Five, four and one. The points earned by Brian McDermott in the first month of each of his three seasons as Reading manager.
He is not renowned for fast starts and has learned to handle poor ones. “Good pressure” he called it after a winless streak this time last year.
The scenario at Elland Road must be better again – eight points from four league games and four wins from six matches. In his short and sweet time as a coach, McDermott has never been here before. Leeds United themselves last set out like this in 2009.
True to form, the summer gone posed questions and concerns about what this season would bring; whether Leeds were good enough, strong enough or stable enough to avoid the purgatory of another wasted year.
Would the club’s current owner, GFH Capital, be here to see it through? And could Leeds emerge from fixtures away from home without leaving a pound of flesh behind? Here is what the first month of the season tells us:
1: Leeds are good enough to better last season’s tally of 61 points.
The club were the victims of a freak occurrence in 2012-13; mid-table fodder dragged into trouble by an unusually tight league. Much as United were limited, perfunctory and unimaginative, in an average year they’d have been clear of relegation by the end of March, and 61 points was good enough for 13th position. After small, gradual steps through the close season, are Leeds any less equipped to reach and breach that total? There is more variety and flexibility about this team and more skill on McDermott’s part in finding tactical answers in the heat of a game. He has the advantage of a fit and fresh Rodolph Austin and a flush of form in players who came and went last year – Ross McCormack, Lee Peltier and Luke Varney to name three. At first glance, Scott Wootton is a potential cure for the ills in the centre of United’s defence and a worthwhile addition to a younger, tighter and more aspirational group of players. There are inadequacies too and the absence of suitable wingers lingers, in spite of Sam Byram’s improving fitness and the fact that the transfer window is still open. If the benchmark for the play-offs runs over 70 points then qualification will ask a lot of Leeds. But 68, as it was last season? They should not be far away from that. And they should not be fighting relegation either.
2: McDermott has the right temperament for this job.
Managing Leeds United is not for everyone, regardless of what the clichés say. Presently, it is not for anyone who struggles to accept the concept of tight budgets and semi-tied hands. Even the board at Elland Road would not pretend that McDermott has had his own way this summer. Several of the names on the wanted list he drew up in May are now on the books but Leeds have not performed a clean sweep. So how should their manager react? Either throw his toys from the pram, as others before McDermott have done, or make the best of it. And to McDermott’s credit, he is making the best of it. “I don’t get frustrated about transfers,” he told me in Slovenia. “All it does is distract you.” You can sympathise with a manager who sees gaps in his squad and knows how he wants to fill them. You can sympathise too when you’re talking about a manager with a track record of cost-effective signings. But there is nothing worse than a coach who uses complex circumstances as an excuse for allowing a season to go to ruin. The post pays a decent salary after all. McDermott is tailor-made for United – and not only because of his strong CV.
3: GFH Capital is playing the long game with promotion.
If McDermott were sacked for failing to win promotion in May, Leeds would be bang to rites. The club’s chairman, Salah Nooruddin, says that target has not been set for him and managing director David Haigh admitted in a recent interview that 2015 was a more realistic date for United’s ascension to the Premier League. Those messages are consistent with McDermott’s work in the transfer market. We have not seen an overhaul or anything like it; more a targetive approach from a manager who understands that he is constructing a squad over time. United paid fees for Scott Wootton and Luke Murphy and tied up the free transfers of Noel Hunt and Matt Smith but four signings by August 31 is at least two fewer that McDermott hoped for. GFH Capital, United’s owner, is pre-occupied with two things – a wage bill which has risen above £15million and the onset of Financial Fair Play. Breaches this season will be punished by a transfer embargo next January. So as it stands, this cannot be a quick in-and-out for the firm from Dubai. If it plans to make its money via promotion, the current board will be here for a while yet.
4: The Championship is not a rich environment.
Two things in particular pricked the ears this month – Nigel Pearson admitting that Leicester City were not in a position to alter their squad and Mick McCarthy confirming that Ipswich Town had no scope to sign new players before the end of the transfer window. Both managers were speaking after games against Leeds and both revealed the extent to which financial restraints are squeezing the Championship. The league is not exceptionally poor, of course, and like most in the world it contains a cartel of wealthy clubs – Queens Park Rangers and Wigan Athletic, to name two of the better off. But if the summer has made you think that Leeds are the only club with two hands on their purse strings, the evidence says otherwise. It is unreasonable to think that teams without cash might dominate the Championship but financial limitations need not rule them out of the picture completely.
5: United’s academy has escaped the wilderness years
Sam Byram, Dominic Poleon, Chris Dawson and Alex Mowatt. First-team debutants produced by Leeds’ academy since August of last year. That without mentioning the appearance of Simon Lenighan and Ross Killock on the bench. Or the huddle of teenagers waiting in the wings. There has rarely been a more obvious time for United to uphold their commitment to youth development and exploit a burgeoning programme at Thorp Arch. In amongst the aims of the club, earning the kudos and the protection of Category 1 status for the academy should be one. And tying Mowatt to a lengthy contract another. Too often in the past decade the reputation of United’s production line has been better in theory than in reality. Not any more.