As Leeds United head for Birmingham tonight, for what we all hope and trust is another meaningless game in our “beautiful” Championship season, the thoughts of many will be directed towards what is needed in order to avoid a repeat next season of what has been, in reality, another pallid and frustrating bore-fest for Whites fans. Most will rightly focus on player recruitment, and that will certainly be a challenge that Leeds must meet head-on. But it’s also fair to say that there’s much more to put right before we can realistically hope for on-field success.
With relegation to League One now increasingly unlikely and the play-offs a distant dream, it’s probably time for the seasonal post-mortem to begin. Any assessment of what went wrong must surely encompass yet another early-season sacking for the “head coach”, throwing away any strategic plan which may have emerged from the vital pre-season training period. So, yet again, there was a new man in charge before the campaign had even begun to take shape; a new coach, unfamiliar with his charges – who were not, in any event, his own choices. On top of the unwisely optimistic close season predictions about how much we were all going to enjoy 2015-16, such early disruption cannot have been helpful to the playing and coaching staff as they set about competing with better-prepared clubs.
The problem now is that there is most likely going to be further such disruption in the near future. Rumours of Steve Evans‘ imminent dismissal refuse to go away – and, sad to say, many Leeds fans are champing at the bit for this to happen. The United fans can be a funny lot. They can frequently be heard moaning about a manager who is deemed to have failed in the short term, and too many of these fans – especially the vociferous Twitter lot – seem to have bought into an increasingly crazy hire-and-fire policy. Yet the perceived wisdom relating to football management emphasises the acute need for continuity and stability at a club hoping to be successful. And, the more you think about this, the more it makes sense.
Any club that establishes itself as favouring a managerial revolving-door policy is, historically, a lot less likely to succeed than one which is prepared to be patient. The patient club will have players who know what they’re working with and who will, therefore, be more likely to knuckle down and accept the training and tactical regimen they’re presented with. But a club like Leeds, where managers frequently last for a shorter period than a sunny spell in Manchester, really has to expect a different frame of mind among its playing staff. The players will be thinking, or perhaps subconsciously feeling, “This guy won’t last any longer than the others. Why bust our balls for him? Let’s just tick over and pick up the salary cheques“. It doesn’t take too much of this kind of attitude, in a game where the margins between success and failure are tighter than ever, to effectively hamstring the whole operation. Lo and behold, you have an under-achieving club. This is the Leeds United we have been following for the past several years.
At some point, under some or other ownership, Leeds are going to have to identify their man, and then stick with him unless truly dire circumstances dictate otherwise. And the players are going to have to be left in no doubt that this is the case, in order to encourage a more professional approach in a more stable and secure atmosphere. Fans’ criticism of the manager should not be heeded if at all possible. As fans, we are simply not well enough informed, not knowledgeable enough about the goings-on behind the scenes, to call it correctly in the matter of whether or not a manager’s course is run. We’ve had so many managers in the past few seasons. Are they really all failures? Look at the job Neil Warnock is doing now at Rotherham. And, apparently, Evans himself is in demand among rival Championship clubs, in the event of him being kicked out of Leeds. Are his suitors wrong? How much longer can we at Leeds continue with such a very volatile policy? The definition of insanity is “To keep doing the same thing and expect different results“.
Our club will certainly not be able to mount a promotion challenge on a shoestring budget. One of the things that United are going to have to embrace is the need to speculate, in order to accumulate. This will be particularly applicable next season when, besides the challenge presented by the usual suspects in this league, we’re going to have to compete with (in all likelihood) Newcastle and Sunderland as well as the already doomed Aston Villa. These are all massive, well-resourced and well-supported clubs, with an enormous advantage afforded to them by Premier League parachute payments. Add in the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and even Nottingham Forest – and next season’s dog-eat dog-fight will be even more rabidly competitive than usual. The prize, though, is truly massive. Whoever goes up this season or next will be transported into a whole different class of financial support. The Sky, quite literally, will be the limit – and clubs like Leeds are equipped to derive the maximum benefit.
Leeds United, after so long in the doldrums, must at the very least be competitive next season. We have to be involved, and at the right end of the league. Fan apathy and in-fighting are already dominant features of a once fiercely United support; these are symptoms of terminal decay. No matter how big the football giant, no matter how glorious the golden history, no club can survive as a force in the game with the sort of inertia Leeds have settled for over the past few seasons. So it’s imperative that United make the kind of policy decision they took under Leslie Silver‘s stewardship 27 years ago in the summer of 1989. Manager Howard Wilkinson laid it on the line as to what was needed – and the board under Silver, to their eternal credit, drew a deep collective breath and went for it, in a big way. But they were also prepared to put their trust in their manager, and stick with him, deferring to the professional football man in matters relating to football and footballers. The rewards Leeds reaped from this enlightened and far-sighted policy are now a matter of history and of treasured memories for so many of us who go back that far.
Life, Leeds United, the Universe & Everything calls upon Leeds United to make the necessary investment (net investment, not merely the partial reinvestment of proceeds accruing from the sale of youth policy diamonds). That will provide the tools to at least tackle the job. But, before a penny is spent, the club has to commit itself to a division of responsibility between football and company matters; they have to appoint and stick with a skillful CEO to lessen the damaging public impact of more maverick forces within the club; above all they have to commit to a manager, or head coach, or whatever label you might wish to stick on the guy – and they have to trust and put their faith in him. He must not be sniped at, he must not be publicly undermined, he must not have his hands tied in matters of player recruitment, team selection or any other area that is properly the province of a football manager in this country.
It will also be vital for the infrastructure of the club to be overhauled and restored to a “fit for purpose” status. Horror stories are emerging from the Industrial Tribunal currently proceeding, which is looking into the circumstances surrounding the departure from the club of Lucy Ward. Wherever your sympathies might reside in that matter, some of the details emerging must be seen as deeply, deeply worrying. Sickness among junior players and staff following the sacking of club cleaners. The training complex consequently shut down for deep cleaning, sundry other staff including security staff dismissed, their functions shared out among other employees whose own responsibilities already fully occupied them. If even half of this is true, it all points to the need for a broken club to be mended, and pronto.
There’s so little time and opportunity in the world of professional football to do anything other than try like crazy to keep going, keep fighting, keep your head above the water. Leeds United has been failing in these respects for far too long, and it’s been tragic to behold for anyone who has the club at heart – anyone who truly loves everything about Elland Road and those white shirts. It’s heartbreaking, really – and the pain is compounded by the amount of wrangling among people of different views regarding some aspects of the club – though they all love Leeds United. That in-fighting in itself is a bad sign, a symptom of the sickness at the heart of the club. And it’s for the club now to sort itself out, to put itself in a position where it can once more be proud and competitive. And this has to be done now, while there is still time.
Because, however much and deeply thousands upon thousands of people undoubtedly care about United – another season or two like this one, and there may not be much left to care about.