In a young and changed Leeds United squad, Sol Bamba is one player who has been here before. After 18 eventful months at Elland Road the defender needs no introduction to nights where scrutiny of the club is at its height.
Leeds are not far enough into the season to be talking about crises but the club’s captain knows that a win against Fulham would do United a favour this evening.
“Every game is big but because we lost the first two this one becomes very important for us,” Bamba said. “We’re looking forward to it and we can’t feel sorry for ourselves.”
Leeds have started this season under the cosh, right from the moment when confusion from a corner allowed Queens Park Rangers to score with all of four minutes gone. Leeds’ 3-0 defeat at Loftus Road was undeniably worse than Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Birmingham City but it was Saturday’s result which inflamed Garry Monk’s temper. Many coaches before him have felt the strain at Elland Road but it is rare to hear such scathing criticism so early on.
Bamba, like everyone else, saw encouraging aspects and worrying aspects during Birmingham’s tight win. A dominant and well-structured first half was offset by a second in which Leeds dropped their earlier pace and lost their shape. The creation of chances at one end of the pitch failed to negate errors at the other, the worst resulting in an easy winner for Birmingham centre-back Michael Morrison.
“There was two halves to the game really,” Bamba said. “I thought we started really well. We conceded an early goal but we were really good after that. We showed what we can do.
“I think we went in (at half-time) thinking like it was going to be the same. But Birmingham are very good at putting everyone behind the ball, playing on the counter-attack and being dangerous at set-pieces. We didn’t deal with that. It hurts us to lose two games on the bounce. At the minute it’s early and we don’t look at the table but we’re hurting because we haven’t managed to get one (point) on the board. It’s early doors but we need to get it right on Tuesday.”
Leeds are 23rd in the Championship, by virtue of Blackburn Rovers’ inferior goal difference, but the table will hold no real relevance until the end of this month at the earliest. For Monk, it is more an example of how poorly his players have started their campaign and after making five changes from QPR on Saturday, more are expected tonight.
Bamba’s place might itself be under threat, though Monk has made no secret of the fact that the only feasible replacement, Liam Cooper, is short of full match fitness. Cooper turned out for 45 minutes during last week’s League Cup tie at Fleetwood Town before being replaced by Bamba at half-time. It is one of several decisions facing Monk as he attempts to register his first competitive win as head coach.
Monk showed faith in Bamba before the season started by deciding that the 31-year-old would retain the captaincy. “It was a nice surprise but I’ll never take it for granted,” Bamba said. “It was a privilege and an honour for me to be asked by the manager to be captain again. I was happy with that but I think as captain I need to take responsibility. It (Saturday) was nowhere near good enough.
“We take it on the chin, I take it on the chin, and we have to go again on Tuesday. The game has gone now. We put that behind us and we move on.”
In amongst his criticism of United’s squad, Monk made a point of saying that “the group have got it in them” to be better than their first two league games. Leeds have brought in seven new signings in this transfer window and spent the back end of last week trying to make Liam Bridcutt number eight. Numerous fringe players were moved on to other clubs and Leeds are believed to be ready to listen to approaches for the likes of Luke Murphy and Souleymane Doukara. On top of those outgoings, the talented Lewis Cook was sold to Bournemouth for an initial fee of £6million.
Bamba said the in-comings and out-goings had left Monk with a stronger squad. “It’s better and I think we’ve signed some good players,” Bamba said. “We lost Cookie who was a big player for us but the players we’ve brought in have got quality. I just think it needs time to gel.”
Fulham also lost big players during the summer, selling Moussa Dembele to Celtic and Ross McCormack to Aston Villa, but the London club are one of four Championship sides with six points after two matches. Former Leeds striker Matt Smith has scored in both games, producing a second-half winner at Preston North End on Saturday.
United’s players were booed from the field at the end of their clash with Birmingham and Bamba said: “I know it’s difficult. The fans have been through a lot of trouble and a lot of bad things. They feel a bit down. I understand that 100 per cent.
“But we still need them. We need to stick together. I know it’s easy to say but if they can keep going, the results will come, definitely.”