The YEP’s player-of-the-year award is often a simple procession. Patrick Kisnorbo won his with a landslide majority and Max Gradel finished out of sight two years ago. Ross McCormack did likewise in the vote held at the end of last season.
McCormack’s selection caused some surprise; not because he was an unforeseen choice but because he attracted two of every three votes cast. It confounded the assumption that Robert Snodgrass was a stick-on to regain the prize he won in 2009.
Snodgrass took the honours at Leeds United’s official end-of-season awards, and there’s no argument with that from one who watched him last season, but the idea that McCormack might be expendable this summer was not reflected in the YEP’s poll. Sixty-six percent of readers, or close enough, named him as Leeds’ most influential player.
How much of a compliment that was in April, when Leeds finished 14th after crawling to the line, is for McCormack to say but his statistics were beyond reproach for a player in his position.
Nineteen goals scored including 10 in his first 13 games and five in eight matches after turn of the year: binge goalscoring but a tally beaten by only three Championship players. All of them – Rickie Lambert, Billy Sharp and Ricardo Vaz Te – won promotion with their respective clubs.
His goals did not spawn any of the protection given to Snodgrass at the start of the summer. Before Snodgrass’ £3million transfer to Norwich City it was difficult to find a supporter who would gladly submit to the winger’s departure, regardless of his contractual situation or the idea that he might want to go. Thirteen goals, 15 assists and the soul of the team; too valuable and too influential to be fully replaced.
The reaction to McCormack’s expected sale was different. His record spoke for itself but the prospect of him leaving Elland Road fell into the category of ‘one of those things’. His contract was up next year and he did not entertain the offer of an extension put to him in May. It is not believed to have represented a major increase in wage. All things considered, logic said that McCormack should leave and a comparative or better replacement would be found.
Now you begin to wonder. Two weeks before the Championship starts, the old cliché of birds in the bush seems to apply – namely that one 20-goal striker (or thereabouts) in your squad is worth two 20-goal strikers who reside in the transfer market. An about-turn of sorts has taken place at Elland Road, with Leeds suddenly resistant to approaches for McCormack and the striker anticipating the offer of a new deal. The re-evaluation of his position is sound pragmatism at the right time. In Neil Warnock’s current squad – strong in areas, under-strength in others – there is something to be said for a proven goalscorer.
Another will arrive, Warnock has promised, unless something goes badly wrong. Jermaine Beckford, Nicky Maynard, Craig Mackail-Smith – some of those links are speculative but their individual strengths have a consistent theme. Sharp finishers with sharp pace and, in the case of Mackail-Smith in particular, the physique to bully defenders. There is presently no forward at Leeds with all three qualities.
Warnock has a target man in Andy Gray and another in Luciano Becchio, a player whose priority must be to rediscover the poaching instinct which hid itself last season. McCormack is neither slow nor unusually quick and is less suited to playing alone up front or in a wide position than he is as part of a two-man attack. As for Billy Paynter, that ship sailed many months ago.
Warnock’s choice of striker in the transfer market will tell us much – in some respects the best example of how he wants to approach next season. It was taken as read that he would sign Paddy Kenny and all of his other new players are sensible recruits. You can tell that by the number of other Championship clubs who made a beeline for the same targets. But his selection of a new forward should be more subjective and revealing. A wide range is on offer so long as he has the money to take his pick.
Selling McCormack was one avenue to cash in on but Warnock has gradually given the impression that parting company with the club’s top-scorer would no longer be prudent. The passing of a hard summer might have brought him to that conclusion. McCormack’s goals at Torquay United last week – scored in a friendly but beautifully taken all the same – cannot have done any harm either. By the time the Scot carried out a radio interview in Norway on Wednesday, he sounded keen, relaxed and ready for the new season. He sounded like a player whose heart was in it.
There is no mystery to the question of why considerations of his future became secondary to that of Snodgrass, especially among United’s fanbase. Snodgrass was the lightning rod for frustration about the management of contracts at Elland Road over many years and, moreover, a player who excelled for four consecutive seasons. McCormack’s performance last term was in contrast to his peripheral first year at Elland Road and time will show which of those campaigns was more typical of him.
But Warnock needs goals and McCormack can deliver them. In the right system and the right frame of mind, he is undoubtedly an asset in the Championship. No wonder, then, that he and Leeds are getting their heads together in the hope of finding common ground. It was claimed when contract talks with McCormack first failed that better strikers were out there. All that can be said is that today is August 4 and Leeds have not signed any of them.