Leeds United are part of England’s manic depressive core. Inflated one week, flat the next and never able to settle down. Some would call that the mark of ambition but it makes life hard inside the bubble.
You walked away from Saturday’s win at Bolton thinking all was well in the world; or if not well then satisfactory. But Wednesday brings a defeat to Reading and you flick onto Twitter to find Ross McCormack fielding criticism and responding in kind. No wonder the season feels long when appreciation has a four-day lifespan. Brian Clough did better than that.
A man with his finger on the pulse said to me recently that a consequence of 10 years in the Football League – and in his view, eight-and-a-half in bed with Ken Bates – was the death of the middle ground at Leeds. “There’s no such thing anymore,” he said. “It’s heaven or hell with nowt in between.”
There must have been times when grey areas existed but in seven seasons of following Leeds I’ve never seen them. There’s no mystery to that. Try being philosophical about a kick-in-the-teeth at Reading when you’re already wearing dentures; try seeing this as a turn in the road when Blackwell, Wise, McAllister, Grayson and Warnock shared nothing so much as a Premier League game between them. Optimism is a weak currency with a poor exchange rate.
That attitude is high on Brian McDermott’s list of things he’d like to change. He knows what his job entails and how quickly the ill-wind will take him if United drift on his watch but he uses a stock phrase which comes right to the point: one result can’t dictate your mood. As it happens, one result can. But not for much longer if McDermott has his way.
McCormack’s umbrage on Wednesday was taken with supporters who took in Reading away on the radio and had their say. “I ain’t listening,” he tweeted. “You can’t slag the players off when you haven’t seen the game.” It’s a risky business picking fights like that but he’s not wrong. A high percentage of the 3,300 who beat bad scheduling and heavy traffic to be at Reading would probably agree.
Attending games is not a pre-requisite for holding opinions on United, their players, their manager or his tactics but it helps to analyse the defeat to Reading if you were actually there. From a vantage point in the press box, Leeds were robbed; not in broad daylight but denied a draw they deserved. It wasn’t fair but football isn’t. The uneven balance of the Championship tells you that.
First, the imperfections. Leeds created little and gave Alex McCarthy an easy night. Luke Varney and Noel Hunt fell between stools, desperate for chances but drawn too often into the process of making them. Yet McCarthy was nowhere when Jason Pearce missed an open goal and the tide swung fiercely towards the end of the game. The points were on a plate in the last 10 minutes, without the finesse to serve them up.
And so we return to old ground. There are clubs in the Championship with more about them up front and more aptitude where it matters most. Goals more than anything take teams out of this league. But there is no swift solution at Leeds and no silver bullet.
McDermott can see that the range and variety of his squad is too low but the club think their wage bill is too high. The consequence is that games like Wednesday’s will from time-to-time go begging. Margins count in the Championship. But the shortages at Leeds are not chronic and behind it all are a team who can punch their weight and put 90 minutes together.
Were Reading so superior? Were QPR last month? You’d have their benches in a flash, but still. Matching up doesn’t buy much credit in Leeds but it was always the first step for a coach paraded as the alternative to a one-season wonder (or not, as it turned out).
I’ve followed the crowds with interest this year, particularly away from home. One of the troubling aspects of 14 months with Warnock was the difficulty Leeds had in selling away tickets. The traditional take-up no longer seemed to be there. But 5,000 was too few at Bolton and 6,000 will barely cover it at Newcastle. Reading fell marginally below capacity.
Something engaging is at work here, something more than habitual attendance. The sacrifices involved with long trips and late nights have become less questionable. Did anyone enjoy Adam Le Fondre’s header? As if. But you still sense tangible anticipation about how this will go for McDermott.
It comes down to realism. There are managers with resources he doesn’t have. There are some whose spending requires quantitative easing. He can’t do much about that. But there was optimism on Wednesday. Rare optimism away from home. Then Le Fondre tucks one away and the night is lost. Cracks open, criticism comes. McCormack reaches for his phone.
Neither he nor McDermott can pretend to know what lies ahead. This year could go south like many do. You never can tell with Leeds and frankly you go past the point of second-guessing. But often you ask yourself if the constant fear of worse to come is self-fulfilling.
Will they fall short? Who knows. Anyone drawing that conclusion already probably deserves to. “Enjoy the ride,” McCormack said, “and see where it takes us.”
Amen to that.