At their height in the 1970s, Leeds United were famous for an uncompromising attitude. Dirty Leeds, as people still say.
That sounds like an insult but I’d take it as a compliment.
Every good team needs a nasty streak.
Watching the current crop of Leeds United players last season, I came to the conclusion that they were too nice for their own good.
It’s hard to criticise a side who play the game the right way, but a lack of bite was apparent throughout the team.
At crucial times, bite is what you need to keep the ship steady.
In Michael Brown, Leeds have hired themselves a sharp pair of teeth. We’ve waited a long time to see a serious signing this summer – too long to be honest – but he was the sort of player I was looking for when the close-season began. At a stroke, it’s a deal which improves Simon Grayson’s squad.
I’ve played against Brown a few times and he’s a feisty, energetic character – ferocious around the ball and very useful with it. That’s the key with hard midfielders. Look through the leagues and you’ll find plenty of players willing to stick the boot in and cause a riot.
Finding one who can also pull the strings and show a bit of finesse is far more difficult. They’re a rare, expensive breed.
On its own, the signing of Brown will not be enough to make Leeds a serious threat in the Championship, but he’s an experienced professional who Simon can shape his team around. To that end, I’d see good sense in handing Brown the captaincy next season and asking him to lead not only the midfield but the squad as a whole.
For the record, this is not an attack on Jonathan Howson. He did a fine job as captain last season, under great pressure and with little experience. Asking a homegrown 22-year-old to carry the armband at a club as big and demanding as Leeds is an enormous request and Howson coped admirably. But the patience afforded to the club – and, okay, it didn’t last for too long – will be non-existent in the coming months and, as I see it, it’s down to an older head to take the responsibility of rallying the side.
You’ll often hear it said that every team should have 11 captains, and I suppose that’s true to an extent, but, in reality, when times are hard and results are eluding you dressing rooms tend to go quiet. The lads who were shouting the odds a few weeks earlier start to keep their thoughts to themselves, and anxiety creeps in. That’s when a confident, nerveless captain is worth his weight in gold.
I’m not saying that Howson can’t do that job, but in a season when much will be asked of Simon and his players, a lad with Brown’s experience seems better suited to the job. Howson can then be left to work his magic. From what I know of Michael, he’s a bubbly character and a good laugh who the other players will take to straight away. Don’t get me wrong, if you wanted a joker then you’d hire a comedian, but it does no harm if a fine player also possesses a light-hearted streak.
And when all’s said and done, Brown is the essence of a Premier League footballer. It’s a while since we were able to say that about a Leeds United signing. We’ve seen loanees from Premier League clubs sent to Elland Road – most of them very young – but Brown is a midfielder who’s been there and done it with various different clubs.
I’ve said over and over again that Simon needed to get his signings right and in this instance I believe he has.Anyone who thinks otherwise might point to Brown’s age. He’s 34, going on 35, and I don’t think we should pretend that he’s one for the future. That’s a problem if everyone else in the side is creeping into their mid-30s, but it’s plain to see that Leeds are a young team with plenty of running in them.
In fact, if anything they were too young last season. Look at the regular front six – Johnson, Kilkenny, Howson, Gradel, Snodgrass and Becchio. There isn’t an old head in there. Yes, the defence contained pros like Richard Naylor and Andy O’Brien, but they had enough to worry about with goals flying in. I didn’t see too much leadership coming from that area. What Leeds were crying out for, particularly in the latter stages of the campaign, was a big-hitter in the centre of midfield.
In a league like the Championship, a Michael Brown is precisely what you need. The Stoke City side which I helped to get promoted were proof of that. I’m quite happy to hold my hands up and say we were a horrible team – lacking in style but ultra-competitive. We had a few creative player but our success was based on hard-nosed consistency. It was so effective and did the trick.
Leeds need to carve out similar success next season and Brown will find a lot of weight on his shoulders, regardless of what else happens in the transfer market. He won’t mind that. In fact, he’d probably like Grayson to go one step further and hand him the captain’s armband – you won’t hear me complaining if that happens.