Before Leeds United’s promotion from League One, the Premier League was too far away for any of us to imagine or touch.
I knew that in time the club would find their way there but I couldn’t be sure how long it would take.
There’s a world of difference between fighting for second place in League One and finishing seventh in the Championship. A year or so ago, returning to England’s top flight was a grand scheme. Today, I see it as Leeds United’s next logical step. All plans for the summer and the season ahead should be laid out with that target in mind.
It’s taken many months and years of hard work but finally we’re in a position where a place in the Premier League is attainable in the short-term. Realistically, the staff and the players at Elland Road should be aiming to make it happen next season. But if it is to happen then it’s essential that the lessons thrown up by the Championship are taken on board and studied in detail by everyone concerned.
I made the point in this column a fortnight ago that while the club’s season as a whole should meet with approval, a sense of disappointment about the way it finished was understandable.
In fact, a degree of despondency was to be expected. It’ll be felt not only by the supporters but by Simon Grayson and his squad, all of whom can see that a good opportunity has gone begging.
I have to be honest and say that when Leeds were second on Christmas Day, my hopes of promotion were extremely high, even at that early stage. Six weeks ago, I was absolutely certain that the players would have the stamina and resilience to stay in the play-offs. While acknowledging that the season as a whole was a success, any club worth their salt and support must take stock and examine exactly what went wrong when the results really mattered.
I would start with the defence if I hadn’t criticised it so many times before. Suffice to say that our record was in no way befitting of a club who want to get promoted. I’m all for entertaining, exciting football but when your goals-conceded column reaches 70 in league games alone, you have to draw the line. It’s pretty obvious that a rethink or a new approach is needed.
Patrick Kisnorbo’s recovery from injury is very good news and I’m convinced that we’d have been in the play-offs if he’d been available for the best part of 46 games. Leeds might have been fined £12,500 this week for a brawl against Burnley – an excessive punishment, by the way, for an incident provoked by a shocking challenge by one of Burnley’s midfielders – but Simon’s players are not a hard, nasty squad. On occasions this season, I’ve wondered if they’re actually too nice to turn the screw at the vital times.
Kisnorbo is someone who breaks that mould – a blood-and-guts defender who’d never say ‘after you’. Get him fit and in form and we’ve got a great asset on our hands. But, in my opinion, Kisnorbo alone isn’t enough. From front to back, Simon’s team would benefit from a bit more guile and a bit more experience; a few more players who’ve been there and done it.
It was clear from an early stage of this season that he wanted to improve his midfield and, if we’re being frank, it’s right to say that the signings of Barry Bannan and Jake Livermore didn’t really work. They came very late in the day and they failed to make the necessary impact. To some extent, that’s the gamble you take in the emergency loan market. But I also think it’s the gamble you take when you turn to young lads at the sharp end of the season.
The game which stands out for me as decisive was our defeat at Derby County on April 12. As Simon said himself, the problem that night was one of simple naivety; of people trying to knock the ball around in dangerous areas and getting their priorities wrong when we went a goal up.
The blame should be collective but I still remember the risky pass from Livermore which set up the move from which Derby scored their equaliser. It was a rash decision at precisely the wrong moment and that’s down to nothing more than lack of know-how. All of us have suffered from that and it takes years before a professional footballer learns the game inside out. But those sort of errors can be so costly and, in the last month of a season, you pay a heavy price for them.
The contrast that evening was Robbie Savage, the oldest head in Derby’s midfield. I wouldn’t say that technically he had a fantastic game against Leeds but if you watch a replay of that match then you’d see what he brings to the party.
He was niggly, abrasive, aggressive and annoying; he unsettled Leeds and put himself about. At no stage was he going to drill one into the top corner but the way he acted ignited the crowd and got others around him going. In short, he understood the situation and rose to it perfectly.
Shaun Derry is a similar example – someone who’s past his sell-by date in terms of his future career but who still has nous in spades upstairs. The truth of Simon’s squad is that it’s deeply talented and full of potential. With a schooled veteran in amongst that bunch, we wouldn’t have lost the game at Derby. I’m convinced of that.
Ability will be a key factor when Simon works his way through the transfer market but I fully expect him to try and raise the average age of his pool this summer and bring in guys who he can trust to hold the fort when the fort needs holding.
Because, if truth be told, the way the club finished the season was not especially impressive. To their credit, they were dominant against Reading and they deserved their wins over Burnley and QPR (albeit at a point when their challenge was basically over). But alongside the convincing performances, there were other more questionable displays – against Sheffield United, Millwall, Watford, Derby and Crystal Palace.
Okay, Leeds dominated the second half at Palace but their attitude in the first 45 minutes invited a defeat. The recurring theme in so many of those matches was the absence of a real desire to take the opposition by the scruff of the neck and throttle them from the first whistle. For me, the team weren’t positive enough and I’m sure that Simon will have reflected on that in the days since the play-offs slipped away.
He’ll also realise that the lack of a settled team in the closing weeks caused him an issue. I don’t blame him for the regular changes he made; he was merely responding to mixed results and some mediocre performances. But it has to be said that the big squad at his disposal did not really come into its own. Our key players were our key players, from start to finish.
My personal opinion is that it’s better to have 18 professionals of real quality than it is to have 25 of varying value. Needless to say it leaves you prone to injuries but the loan market is there to deal with injuries. Barring a run of extremely bad luck, 18 top players will take you a long way over the course of a 46-match season.
I keep hearing it said that the Championship will be a stronger division next season but I’m not so sure. West Ham United are in a poor situation financially, and Blackpool are a club with whom we can compete. The fact is that Leeds United don’t need to worry about other clubs. Get our strategy right and the appropriate players in place and the Premier League is a step away. It sounds easy on paper and I’m not naïve about the year ahead but I’ve finished this season with a feeling of optimism. For me, the next 12 months will be as good as we make them.