Monday, 30 July 2012

Jelly and ice-cream at Warnock's house

Considering Robert Snodgrass' departure, the arrival of Portsmouth FC (essentially, given what is left) and still having Ken Bates at the club, you could have forgiven Leeds fans if there had been a tinge of angst in the atmosphere as the Whites moved the pre-season party to the South-West. This time last year, fans were planning protests and demonstrations to show the support's disdain towards the efforts of those in a position of power at Elland Road. Despite the demonstrations being a fairly mellow affair, it proved that Leeds fans were capable of voicing their concerns. Voiced concerns were not a problem, here, though. Instead, around 3,000 Leeds fans took in the Devon and Cornwall sun in good spirits, whilst the team quietly grabbed three morale-boosting victories.
It's easy to see why the Yorkshire following was so relaxed when compared to the abomination that was last summer. The arrival of Paul Rachubka, Michael Brown, Michael Vayrynen et al highlight the significant lack of quality that was introduced to the side that had previously finished just three points outside of the playoffs. In return, Leeds allowed Kasper Schmeichel and Max Gradel to move on. It's pretty easy to recall why fans were so apathetic towards our chances of promotion last season. Not only that, but the introduction of Neil Warnock has revitalised hopes and aspirations within the Elland Road stands - Something which, rightly or wrongly, former boss Simon Grayson failed to do.
And despite this summer's transfer activity lacking any real excitement, the new faces that have signed on have at least generally improved the overall condition of the squad. Basing on their merits gained from the Cornwall tour, Jason Pearce, Jamie Ashdown and Paul Green can be pleased with their own introduction to the Leeds faithful. Pearce lived up to his reputation built at Portsmouth as a player who'd be willing 'to leap up at a brick and head it away' if it was thrown in his direction. Calm and composed, it was often puzzling to see a confident centre back grace the Leeds United shirt. Green also kept a composed look about himself, showing signs of being the consistent 7/10 midfielder that has often been craved in the middle of the park at Elland Road. Ashdown, meanwhile, had barely signed his contract at Leeds before showing what he could do, being tested (almost surprisingly) with a handful of testing attempts from Tavistock and Bodmin, responding to them somewhat comfortably.
It wasn't just the debutants who showed signs of promise, either. Ross McCormack's first half performance against Torquay brought back those early-season memories of instinct and precision from the Scot that brought such interest from the likes of Wigan and Blackburn. Aidy White seemed to capitalise on the momentum from his contract renewal with some impressive performances, using his speed as a regular source of trouble for the opposition. That said, these sort of introductions should always be taken with a pinch of salt. The standard of competition was far from ideal, and those that travelled to Scotland will remember the general consensus that Calamity Paul Rachubka was 'not actually that bad'. The true calibre of what has been brought in is yet to be truly tested, and only time will tell if the likes of Andy Gray and David Norris truly have the credentials to be competent parts of a promotion winning squad.
Despite the opposition, the surroundings and mentality towards the Cornwall trip was taken to positively by all. It's a rare sight when Leeds fans are openly relaxing, burger in one hand, pint in the other, laying out on the grass bank as the Whites bring home a 4-0 victory. Nor is it common for the connection between players and fans be so strong as it was during the open-session of pre-season training which saw a more than respectable showing from United fans. This is what was on offer, though, and could prove to be the bonding session that was needed for fans, management and players to unite before a heavy season ahead.
Manager Neil Warnock has already admitted that the current state of the squad is not fit for promotion, lacking three or four faces that can add that bit of style and creativity to really unlock sides and make a team enjoyable to watch. These type of players come at a price (look at Robert Snodgrass). It may be that the Snodgrass money is tucked into immediately. It may be a case of waiting on an imminent takeover bid to dot the I's and cross the T's. Whatever it may be, though, the patience and general positivity of the fans towards Neil Warnock and a speculated takeover deserves rewarding with more positive movement in the transfer window. Whether or not that will be delivered is another matter - Snodgrass clearly didn't think so. If you believe the press, though, we can expect the likes of Nicky Maynard or Jermaine Beckford to be adding some flair to proceedings. It's all a waiting game, just hopefully one on the final stretch.
But nevertheless, the last week with Leeds United has proven to be a much needed reminder that come rain or shine, Beckford or Paynter, Bates or Bahrain, the Elland Road faithful still know how to make following Leeds United an enjoyable experience. Those at Torquay, Bodmin and Tavistock emphasised why this club is still admired by some and loathed by others, and why Leeds United still has a little bit of soul in it yet.


