Understandably, Billy Paynter described his first goal for Leeds United as a weight off his mind.
In the eyes of Simon Grayson, it was quite the opposite.
Paynter’s escape from a classic striker’s rut has given his manager an unprecedented dilemma.
Leeds have no fewer than four strikers to work with but the pecking order at Elland Road is clear enough: in a formation reliant on a lone forward, the favoured incumbent is Luciano Becchio. Seventeen goals and a dependable streak made Becchio as close to an automatic choice as any player is likely to be under Grayson’s wing.
On only two occasions before Tuesday night did Grayson see fit to use Paynter in Becchio’s stead and name his leading goalscorer on the bench. Neither game offered any reason to revise the status quo. But Paynter’s celebrated strike against Preston North End – his first in 17 appearances for United – and a performance admired by both his own manager and Preston’s asked a pointed question of Grayson.
“It’s given me a decision to make about who to play at the weekend,” the United’s boss conceded.
Becchio might not feel heavily threatened. His tally of goals exceeds Paynter’s by 16 and his 75th-minute finish last weekend broke Doncaster Rovers’ spine. The inclusion of Paynter from the outset at Deepdale was as much about resting Becchio, a striker who in Grayson’s words “plays in a way which works his socks off”.
Davide Somma, with 12 goals to his name, could make an argument for which of United’s forwards deserves most prominence behind the Argentinian, but the decision for Grayson before tomorrow’s game against Ipswich Town appears to be clear. For the first time in six months at Elland Road, Paynter has a realistic chance of a second successive start.
His second-half goal at Deepdale was a watershed moment, ending a barren streak which felt the full force of United’s will.
Paynter was encouraged by terrace chants of ‘come on Billy’ towards the end of Saturday’s win over Doncaster and again in Lancashire on Tuesday night, finally answering back through a withering shot in the 57th minute.
The exuberant celebrations prompted by his goal were only partly due to the crucial league win it secured.
Asked about the patience and tolerance of United’s support, Paynter said: “I felt no pressure on me from them. The fans have been tremendous. They don’t moan or groan and they really get on the players’ sides. It helps.
“I wanted to applaud them on Saturday, just to let them know that I appreciate their support and appreciate them singing and chanting my name. It was moving and my goal is a big thank you to them.
“I’m really pleased that they’ve taken to me and it’s nice to repay them.
“Everyone has been willing me on, having a laugh and a joke and saying ‘when is he going to score?’ but hopefully my luck has turned. I was confident that it would because I’m a positive person. I’ll stay that way.”
Paynter’s run of 16 games without a goal was not quite the appalling record it seemed to be. Thirteen of his appearances were made as a substitute and eight of those lasted no more than five minutes! Good fortune escaped him too for the duration, particularly in the weeks after Christmas.
A goalbound shot towards the end of Leeds’ rout of Scunthorpe in January came back off the legs of Somma. When a goalline clearance thwarted Paynter against Doncaster last Saturday, Max Gradel found himself ideally placed to slip the ball into an empty net.
“I can’t believe it,” said Paynter afterwards, “but at least we scored anyway. That’s the main thing.”
Neither moment was so frustrating as the save made by Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy in the 94th minute of last month’s 2-2 draw at Elland Road. Only by Ruddy’s fingertips were Paynter and Leeds denied a priceless winning goal. By that stage, the length of his barren sequence was beginning to dawn on the players around him and the supporters in the stands.
“He’s been desperate for a goal and the fans’ reaction to him at the weekend must have been really uplifting,” said Grayson. “But I’ve said from the start that he’s a talented striker and he gives me the chance to rotate the squad around. I’ve done it a couple of time before.
“His season’s been a bit stop-start because of injury but I know I could play him in any game or at any time. He’s got a lot quality and he’s a very clever player.”
Paynter’s career with Leeds has been defined by ill luck. Signed on a free transfer from Swindon Town in July, he played in two pre-season games before suffering a stress fracture of a shin and disappearing from view. Grayson was not able to hand him his competitive debut until the penultimate day of October.
In total, his first goal for Leeds was 243 days in the making. Had it not been for the inside of a post, a second would have materialised at Deepdale eight minutes later. The habitual nature of goalscoring is enough reason for Grayson to consider persevering with Paynter at a stage of the Championship season where United have much to play for.
“It was class to see that ball hit the back of the net,” said Paynter. “And to see 5,000-odd Leeds fans going mental. I was chuffed to bits.
“The first one’s out of the way now and hopefully my luck has changed. As a striker waiting for your first, you’ll take anything; one off your backside, a ricochet, anything. My family were at Preston and my partner as well. It was a fantastic night.
“Starting the game showed me that the gaffer’s got faith in me and I wanted to repay him.
“Preston’s a tough place to go and they’re fighting for their lives while we’re pushing for the play-offs, if not the top two. The lads dug in and ground out a good result.”