Paul Connolly was recognised as one of the more reliable members of Leeds United’s squad last season. Yet even he was unable to count on continued selection at the height of the Championship run-in.
Eric Lichaj’s arrival and success at Elland Road pushed Connolly to one side during the month of March and it likely that the former Derby County right-back will find Lichaj in his shadow when the new term begins. A fight for favour could ensue once more in a position which caused Simon Grayson few problems last season.
United’s manager fielded Connolly in 30 league matches and was equally well served by Lichaj, who came to Elland Road from Aston Villa in February after Connolly pulled a hamstring. Only when the versatile American reverted to left-back for a trip to Millwall in early April did Connolly regain a place he scarcely deserved to lose.
Leeds have been in recent contact with Villa about Lichaj’s availability and are interested in resigning on loan a player who completed 16 games for them during the second half of the 2010-11 term. The 22-year-old proved himself capable of playing on the left side of defence but it is Connolly who will come under most pressure if Grayson brings Lichaj on board.
Connolly plans to cross that bridge at the appropriate time and will train in the interim with the optimism of a defender who expects to start United’s fixture at Southampton on August 6.
“I’ll be trying to keep my place,” he said. “I don’t know who the gaffer’s going to bring in, and whoever he does will be direct competition, but I try not to think about that too much.
“I know it’s a cliche but I just think about getting through each day of training, doing well in the friendlies and then hoping to get picked at the end of it.”
Connolly’s first season with Leeds was punctuated by two separate injuries and a brief suspension in December but his 34 appearances passed without cause for Grayson to call him to account. United’s manager described him as a “seven or eight out of 10 every week” and consistently received that standard of performance.
Typically, Connolly’s outings in pre-season have been steady, including a 74-minute shift at Motherwell last weekend. His appearances scarcely fuelled the urgency of any pursuit of Lichaj but Grayson’s need for new players is as strong now as it was in May.
After another quiet week, United’s manager is once again crossing his fingers for further deals before the club head to Norway for their penultimate pre-season friendly on Tuesday night. Goalkeeper Paul Rachubka and midfielder Michael Brown are still the only signings concluded by Leeds in a period of almost three months.
Connolly, who was an integral part of a defence which conceded 70 league goals last season, said: “I’m sure the gaffer will want a few more in and I’m sure he’s working on that. Hopefully, he’ll bring in a bit more experience and help us kick on.
“The lads who’ve come in are good characters, and Michael Brown’s a great lad to have around the training ground. He’s going to be a big plus for us.
“Last season it was often a case of us trying to score another goal rather than closing the door. But Browny will help with that. Even in the friendlies, he’s been talking non-stop and organising the back four, as well as the people in front of him.
“The gaffer’s telling us that we need to be less naive as a team, not just the back four. He hasn’t just nailed us (the defence) for that. I hope we can tighten up but I’m sure he won’t want us to lose our goalscoring threat. It’s about finding a fine balance.”
The precise balance struck by Grayson will still be dictated by the outcome of his pain-staking attempts to bring new signings to Elland Road.
Grayson said: “I’m literally waiting on one or two answers. One or two situations have moved on and hopefully we’ll get something resolved before we go to Norway.
“It would ideal to get any new players away with the rest of the team and obviously we’re running out of friendlies for them to play in.”