Former Leeds United manager Neil Warnock faces his old club from the Queens Park Rangers dugout at Loftus Road, but will barely recognise the line-up from his time at Elland Road. Phil Hay reports.
Neil Warnock was tired and beaten when he left Leeds United in 2013. “I’ve been a manager for 33 years and these have been the hardest 12 months I’ve had anywhere,” he said. “Leeds United consumes everyone. It’s everyone’s life. But I’ve given it my best shot.”
Warnock bowed out after 63 games in charge, the last a 2-1 defeat to Derby County at Elland Road on Easter Monday, but he went with a high opinion of the team he was leaving behind. “We’ve done the hard work clearing the dead wood out,” he said. “It’s a great dressing room. We’ve not been good enough in the final third but that’s the only area the new manager has to work on.”
His squad did not hold up as Warnock believed it would. Less than three years on, the 18 players used by him in his last game as manager have all but gone. Sam Byram, who came of age under Warnock, is still present but creeping towards the end of his deal and stuck on the bench. Chris Dawson, who made a thankless debut in the loss to Derby and has barely played for the first team since, is recovering from a shoulder injury and out of contract at the end of this season.
Warnock’s era is a bygone era and as caretaker manager of Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on Saturday he will find virtually nothing to recognise in United’s line-up. Leeds have recruited 39 players in the interim, many of whom have already moved on, and eaten through five first-team bosses. The last of Warnock’s signings departed in the summer when Michael Tonge and Rodolph Austin were named on United’s released list.
The average age of the team at Leeds has dropped markedly in the past 18 months, standing at 24 among the team chosen by Steve Evans for Saturday’s defeat to Rotherham United. Minus a raw and untested Dawson, the average age of Warnock’s final line-up came in at 28. It included Paddy Kenny, El-Hadji Diouf, Paul Green and Luke Varney.
The landscape in Leeds is ever-changing and Evans did not wait long after his appointment as head coach last month before looking at the loan market and beginning discussions about the recruitment of new players. Warnock and Evans are two of the seven coaches employed by United since Simon Grayson’s long and productive tenure ended in 2012 and that turnover is symptomatic – if not partly responsible – for United’s inconsistent performance over several seasons.
Warnock’s belief that the Elland Road club “consumes everyone” has been echoed by some of his successors. Brian McDermott felt the same and Uwe Rosler found that the job kept him awake at night. David Hockaday lasted for 70 days as head coach and Darko Milanic survived for 32. Massimo Cellino’s hand was behind all those sackings but Warnock felt the strain long before the Italian bought into Leeds.
Evans described himself as “very low” after Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to Rotherham, a side who were bottom of the Championship before kick-off with one point from their previous six games, but the pressure of the position has shown no sign of rattling him yet.
There is still a sense of him pinching himself at the thought of having the job in the first place – and a reluctance to accept that keeping a safe foot in mid-table is as much as he can expect this season.
“In the cold light of day, when you looked back at the Rotherham game, we created a lot of chances,” Evans said. “I’m not saying we played well but some of those chances we had to score. And if we put away the easy ones – I’m not even talking about the more difficult ones – then we win that game comfortably.
“That result’s on the back of two good wins and this is where you have to stick together.
“That’s how we have to be going forward – like a family coming together when things get tough.
“There’s one or two things going on at the club and you can tell that people are a bit frustrated but I want us to make something of this season and I want people to believe that we can.”
The month of December might well set the tone for the remainder of it. Both of the clubs involved in this weekend’s game at Loftus Road are in a position where their season could turn one way or the other. QPR were fancied for a top-six finish in the summer but they are 15th in the table, a place and a point above Leeds. Warnock is in caretaker charge – perhaps for the last time on Saturday – after the sacking of Chris Ramsey. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink is among the favourites to take the job full-time.
Evans has selection issues to think about with Gaetano Berardi beginning a suspension and Sol Bamba and Charlie Taylor both short of full fitness. He will know by 5pm tonight whether his persistence in the loan market during the past few weeks has been worth the effort.
The United boss was targeting improvements across his team – a goalkeeper, defensive cover, a central midfielder and a striker. Liam Bridcutt’s appearance for Sunderland’s Under-21s on Tuesday appeared to confirm that Leeds’ long-winded attempt to sign him had finally run aground but Evans succeeded in resurrecting that transfer late last night.
Evans saw the loan window as a stop-gap and a way of seeing United through to a January window which he described last month as “massive”; a window in which he hopes Leeds will back him seriously.
Speaking last month, after a painful 2-0 defeat to Blackburn, Evans said: “Two or three players in before the (loan) window closes might take us from where we are to suddenly being a very good side. But to go where we want to go, we have to be much better in a lot of areas.”