Difficult: All kinds of things have hindered United since Brian McDermott took over, but he tells Phil Hay he can see light at the end of the tunnel.
Brian McDermott is a month away from the end of his first year as Leeds United manager, a milestone he thought he might never reach. It has been quick, exacting and bewildering at times – a unique year in his career.
His expectations for this season in particular were somewhat different to the season passing in front of him. McDermott’s projections for how stable Leeds would be, how far the changes to his team would go and the league position they were capable of reaching have changed as circumstances around him changed too.
Promotion in his first full season as manager was not a pre-requisite for an extended tenure and the board of directors who appointed him last April have never asked him to deliver it quickly. “I was told when I came here that if we could get ourselves up to something like eighth in the league, that would be great,” he said last week. “But obviously you don’t want to get to eighth. You want to get to sixth or fifth, or first or second.”
One way or another Leeds expected him to improve on 13th place, their final position in the Championship last season. The unsettled backdrop at Elland Road has interfered with United’s term and ahead of today’s meeting with Bolton Wanderers at Elland Road, the club were in 12th – talking hopefully of the play-offs still but accepting the fact that the chance of promotion is a slim one.
If the top six is indeed beyond Leeds and another year in the Championship beckons, the question for McDermott will be how much progress he has made in the past 12 months. The 52-year-old has a three-year contract and, at his most realistic, saw this season as an opportunity to lay the ground for a more concerted attack on the division in 2014-15. But in terms of creating a team and squad with the exact credentials for winning the Championship, the progress at Elland Road has not been rapid enough for him.
“I wanted to get there quicker,” McDermott said. “There’s not doubt that I wanted to get there quicker.
“What are we at the moment? Twelfth in the league. There has been some progress and staff at the ground and the training ground talk about it. They’ve been here longer than I have so they’d know.
“(At QPR) last Saturday, the team was better. It was organised and it had more pace in it. But I know what it takes – what kind of team and set-up it takes – to win this league. That’s not over one season. It’s been shown over the last 10 years.
“The teams that generally win this league have a certain way of playing – a certain amount of pace and so on. There’s probably one team who’ve bucked the trend, and that was the team that beat Reading in the play-off final (in 2011) – Swansea.
“Championship football is what it is and you have to play the league. You have to get a team together which will get out of this league. I know what that team looks like. Are we there? No. But we’re trying to get there are quickly as we can.”
McDermott has seen improvement in his side during the past month, and increasingly so since Leeds were taken apart by Sheffield Wednesday in January.
United have lost two other games since then – at home to champions-elect Leicester City and by a single goal away to Brighton – but a spate of draws and wins over Huddersfield and Yeovil steadied their form, without pulling the play-offs closer.
Leeds have made their share of signings under McDermott, though many have been on loan and others have struggled to make an impression. He has coped with the distraction of two attempted takeovers at Leeds – one by the Sport Capital consortium which fell apart and another by Massimo Cellino which is at the mercy of the Football League and the Italian justice system – and he survived an attempt by Cellino to sack him at the end of January. Having worried then about retaining his job, his thoughts are now turned to finishing this season with conviction and nuturing an effective formation and style.
“Results will tell you if we’re close or not,” McDermott said. “In that game against QPR last weekend, for me we were the better team. We should have won.
“I watched that game back and in the second half we never kicked on the way we wanted to kick on. That’s the next stage for us now. We went in 1-1 at half-time but we could still have won that game 2-1.
“That’s what Championship teams do. It’s what a team like Burnley are doing at the moment.”
McDermott credited the arrival of goalkeeper Jack Butland and striker Connor Wickham on loan for the strength of a first half at Loftus Road which was arguably as good a spell of football as Leeds have produced away from home this season.
He hoped for similar influence from Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart, the wingers he signed in January, but is yet to see them come to the fore. Kebe in particular has borne the brunt of criticism and was targeted by United’s away crowd at QPR.
McDermott signed him from Crystal Palace on account of the talent he saw in Kebe while the two worked together at Reading.
“I’ve been here before with Jimmy,” McDermott said. “At Reading he got a bit of stick from the crowd but I kept working with him and he became a crowd favourite.
“What I’ll say about Jimmy is if you look at the stats, he ran more than anybody on that pitch (at QPR). That’s a fact. His high intensity sprints, he did more than anybody on that pitch.
“We need to get him the ball in the final third and we want our wingers to create. The fans want to see our wingers going past people and getting crosses into the box.
“But the stats mean that Jimmy is putting in a real shift. That’s an absolute fact.”