The loss of Dexter Blackstock means a chance for United’s other strikers – Matt Smith, Noel Hunt or Luke Varney. Phil Hay reports.
Dexter Blackstock was shaping up to be the foil for Ross McCormack both this side of Christmas and beyond until his knee ballooned two weeks ago. Bad news about his injury has forced Leeds United to rethink their means of supporting the main supply of goals in their squad.
Blackstock was sent back to Nottingham Forest for medical examinations at the start of this month and Leeds received notice yesterday that his 93-day loan at Elland Road was dead in the water. Brian McDermott feared as much as he waited to hear if United would have Blackstock to play with in the weeks before and after the start of the January transfer window.
The forward tweaked a knee during a training session at Thorp Arch on November 28, five days after making the last of four appearances in a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough. The results of his scans took time to materialise but he was officially sent back to the City Ground yesterday evening, more than a month before the end of a loan which was due to run to January 25.
Without him, United gave Luke Varney a game for the first time in two months against Blackburn on November 30 but lost 1-0, and the balance of power in the fight to partner McCormack has shifted in favour of Matt Smith.
The imposing striker scored his sixth goal of the season on Saturday – a respectable tally for a player who has started five league games – and wore down Watford’s defence with a performance which vindicated McDermott’s belief that there is more to Smith than height, strength and an outlet for long balls.
Smith has never been far from proceedings in his first year at Elland Road but this season has been a slow burn for him. For all McDermott’s faith, Blackstock’s arrival from Forest in October was an admission that Leeds were failing to compliment McCormack’s goals – 16 for the season and 10 in his last six appearances.
Asked about his opportunities this season, Smith was philosophical. “That’s football,” he said. I’m still finding my way in the game and I know what it’s like.
“I haven’t felt sorry for myself and I only try and do my best for the team and the squad, whether I’m in or out.
“But I do want to be starting games and obviously I understand that it’s up to me to take my chance when I’m on the pitch.”
Leeds are in the strange position where one member of their squad – Championship player of the month McCormack – has scored two times fewer than the rest of their squad combined.
Smith is closest to the Scot’s tally with five league goals and Varney and Jason Pearce have two. Prior to Saturday’s draw with Watford, Pearce was the only Leeds player other than McCormack to have struck in the previous five games.
Pearce forced a win over Middlesbrough on November 23 with a second-half header and thought he had struck again during United’s win over Wigan Athletic seven days ago.
The centre-back claimed to have touched a McCormack free-kick which bounced through a crowded box and into the net late in the game but the effort was credited to McCormack, his 15th of the term.
“I genuinely thought I touched it,” Pearce said afterwards. “But having watched it again, it doesn’t look like I did. It doesn’t really matter.”
But the former Portsmouth defender admitted that his haul of goals for United was a minor frustration for him, saying: “I’ve been disappointed about that to be honest.
“I’ve had a lot of chances this season and I always seem to get one or two chances per game. They’ve been going over or going wide and I’m disappointed with myself. I want to chip in where I can.
“At Portsmouth I got three or four in a season and at Bournemouth I got about five so it would be nice to score a few more. But the most important thing for defenders is clean sheets. A goal is a bonus.”
Alternative attacking resources in McDermott’s squad are either injured or out of vogue.
United’s manager persevered with summer signing Noel Hunt for the first two months of the season but eventually dropped him as the Irish forward struggled to cause problems up front.
It transpired that Hunt was suffering from a hamstring problem and he recently received an injection to aid his recovery. McDermott promised that United would see Hunt “at his best” when he returned to contention.
“It was quite nasty and we really didn’t realise that it was bothering him,” McDermott said. “But we’re hopeful he’ll come back fine.”
El-Hadji Diouf is another fallback for the Leeds boss but the Senegalese international looks ever more peripheral as a club who are coping well in the Championship without him.
Diouf has been fit and available for much of the term but last played at Derby County on October 5. Blackstock’s arrival later that month limited his prospects further and the Forest striker’s knee injury does not appear to have improved Diouf’s chances of a recall.
McDermott included Varney and Dominic Poleon on his bench against Watford on Saturday, in amongst two midfielders, a goalkeeper and two left-backs. He did not use any of replacements.
Diouf’s contract expires at the end of this season and it remains to be seen if an agreement to sever his contract might suit both parties in the January window.
Leeds continue their Championship season at Doncaster Rovers this weekend, with fitness doubts hanging over centre-backs Scott Wootton and Tom Lees.
Wootton, who has been absent since twisting an ankle at Charlton Athletic in early November, scored on his debut when Leeds last visited the Keepmoat Stadium in the League Cup in August, a night when Smith also banked his first Leeds goal.
“I enjoyed that,” Smith said. “It was a strange one coming up against my old management team (Doncaster boss Paul Dickov managed Smith at Oldham) but hopefully I can do the same when we go back.
“We just need to keep moving forward and we’re looking really hard to beat at the moment. That’s a positive thing and there’s a very positive atmosphere around the club. We want to keep it going.”
Stats show Mac and Matt are top pairing
Leeds United have used no fewer than eight different strike partnerships this season.
Noel Hunt and Luke Varney are Brian McDermott’s most regular starting pair, linking up in five matches but scoring only twice in those games.
Dexter Blackstock’s two-match marriage with Ross McCormack was worth five goals – all of them scored by McCormack – but the Scotland international and former Oldham frontman Matt Smith have shared seven in fixtures where they’ve started together up front, including two against Watford at Elland Road on Saturday:
Noel Hunt and Luke Varney – Five starts, two goals.
Matt Smith and Dominic Poleon – Three starts, two goals.
Varney and Poleon – One start, no goals.
Varney and El-Hadji Diouf – One start, no goals.
Hunt and Ross McCormack – Two starts, one goal.
Smith and McCormack – Three starts, seven goals.
Blackstock and McCormack – Two starts, five goals.
Varney and McCormack – One start, no goals.