THE sale of Neill Collins was as startling as January got for Leeds United. At no stage of the transfer window did Simon Grayson suggest that a player signed seven months earlier might be sold at the first opportunity.
Had Leigh Bromby known of any plans to flog a centre-back, he would have packed his bags before Christmas. In a direct comparison between him and Collins there was no argument about who looked more expendable.
“He’d played about 25 games,” Bromby said. “I’d played against QPR, and that was basically it. I don’t think many of us saw that coming.”
The 30-year-old is unashamedly surprised about his survival at Elland Road. His transfer to Leeds from Sheffield United was, in theory, his “last big move”; a deal which would carry him to the end of his playing career or thereabouts. On more than one occasion this season, he resigned himself to a very different outcome.
“To be truthful, I thought I’d be off to new pastures,” he said. “It was hard to see where my next game was coming from.”
The appearance he made against Queens Park Rangers – Leeds’ last game before Christmas – was his first meaningful outing of the season. Prior to it, his contribution to United’s Championship term amounted to five minutes.
Neither he nor his manager envisaged such peripheral involvement when Bromby signed a four-year contract in August of 2009 – a substantial commitment on the part of a club in League One – but the evidence warned Bromby that his career at Elland Road was finished. Or so he thought.
“On a personal level, it’s been a strange season,” he said. “I could tell through selection in the first few games that I wasn’t part of the plans here and wouldn’t be involved. Even in January, everything was up in the air. It wouldn’t have been much of a surprise if something (a transfer to another club) had come about.
“I saw this as my last big move – a last chance to progress my career – and, until quite recently, I couldn’t have said that it was going to work out. But I’ve stuck in and I’m back in the team. It’s surprised me as much as anyone.”
It could not be argued that Grayson’s perceived lack of faith in Bromby was inherent. The defender ranked among his more high-profile signings in League One and played 39 times last season, albeit on the right side of a defence in which Richard Naylor and Patrick Kisnorbo monopolised the central positions.
Grayson’s response to a serious injury suffered by Kisnorbo was to sign Collins on loan from Preston North End and use the Scot to see out the last month of the season. A permanent deal with Collins in June, combined with the signing of another centre-back in Alex Bruce and a right-back in Paul Connolly, clouded Bromby’s prospects.
Between the start of August and Boxing Day, he made no starts, two appearances as a substitute and sat on the bench five times. Nothing in Grayson’s rhetoric implied that Collins would be the player to go when January arrived.
But Bromby helped himself with a consummate performance in a 2-0 victory over Championship leaders QPR on December 19, thrown into the fray after Bruce injured his groin in the opening minutes of the game. He did not start another fixture until Leeds’ 2-2 draw at Portsmouth towards the end of January but an appearance before Christmas made the point that Bromby, after many years with both of Sheffield’s professional clubs, was not unsuited to the Championship.
“Maybe I put a few seeds in the manager’s mind,” he said. “It might have given him something to think about.
“The thing about selection is that it’s all down to opinions. If a manager’s got three or four players to pick from, he picks the lads who he thinks will do a job for him. It’s not personal – or not most of the time anyway – and the challenge for me was to change Simon’s opinion.
“I think it’s fair to say that I’ve done everything asked of me and I’ve seen in the past that, through performances, hard work and a good attitude, your chance comes around. That’s all I’ve done really. There’s no secret to it.
“I was quite shocked find myself playing against QPR. To be thrown in like that was a big ask. You prepare as normal and you’re ready, in the sense that you’re fit and switched on, but as a defender on the bench you don’t expect to be on the field after 10 minutes – especially not when you haven’t started a game for months.
“Training hard is one thing. If you’re going to make a manager take notice, you really have to do it in games.
“I’ve been in and out of his office and spoken to him many times, and he’s always been very fair, telling me I’d get a chance. To be fair to him, he’s given me one.”
Bromby was recalled for last weekend’s win over Doncaster Rovers, paired centrally with Andy O’Brien. Grayson railed against criticism of his defence before and after Christmas but eight goals conceded in three matches made his selection policy untenable after a 3-0 defeat to Swansea City.
Doncaster breached a revised backline twice but Grayson was happy to field Bromby and O’Brien again in Preston on Tuesday night, the first time since last season that Bromby has started successive matches.
“Simon’s got his own style and he’s a good manager,” Bromby said. “He’s been very successful and, in achieving what he has, he hasn’t spent much money at all.
“If you go and speak to him, he’s always fine. He’ll listen to what you’re saying and take it on board. He never shuts the door in your face.
“But, being selfish, when you’re out the team it doesn’t really matter if the manager speaks to you or not. You’re not going to be happy. That’s how football is.
“But he’s dealt with my situation well and there’s a habit here of players who are out of the team coming into it and performing well. That says a lot about how this place is run and how happy the camp is.
“Guys who haven’t been in the team for a while still feel driven to play for the manager and make their mark. That’s not always how it goes. He’s clearly doing something right.”
That much is shown by a Championship table listing Leeds in fifth place; an overachievement, as Grayson described it this week. Bromby’s consolation after months of inaction has been to find himself involved at a time when most is at stake and appearances are most treasured.
“You can’t get away from the subject of promotion, but there hasn’t been too much talk of it,” he said. “Last season, the expectations were so high that you thought about nothing else. I wouldn’t say Thorp Arch was a nervous place but our form going into games wasn’t always great. Everyone thought about it.
“This time, it doesn’t feel like that. We’re ready for the run in and we’re up for it, but it’s not like you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders.
“The way it is here, you wouldn’t think we were playing for anything as important as going into the Premier League. But that’s not to say we don’t want it to happen.”