Opinion is divided over whether Leeds United’s season constitutes an exceptional year or an opportunity missed. Some would say both.
But there is no disputing the entertainment value of an engrossing year which never once strayed into the realms of insignificance.
In the last days of October, the prospect of relegation began to raise its head. By Christmas, Leeds were second in the Championship and answering queries about the possibility of promotion. “It’ll go down to the wire,” said Simon Grayson at every juncture, and the play-offs were within his grasp until the 45th round of fixtures. Here, Inside Elland Road looks back at the highlights of a season when consolidation became the least of United’s ambitions.
Player of the Year: Jonathan Howson
Max Gradel was a clear and worthy winner of the YEP’s annual award, but votes for Howson were numerous enough to make the poll competitive. In truth, there is barely room to slide a piece of tissue paper between two of the most influential footballers at Elland Road. In the view of this writer, and by a nominal margin, Howson is worthy of the nod on the basis of an ever-present season, 10 league goals and the burden of carrying the armband for six months, without warning or much prior experience. It was his move to a more advanced position behind Luciano Becchio which prompted the positive twist in United’s season before Christmas, and his hat-trick at Scunthorpe United became a pivotal moment. At his best, as Shaun Derry once said, Howson acts as the club’s heartbeat.
Highly commended: Max Gradel, Bradley Johnson.
Most improved player of the year: Max Gradel
By his own admission, doubts persisted about Gradel’s credentials as a Championship player when he joined Leeds in January of last year. Leicester City had declined to use him at that level and were happy to sell him to Leeds after a short and productive loan at Elland Road. Chants of ‘sign him up’ followed Gradel, inset right, throughout his temporary spell in West Yorkshire, but his red card on the last day of the 2009-10 season (a season in which he started only 11 league matches) begged the question of whether Leeds had taken on a liability. Twelve months, 43 games and 17 goals later, the Ivory Coast international is in possession of the YEP’s player-of-the-year award and two more from the club, a clear indication of his value in the eyes of those inside Elland Road and out. Gradel is one individual who Simon Grayson will seek to protect from the vultures of the transfer market, and contract talks cannot begin quickly enough.
Highly commended: Jonathan Howson, Davide Somma.
Goal of the year: Bradley Johnson v Arsenal at Elland Road (January 19, 2011)
“He tries that every day in training,” said Simon Grayson, “and, to be fair, most of his shots end up in Wetherby.” United’s manager had his tongue in cheek and a smile on his face as he analysed the goal which briefly threatened trouble for Arsenal at Elland Road in January. The Gunners held a 2-0 lead in a one-sided FA Cup replay when Johnson, right, met a lay-off from Robert Snodgrass with a deft swing of his left boot, clipping the ball into the top corner of Arsenal’s net from 25 yards. Wojciech Szczesny, the Gunners goalkeeper, dived for good measure but was comprehensively beaten by the precision of Johnson’s 37th-minute strike. With problems afoot, Arsene Wenger summoned Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie from the bench and settled the tie in the second half.
Highly commended: Luciano Becchio v Middlesbrough at the Riverside (October 16, 2010), Robert Snodgrass v Bristol City at Ashton Gate (February 12, 2011).
Performance of the year: Leeds United 2 QPR 0 (December 18, 2010)
Queens Park Rangers’ league record on their arrival at Elland Road was 20 games played, one defeat incurred, 41 points accrued and 12 goals conceded. Leeds United did not so much upset the champions’ apple-cart as obliterate it, helped by goals in either half from Max Gradel. QPR were able to muster only four shots on target and left Leeds with their collective tail between their legs. The experience riled Neil Warnock, who listened to celebrations in United’s dressing room and said: “They’ve not won promotion yet. With those celebrations, you’d think they were already there.” Merry Christmas.
Highly commended: Arsenal 1 Leeds United 1 (January 8, 2011), Burnley 2 Leeds United 3 (December 11, 2010).
Supporters’ performance of the year: Leeds United 0 Reading 0 (April 22, 2011)
No doubt as a result of live television coverage on a bank holiday weekend, the attendance at Elland Road on April 22 fell by almost 6,000 from United’s meeting with Watford six days earlier. The irony of the huge drop in numbers was that those who paid for tickets found the stadium’s atmosphere at its best - inhospitable, aggressive and unconditionally supportive on a night when Simon Grayson’s players needed nothing less. Leeds fed on the sense of frenzy as Reading lost their way, falling back on a man-of-the-match performance from goalkeeper Alex McCarthy to claim a goalless draw. “Their fans were fantastic,” said Reading manager Brian McDermott. “They stayed with them right through the game.”
Highly commended: Nottingham Forest 1 Leeds United 1 (August 15, 2010); Arsenal 1 Leeds United 1 (January 8, 2011).
Team of the year (the best of the rest v United)
It is a mark of the excellence of United’s pre-Christmas win over QPR that no member of Neil Warnock’s squad merits inclusion in the list of players who have most impressed against Leeds this season.
The result at Elland Road was the peak of United’s term and an isolated trough for Rangers, and though the Professional Footballers Association team of the year featured two of Warnock’s key assets, a roll of honour from Championship fixtures involving Leeds is bound to comprise of players from elsewhere.
The following line-up is an acknowledgement of those who caught the eye in the most competitive of leagues:
Goalkeeper: Alex McCarthy (Reading). Defenders: Carlos Edwards (Ipswich Town), Paul Robinson (Millwall), David Wheater (Middlesbrough), Curtis Davies (Leicester City). Midfielders: Scott Sinclair (Swansea City), Wes Hoolahan (Norwich City), Neil Danns (Crystal Palace), Adam Hammill (Barnsley). Strikers: Danny Graham (Watford), Craig Bellamy (Cardiff City).