Leeds United left to hope for a case of deja vu

FEBRUARY 2009: 'Fabian Brandy scores Hereford United's second goal.
FEBRUARY 2009: 'Fabian Brandy scores Hereford United's second goal.
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Leeds manager Brian McDermott will be looking for a positive response to Saturday’s FA Cup defeat at Spotland. Phil Hay reports.

Leeds United invoked dire memories of Histon with their FA Cup defeat at Rochdale but the reaction of Brian McDermott to Saturday’s upset was more akin to Simon Grayson’s defiance in Hereford.

Histon was Gary McAllister’s undoing, a result which left his “stomach churning” and led to a meeting with Ken Bates in Monaco the following day. He was sacked by Leeds within a month after less than a year as manager.

Neil Warnock’s bete noire was Barnsley away last season after which he blamed his attacking line and Luciano Becchio in particular. His tenure never recovered, either. Where McDermott and Grayson differed was in fronting up to the worst of performances and giving their players a concise and strict message – never again under any circumstances.

The fate of McAllister and Warnock is a bad omen for McDermott but Leeds’ compelling reaction to their 2-0 loss at Hereford United on February 17, 2009 is proof that horrible days need not be defining, or not in a negative sense.

Had McDermott been at Edgar Street on that pivotal Tuesday night – an evening when Lee Trundle missed a penalty and Leeds were badly outplayed in the second half – he would have recognised the failings, the humiliation and the abusive chants from the terraces. Grayson’s post-match comments would also have struck a chord with him.

Grayson was only two months into his job at the time and, in that respect, pressure came to bear on him more quickly than it has on McDermott. United’s players were locked in the dressing room as Grayson and his two coaches, Glynn Snodin and Ian Miller, read the riot act and issued guarded threats.

“Performances like that are unacceptable,” said Grayson. “I’m not going to criticise individual players because that’s not my style but we’ve had words in there.

“We’ve got to use this result as an example or an inspiration between now and the end of the season – to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If the players don’t do that, one or two might not play for the club again.”

Leeds produced a 2-0 victory over Cheltenham Town the following Saturday, a game won by two Jonathan Howson goals, and immediately linked together an run of 11 games without defeat. League One champions-elect Leicester City broke that sequence on Easter Monday but United qualified for the play-offs without losing again and won promotion the following season, Grayson’s first full term as boss.

The current squad at Elland Road are reliant on a similar spell of consistent form to make a Championship play-off position possible, though presently McDermott has nothing more on his mind than the completion of his first January signings and this weekend’s derby away to Sheffield Wednesday.

United have been in negotiations over the signing of Hull City winger Cameron Stewart for a week and the club hope that deal and one other will be finalised before they make the trip to Hillsborough. Defeat by defeat, the pressure for new players at Elland Road has increased markedly this month and the transfer window is already a week old.

McDermott declined to rotate his squad at Rochdale, fielding his strongest possible team against a League Two side whose passing and moving took advantage of United’s fatigue. Transfers into Leeds would give McDermott a chance to properly refresh his line-up at Hillsborough but he has a handful of existing options, too. Leeds hope Alex Mowatt will be fit after the cramp he suffered against Blackburn Rovers on New Year’s Day and Noel Hunt made his first appearance since early October at Spotland.

However he handles his squad for Saturday, United’s manager is keenly aware of the need to draw a line under the result at Rochdale and the defeats to Blackburn and Nottingham Forest which went before.

“I never take anything for granted after a result like that,” McDermott said, “but you should always get a reaction.

“Rochdale were the better side and we held our hands up but I have to look beyond that now. I can’t affect that result. All we can do is work our way up and prepare for Saturday.”

The revival under Grayson in the Spring of 2009 was achieved without much help from the transfer market. FIFA’s winter window was closed and Leeds had only emergency loans to work with. Sam Sodje joined from Reading a month before the end of the season but Leeds were already on an even keel by then after a spell of seven straight wins at home. They were, in any case, a potent attacking side, handicapped by a porous defence.

McDermott’s recurring complaint throughout his nine months as manager has been the lack of depth and variety in the squad he inherited from Warnock. He signed Gboly Ariyibi before Christmas, an 18-year-old winger released from Southampton’s academy last summer, and has blooded him twice but McDermott admitted prior to the third-round loss at Rochdale that Ariyibi was being used in circumstances where a player so young and inexperienced might normally be held back.

“I knew when I first came here that things weren’t going to happen instantly,” McDermott said. “You’d have to say that we do have an imbalance in the squad.

“We put young Gboly on the pitch the other day and I thought he did smashing. He’s done terrific But whether or not we should be putting someone of that age or experience onto the pitch at this stage, who knows?”

The same dilemma exists with Alex Cairns, the young goalkeeper who has been United’s substitute throughout the season. Aged 21, his only previous league appearance came as a replacement in a 5-0 defeat to Blackpool in 2011 – the game which ended Paul Rachubka’s United career – and McDermott asked his first choice, Paddy Kenny, to fight through the loss to Blackburn and a hard afternoon at Rochdale with an ankle injury, unwilling to play Cairns instead.

Kenny’s performance at Spotland was immense, though not preventing a result which provoked an astonishing outpouring of anger from United’s following of 3,400.

“Paddy Kenny was outstanding,” said McDermott said. “He’s a very brave man. It could have been a lot worse without him.”

Chris Wood controls a high ball against Fulham at Elland Road on Tuesday night. PIC: Bruce Rollinson

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