I met Billy Paynter last Saturday at a function staged by the Leeds United Disabled Organisation.
The poor lad had endured another of those afternoons – denied his first goal for Leeds by a goal-line clearance – and his luck was clearly gnawing at him.
Both myself and Eddie Gray spoke with Billy and reminded him that he was getting closer; that his time would come if he kept the faith. Well-meaning though the two of us were, you could see him thinking ‘fair enough, but I want that goal and I need that goal’.
Every striker – current and retired – understands what he has been through since joining Leeds in July. I scored a lot of goals for the club but I had barren spells like anyone else and the worst of them were unbelievably frustrating.
Whatever anyone says, there is no simple solution for coming through the other side: nothing you can tell yourself and nothing you can change. Every day in training, the goals fly in. On match day, you can’t score for love nor money. You know a goal is around the corner but often you can’t feel it. Encouragement and support is always appreciated but, really, it makes no bloody difference.
In the case of Billy, we’re talking about someone who scored 29 times for Swindon Town last season; someone who knows he has tons of goals in him. It’s impossible to explain why his first for Leeds United took 17 games to arrive but his feeling of relief after breaking his duck on Tuesday night must have been intense. From a personal point of view, that’s a huge hurdle cleared.
What struck me about him was the sympathy shown to him by our supporters while his goalless streak crept forward. That’s not usually the way at Elland Road. Strikers who struggle to do their jobs tend to lose the crowd quickly and suffer from irritable criticism. I’ll name no names but we’ve seen it countless times in the past.
The fact that the fans were so supportive of Billy tells you that they see something in him which they appreciate and admire. There was no sign of them turning on him, as they might easily have done. The celebrations after his brilliant strike at Preston North End were absolutely wild, as if the club had won a play-off semi-final.
I know from experience that he won’t be the only one who’s been anxious about his record. His team-mates will have felt for him and Simon Grayson too. The reaction of the players to his goal tells me that he’s highly-respected in the dressing room at Leeds and a genuine team player.
With hindsight, naming him in the starting line-up ahead of Luciano Becchio was a brave and astute decision from Simon. It was a vote of confidence at a time when Paynter needed it – a time when his barren run was starting to get out of hand.
There must have been occasions when Paynter dared to doubt himself. He wouldn’t be human if he didn’t. When I saw him last Saturday, he looked exasperated and a little bemused. What an impact it must have had on his confidence to hear Simon reading his name out on Tuesday night – man-management at its best.