long, bleak season of struggle next season, and with no guarantee of Championship survival. Whether the owner will be making yet another hollow promise about a “beautiful season ahead” or not is largely irrelevant. Most of us, after all, are attuned to Cellino’s lies and hollow promises.
We also know, deep down, that – depressing and difficult as this season has been – next time around might just be harder still.