You never feel more optimistic than on the first day of the new season. Even last year, for all the problems we had through the summer, I still reached the opening game with a degree of hope that something good was around the corner.
This time it’s more belief than hope. I genuinely believe that the preparation for this season has given Leeds United a great chance of being in and amongst the Championship’s chasing pack. I won’t go so far as to predict promotion but when Uwe Rosler says that top 10 is achievable, I’m in total agreement. I see us being at that level.
There was a time towards the end of last season when we found ourselves – somewhat against the odds – pushing for a top-10 finish. Had the last six or seven games not seen so many defeats then we might have made it but a position like that would have been papering over the cracks. We weren’t that good.
In periods of the term it felt like one of the worst seasons we’d ever had. Thinking back to Christmas, I’m still grateful that we’re in the Championship. So this time round it’s not merely about being close to or in the top 10 when the season ends. We should be aiming to be in that position right the way through. That to me would represent a successful year.
I’m extremely confident that the squad are good enough to do that. There are still certain things that worry me about Rosler’s resources – the lack of pace at the back for example – but you couldn’t help but be impressed by Saturday’s win over Everton.
It wasn’t so much the scoreline that caught my eye. In fairness, Everton’s line-up was pretty young and inexperienced. What I liked was the organisation of our team, the quality of the shape and the confidence in possession. Every player was looking for the ball and every player was happy to be on it. I think it’s right to say that Rosler has got them very well schooled.
Part of the problem last season was a total lack of assurance. In periods the players looked like they didn’t fancy their own chances. They were vulnerable. The attitude of the squad looks totally different now. Our young players are a year older and wiser and the likes of Alex Mowatt keep on getting better and better. Charlie Taylor’s grown up massively too and I reckon he’s going to turn into an excellent left-back.
And of course, with the signing of Stuart Dallas, we’ve got our left winger. That deal probably typifies the biggest change we’ve seen at Elland Road this summer – the fact that when things need doing, they get done. We needed a left winger so we’ve signed a left winger. We needed more goals so we threw money at Chris Wood. It’s like looking at a completely different club and that’s not just my opinion. There’s no question that other sides in the Championship will be seeing us in a very different light too.
So with the season upon us, what am I looking for? First and foremost I want to see us make a good start. That’s absolutely imperative from the point of view of momentum and the mood around Elland Road. You’ll have heard Rosler say over the weekend that in his mind he’s looking at short-term goals – Burnley on Saturday, followed by the cup game at Doncaster and then Reading away.
It’s the way you have to work in the Championship because this division is more demanding than any other. Rosler could quite easily stand in the dressing room and say ‘let’s go for promotion’ but really, isn’t every coach saying that? Is there really any point in looking to May when you’ve got 46 games in front of you?
Even at Christmas the league has so much scope to change. We saw that ourselves last season (a time when I honestly thought we were going down). People get bored of hearing managers talking about a game at a time but if you’ve been in football and gone through a long, hard campaign, you’ll understand why they do. It’s the equivalent of having a mountain of work on your desk. As a whole it can be intimidating. Cross little jobs off a list and before you know it you’re getting on nicely.
Burnley on Saturday is a great test. They’ve lost a couple of big players – Danny Ings and Kieran Trippier – but they’re still a strong side with a highly-rated manager. I’d be surprised if they’re not close to the top six all season. So if we match up to them, and better still beat them, we’ll know what we’re capable of. Something tells me we’ll be just fine.