Monday, 16 July 2012

Mustard, churches and the lure of Canary Norwich

Despite the appeal of the largest Conference Centre between Manchester and Newcastle, a loss-making radio station and a postman as CEO, Leeds United may have to once again face up to losing a star player to the canary call at Carrow Road. Ken remains sleepless at night, fretting over the appeal of Coleman's Mustard, their famous cathedral, with it's 315ft spire (the second highest in England, nevermind between Ipswich and Bristol) and Waterloo Park, wondering just what he can do to stop the relentless pursuit from Delia and her boys for Elland Road's finest.

Of course, the answer is simple - Ambition. It's a race we've fallen far behind in since 2009. Sure, we started well. Our team was fresh, filled with upcoming talent and balanced well despite the loss of Fabian Delph. Norwich themselves had tripped over their shoelaces as soon as the pistol fired, losing 7-1 to Colchester on opening day. Fast forward two months later, and United had even grabbed a late 2-1 win over the Canaries thanks to Jermaine Beckford (and an 'assist' by Fraser Forster). Max Gradel debuted for Leeds United and frightened the fans; A loanee was showing signs of performing well. Norwich left Yorkshire that night falling eleven points behind Leeds with just twelve games gone. They left inspired by a young midfield trio of Bradley Johnson, Jonny Howson and Robert Snodgrass. Nearly three years on, and Norwich look set to chase their final piece of the trilogy, the Canaries keen on bringing Snodgrass to Carrow Road to join friends Jonny and Bradley to link up again; This time in the Premier League. It's a wonder they didn't sign Michael Doyle, too.

Three years can be a long time in football. You can either build upon momentum and make something truly outstanding happen, or simply falter behind, floating on mediocrity as your stars look to abandon ship. Norwich took the former option. After steam-rolling the second half of the 09/10 campaign and claiming the League One title, they followed on with a second successive promotion to the Premier League in 2011. Star players were kept on the books, despite interest from other clubs. Leeds, on the other hand, began to crumble despite promotion. 

First, the expected departure of Jermaine Beckford was challenged with 'Barndoor' Billy Paynter's arrival. A year later, after a faltering end-of-season challenge at the Championship playoffs, Max Gradel and Bradley Johnson followed the exit signs at Elland Road. Contract negotiations handled by Shaun Harvey, a man deemed more suitable to handle free newspapers from door to door had a part to play. Chairman Ken Bates remains at the forefront of accusation though, and rightly so. His lack of ambition and intent to sell off a young and ambitious midfield saw the club settle into apathy in the mid-table slums of the second tier. Much like the rabbit, we stopped and took a quick nap, the only difference being that we were far behind in our race.

And now, as Norwich settle in for a second top-flight season, they look set to take the final piece of Leeds' 09/10 midfield which held so much promise and so much opportunity, with Sky Sports reporting a bid from East Anglia for the Scottish winger. Whilst Ken and co. were concentrating on the importance of building projects and casino plans, Delia was allowing young and talented managers pull the strings and improve the aspects of the Football Club that truly matter; Those on the pitch.

Whilst a bid has not been accepted (or, for that matter, rejected) by United, it is testament to the talent that has come (and gone) from this young side. It is also testament to the blatant lack of ambition that has rotted the soul of this club for the past seven years. Snodgrass himself has questioned the club's level of intent to challenge for the top-flight, asking the question 'how can you say you're aiming for promotion then sell your captain [Howson]? ' When Snodgrass posed the question to a fans' meeting back in March, it's doubtful he felt he'd be wondering if the question would include himself just four months later.

Irrespective of the outcome of such a bid from Norwich, one point remains firm in the eyes of all. Leeds United has fallen behind from where it should have been and is chasing shadows in an attempt to salvage any joy or success. Gone are the days where fans can feel confident in their young, promising side at Elland Road. Instead, we shudder at the thought of a phonecall from Carrow Road, petrified of who they could be taking this time. And despite the potential takeover on the horizon, the forefront message to Leeds fans today remains that until Ken Bates leaves, United will be nothing more than a second-tier club built on mediocrity, stripping playing assets in order to expand the building portfolio.