Paul Connolly has earned a reputation as the most consistent player on Leeds United’s books.
He is, in Simon Grayson’s estimation, “a seven out of 10 every week” and reliable enough to rank as the club’s preferred right-back.
Connolly’s status was never questioned until the hamstring strain he suffered last month prompted the signing of Eric Lichaj from Aston Villa. Six weeks later, and with his fitness re-established, he is less than clear on how the land at Elland Road lies. “I want the shout but I’m not holding out any hopes,” Connolly said. “The team are doing really well. Maybe I’ll have to wait.”
Connolly was technically fit a fortnight ago but Leeds opted to run him through two reserve games before seriously considering his recall. His routine performance against Gateshead on Tuesday proved to Grayson that the former Derby County captain is suitably fit. Either Connolly or Lichaj will be disappointed when their manager names his team to play Sheffield United at Bramall Lane this weekend.
Despite Connolly’s impending return, Leeds opted to extend Lichaj’s loan from Villa this week and retain him until May 7, the last day of the regular Championship term. Connolly has appeared in 25 league fixtures this season but Lichaj has started United’s last seven without giving Grayson an excuse for dropping him. Connolly’s selection at Bramall Lane would be a reflection of Grayson’s loyalty to his established first-choice, rather than an indictment of Lichaj’s performances.
Asked if he thought he should regain his place in Leeds’ starting line-up, Connolly said: “That’s a difficult question to answer. Only the manager can answer it. All I’ll say is that I want to get back in at the first opportunity. The last month’s been horrible for me.
“I lost my place through injury and there’s nothing you can do about that. I’d blame myself for being out of the team if I hadn’t played well or my form was off but it hasn’t been my fault. At the same time, Eric’s done well so the manager can’t look at the situation as me or him. All that matters is whoever he chooses playing well. We’re all trying to get promoted.
“As strange as it sounds, I half-wish that I’d lost my place through a bad run of performances or something like that. At least I’d feel like it was down to me and my responsibility – something within my control. I could live with that. But being out of the team because my hamstring’s gone is something I’ve found really hard to deal with.”
Connolly is emerging from his second concerted absence of the season, following on from a spell in September and October when an injury sustained in Leeds’ 5-2 defeat at Barnsley saw him miss four matches. In between, he stepped out of the side for a single fixture before Christmas after accumulating five bookings and incurring a one-game ban.
As and when he returns to Grayson’s line-up, he will walk another slender disciplinary line.
The 27-year-old received his ninth yellow card of the season at Portsmouth in January and is one caution short of a mandatory two-game suspension. One of his regrets about remaining on the field while his hamstring failed him against Coventry City on February 5 was that he failed to increase his tally to 10 and serve out the ban while he recovered from injury.
“That’s the thing which annoyed me most,” he said. “Before I came off, I didn’t think about my yellow cards at all. I should have picked up a booking to clear away the other yellows. It’s something I’ll have to watch when I come back. You live and learn I suppose and if I’m in that position next time then I’ll know what to do.
“I said before that my disciplinary record hasn’t been good enough this season and I can take the blame for that but this injury has been an absolute killer. It plays with your mind and you go home every day thinking ‘I can’t believe this.’ Everyone else is training and you’re in the hands of your fitness. When you get over the injury, you come back. Until then, there’s nothing you can do except wait.
“I’ve been ready for the last 10 days or so and I feel great. The fitness coach has done a lot of running with me. If you look at my career, I’ve never been an injury-prone player. I’ve only had niggling problems and this is one of them. It’s not long-term but it’s really annoying to say that the only games I’ve missed this season have been through little, stupid problems.”
The decision to retain Lichaj has guaranteed Grayson that he will not, barring an unforeseen crisis, be short of a right-back before the end of the season.
Since Andrew Hughes left Elland Road to join Scunthorpe United in January, United have had no permanent cover for Connolly.
The club have nine Championship games remaining but the play-offs could increase that number to 12. Tuesday night’s reserve team, including eight senior players, gave a clear picture of the depth of squad that Grayson will benefit from over the course of the run-in,
United sit five points short of automatic promotion after Norwich City, the Championship’s second-placed club, dug a 3-1 victory out of Monday’s game against Bristol City with customary late goals.
“I watched the Norwich game and I was gutted when they scored,” Connolly said. “But fair play to them. They kept going and they’ve done that a few times this season. It says a lot about their spirit and a three-point lead (over Swansea City) is a good gap for them. If they go unbeaten then it’s going to be very difficult to peg them back. But something tells me they won’t go unbeaten.
“If we don’t get automatic promotion then we’ll hopefully be in the play-offs and that could mean another 12 games.
“You need plenty of people to see you through. It’s important to have depth in your squad and our strength was there to see on Tuesday night.”