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Great expectations as Leeds begin to see good times

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Second in the table and unbeaten in their last nine matches, Simon Grayson’s side finally seem to be pulling together. Richard Rae reports from Elland Road.

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

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Written by RichardRae

December 22nd, 2010 at 9:25 am