El-Hadji Diouf has been out in the cold at Leeds but Brian McDermott says the player is happy to fight for a place. Phil Hay reports.
Leeds United manager Brian McDermott says El-Hadji Diouf is still in the thick of his plans, despite the forward’s muted role at Elland Road.
McDermott said Diouf’s repeated absence from his line-up was a tactical matter and denied that there were any problems between them amid surprise over the limited impact made by the Senegalese international.
Diouf has been a bystander for much of this season, starting one game and appearing as a substitute in four others, and the two-times African Player of the Year was omitted completely from United’s most recent fixture, a 4-2 win at Charlton Athletic.
A stomach bug threatened to rule him out of this afternoon’s meeting with Middlesbrough but Diouf’s lack of involvement under McDermott meant his inclusion on the bench was unlikely regardless of his fitness.
The 32-year-old has not played since a defeat at Derby County on October 5 nor started a match since appearing in a home loss to Burnley midway through September.
His season was delayed by injury and disrupted by personal matters and McDermott has looked elsewhere for creativity and goals in the past three months.
But asked about Diouf’s situation, McDermott said: “Dioufy’s been nothing but respectful. I talk to him man-to-man, one-to-one, and I’ve got respect for him too.
“I’ve had no problem with him whatsoever. Quite the opposite. I just pick teams and try to get results. He’s in the squad and he’s one of a group of players trying to get into the team. That’s it in a nutshell.”
Diouf earned a warning from McDermott towards the end of last season after his dismissal in a 2-1 defeat to Brighton but United’s manager promised to give him another chance and allowed him to make an early start to his summer holiday in Senegal.
A shin infection contracted by Diouf during his time in Africa troubled him until the middle of August when he returned in a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday. Another short absence followed last month after McDermott granted him permission to miss Leeds’ clash with Birmingham City and attend the funeral of Bruno Metsu, the former Senegal coach who took Diouf to the 2002 World Cup.
United are known to have been open to approaches for Diouf during the summer transfer window and at least one other Championship club were made aware of his availability. Diouf, whose contract expires next June, attracted no offers and remained at Elland Road.
His handful of appearances this season contrast starkly with his first year with Leeds when Diouf played 45 times and scored seven goals. He laid on another 10. Yet he is not the only high-profile player on the fringes of McDermott’s team.
Summer signing Noel Hunt is undergoing treatment on an injury but was dropped on the basis of his form last month. Luke Varney and Paul Green are also struggling to make the bench.
Michael Brown started a league game for the first time since May at Charlton and Danny Pugh’s outing in London ended a year-long wait.
The challenge of keeping a large squad happy is a tangible one for McDermott. “I’ve been asked that question many times,” he said. “How do you keep people happy?
“I try to the best of my ability to speak to players one-to-one as much as I can and I try to pick a team which I think it right for the occasion. I go with my gut feeling all the time.
“I never make so-called soft decisions. It’s harder for me to make a soft decision than it is a so-called big decision. In the long term, even if things look a little bit hard or are bordering on unfair, I’ve still got to do what I think is right.
“Sometimes the supporters will say ‘why’s he not playing?’ But I see training, I see the work we do and I try to come up with a solution for every game. I’ve always tried to do that as honestly as I can and I speak to the players about it.
“Everyone I hope feels part of what’s happening here. I never alienate anyone. I’ve seen situations in the past where five or six players are training with younger players. But I don’t believe in that. I believe it’s all of us together.”
The alternative view of McDermott’s roll of absentees is that he now has options; more than he did when he first arrived at Elland Road as manager in April.
The recent signings of Marius Zaliukas and Dexter Blackstock strengthened his hand and, inevitably, heightened the competition for seats on the bench. The squad which McDermott took to Charlton was also minus Alex Mowatt, Sam Byram and Stephen Warnock, all of whom were injured.
“If you go back to April when I came here, I would say we now have some younger players in the squad with energy and we’ve got value too,” McDermott said. “I see improvement. That can only be good for us.
“But I’d never write anybody off and why would I?
“Someone who hasn’t played for a long time can come back.
“If any one player in our squad puts a shirt on, I’m sure they’ll be backed by the supporters. Because the only thing that matters is results.”
Hunt’s injury is a problem which McDermott said his out-of-form striker had been carrying throughout his time with Leeds.
The Republic of Ireland international suffered heavy criticism after eight games without a goal but McDermott said: “He did himself a disservice when he came in because he had a bit of a problem. So he’s come out of things now and he’s working with the physios to get himself right and fully, 100 per cent fit.
“Once we see Noel at 100 per cent, he’ll do himself justice. It’s something he’s been carrying and he needs to take care of it.”