THERE was much talk about levels of expectation at Elland Road on Saturday, and to be sure, they are considerable.
Not necessarily of quality, as anyone who witnessed the numbers of garden gnomes in club colours being carried proudly to the tills in the heaving superstore would attest. But in beating Championship leaders Queens Park Rangers, extending an unbeaten run to nine matches and moving into second in the table, it is fair to say Leeds United are exceeding the expectations of the most gnomic of their notoriously partisan supporters.
Not least because, as a group of still slightly wide-eyed fans in the train back from the previous week’s remarkable comeback at Burnley pointed out, it is essentially the same team that only just secured automatic promotion from the League One. Or even a weaker team, given top scorer Jermaine Beckford moved to Everton on a free transfer over the summer.
It certainly looked that way at the end of October, when Cardiff City came to West Yorkshire and ripped Leeds to shreds on live television. That made it four defeats in five games for Simon Grayson’s side, and the turnaround since is as much a testament to their young manager as it undoubtedly is to the players.
Firstly, he acted to improve his defence by bringing in the experienced centre-half Andy O’Brien on loan from Bolton. A local boy still living in nearby Harrogate, O’Brien has played with the commitment of one who would very much like to sign the permanent deal which by all accounts Leeds intend to offer him next month.
Secondly, helped by the return to fitness of the hugely talented Scottish wide midfielder Robert Snodgrass, Grayson changed the way the team was playing from 4–4-2 to 4–2-3–1. With O’Brien a calming organisational influence at the back, and Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny as the holding players, inspirational young captain Jonathan Howson has licence to drive forward with Snodgrass and the Ivorian Max-Alain Gradel on either side of him, creating chances for both themselves as a trio and the lone centre-forward Luciano Becchio.
While far from perfect — the absence of O’Brien through injury saw Leeds revert to their former defensively suspect ways in the first half against Burnley before Grayson got hold of them at half-time — the system seems to suit the players.
“When we conceding a lot of goals and struggling to keep clean sheets earlier in the season, it wasn’t necessarily the back four that was the problem: they were making a few mistakes, but individuals in front of them weren’t doing their jobs, and now we’re defending as a group” said Grayson as a crowd of almost 30,000 departed happily.
“You can sense they’re enjoying what they’re doing at the moment, and that’s a big factor. But the reality in a tight division is all we’ve done is give ourselves an opportunity. We hope to build on it, but we can also still get relegated — you can lose a few games and confidence can dwindle away. Our first aim was consolidation, making sure we would stay in the division, and that hasn’t changed.”
The time to take stock, he insisted, would be after the Christmas period.
Not all in the gnome-filled garden is rosy. The issue of who or what actually owns the club remains unresolved, and chairman Ken Bates’ tight hold on the club’s purse-strings could result in several out-of-contract players leaving next month. One, the increasingly impressive young Argentine striker Becchio, signed a new five year deal on Saturday, but the future of Johnson and Kilkenny in particular remains uncertain.
Grayson is phlegmatic. “We have players who will be out of contract , and we hope to try and resolve those issues, but I don’t think given where we are in the league attracting new players will be too difficult — if I decide it’s the right thing to do. We’ve got a group of players who have done well, and when that happens sometimes you have to stay loyal to them.
This Thursday marks two years since Grayson was recruited from Blackpool to take over at Leeds, then going nowhere in League One under Gary McAllister. Whatever the general opinion on Bates’s stewardship, that at least is an appointment for which the former Chelsea owner continues to gain considerable credit.
The club at a glance
Ground: Elland Road, 39,460.
Average attendance: (league, 11 matches) 25,957
Manager: Simon Grayson; first-team coaches Ian Miller, Glynn Snodin
Owner: Refuse to say but deemed fit and proper by the Football league
Chairman: Ken Bates
Turnover (2008–09) £23.5m; Operating loss £1.6m; Total wage bill £12.3m
Debt: Once £103m, now nothing, according to Bates. “We made a profit last year. We don’t owe anybody any money. We have a little bit in the bank, but not much,” he told Sky Sports in November.
Net spend in last transfer window: Unknown; 10 summer signings, seven on frees, three undisclosed
Biggest signing at club: Ross McCormack reported £300,000 (August 2010)
Biggest ever signing: Rio Ferdinand £18m
Originally posted at The Guardian