Two kind results are all Leeds United need to reach the last weekend of the season with a half-chance of atonement, and on a playing field as patchy as the Championship, it is not much to ask. But you can smell resignation in the air.
The city no longer expects and only a part of it has the energy to believe.
Some would call that premature defeatism. It is a mathematical certainty that a win over Burnley tomorrow and defeat for Nottingham Forest at home to Scunthorpe United would position Leeds, at worst, a point short of sixth with one game to play. The last occasion when Burnley and Forest lost on the same afternoon? April 9, and both weekends before. If the Championship is true to form, then the next eight days will cause many sleepless nights.
But the drain of optimism in Leeds is regardless of the division’s predictability, or astonishing lack of it. It is a consequence of a club whose fragile state is unambiguous. A solitary win in nine matches and 27 points accrued during the second half of the season (eight fewer than Middlesbrough, for what the comparison is worth) are unmistakable signs of a steady retreat, and the supporters who filled 5,000 seats at Crystal Palace on Monday appeared to be watching a busted flush. Most will be present at Elland Road this weekend, in body and in spirit; just don’t ask them to detach themselves from reality.
What many of us see is a squad who are labouring towards the end of an absorbing season; the wild-card golfer with tight and heavy arms. The creative finesse which made this year so enthralling has sadly receded, leaving a team who tend to concede goals. The main protagonists and the players on whom Simon Grayson came to trust – Max Gradel, Robert Snodgrass, Jonathan Howson and Luciano Becchio, to name four – are subdued or injured, which is all the same when results are paramount. Behind them is a manager who, for the past month at least, has failed to lay a finger on his most accomplished line-up.
From a short distance, it has the look of a learning curve and an abrupt one at that. On the understanding that honest conclusions are drawn, it need not be the end of the world. You manage and play for Leeds under a constant threat of due criticism but it is remiss to say that United joined their division without time or scope for an education. Snodgrass and Becchio had never played in the Championship before, and the prior experience of Howson and Gradel was cursory. One-and-a-half seasons in the league with Blackpool did not make Grayson the Championship’s oracle. Over 44 games, the club have taken to it well.
Leeds being Leeds, they will not bow to the inevitable until the inevitable arrives, which it might do by 5pm tomorrow. At that point, next season will come hastily into view. United were given a short and unusual period of grace at the start of this season – afforded some margin for error in a stronger and more competitive division – but Grayson can patently see what lies ahead of him. “If it doesn’t happen this year,” he said in reference to promotion, “then we’ve got to prepare to do it next year.” On that matter, there is no argument.
The effect of the past nine months has been to revive United’s traditional sense of expectancy. The standard projection in August was that Leeds would take one year to bed into the Championship and another to press the upper third of the league, but a demanding benchmark is already fixed. By the end of their 46th game, United will finish no higher than sixth and are likely to finish no lower than 10th. On that basis, a play-off position constitutes definite improvement by May of 2012 (unless these final two fixtures hold more promise than they seem to). Grayson will seek it and United’s crowd will anticipate it, no longer given to patience.
He is back, then, to managing Leeds United-sized pressure. If truth be told, the club reverted to type some time ago.
The league table at Christmas made people think, and the make-up of the division leading up to Easter made many more hope. Should the play-offs slip away then Grayson will justifiably attempt to class this season as a worthwhile term and a useful building block. But the fact is that he has much building to do this summer, whichever division he is working towards. Expectation around the club unquestionably needs a budget to match.
As soon as the middle of next month, Grayson could find his squad devoid of a single, bona fide central midfielder. Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny are weeks away from the end of their contracts and Jake Livermore and Barry Bannan are on the books at Elland Road by virtue of emergency loans. It will take time to fill that position with appropriate players, and it will cost. Behind his midfield, United’s defence requires frank reassessment and, perhaps, a purge. Their record has not been good enough or anything like.
The current centre-back partnership of Richard Naylor and Andy O’Brien is the seventh employed by Grayson this season, without providing a convincing solution to the concession of almost two goals a game. Alex Bruce’s appearance at a golf day in County Durham on Wednesday proved that he is still alive but he can no longer count on a place on United’s bench. For almost six months, Leigh Bromby was in the same boat. It is not ideal that in a season when Leeds’ regular front five have missed four league games on average, United’s five central defenders have appeared in an average of only 19.
For all that, Grayson’s squad has avenues which are under-explored. There is more to be made of a fit Lloyd Sam and a fully-involved Ross McCormack, and Leeds will recall Tom Lees from a very healthy loan at Bury next month. The young defender has clearly earned the chance to integrate himself at Elland Road next season. But a prospect like Lees needs help to do so, and assurance around him: more talkers and more vocal direction, a quality which many former players believe United have lacked throughout the season.
It is Grayson’s job to make the necessary adjustments and the club’s responsibility to give him the best possible chance. His record to date is a play-off semi-final at the end of his first season, promotion from League One at the end of his second and a slim chance of the Championship play-offs at the end of his third. To imply that he cannot maintain that trend of improvement is unfairly presumptuous. But if a second year in the Championship awaits Leeds United, improvement is non-negotiable. To use Grayson’s words, if not this season then next.