Leeds United’s defeat to Southampton on the first day of the season scraped the barrel of unmitigated failures.
“It’s hard to admit,” said then skipper Jonathan Howson after full-time, “but we were a million miles away from them.”
Southampton’s marauding performance was more than a pretence of promotion potential and they will come to Elland Road on Saturday as the Championship’s leading club, just as they were after routing Leeds on the evening of August 6.
It is Neil Warnock’s first opportunity, and in some respects his best, to analyse whether United are still a million miles short of the highest standards of the division, or closer than the league table suggests.
His first two matches as Leeds manager – one viewed from the stands at Elland Road and the other taken in from the touchline at Portsmouth – were contested against teams who will drop out of the Championship next month, barring a searing finish to the season.
Tomorrow’s opposition ooze a different sort of class: not only the head of the Championship field but the league’s top scorers with a defence to eclipse most others.
Two of their players, Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana, have been named on the three-man shortlist for the Football League’s player of the year award, and Warnock is of the opinion that any club finishing above Southampton or West Ham United will avoid the strain of staking promotion on the play-offs.
That remains United’s only conceivable route into the Premier League this season and Warnock is not prepared to give it up until the mathematics become impossible. But, as he did at Queens Park Rangers before their title-winning season, he will use the coming two months and the next four games in particular to gauge who and what are the weaknesses in the squad at Leeds.
“I need to learn about the players,” Warnock said. “Whilst it’s mathematically possible (to reach the play-offs) then we’ll try but I look at a side like Southampton and think we’re quite a way short of them. This will give me an idea of exactly how short we are.
“I’m looking for the players not to play above themselves but to be at their maximum; to show me what they can contribute in the long term. That’s what I’m thinking about. The next four games are going to be great for the long–term because you learn more about your players against top teams then you do against teams at the other end of the league.
“They’re vital games for everyone at the club – for anyone who wants to play. We’re going to need a good squad next year and this isn’t dissimilar to how it was when I took over at QPR. We’re a little higher in the league but I’ve got the best part of two months to assess the situation and work out what I need. I’m sure I’ll be able to tell you that after the next four games.”
United’s first two matches since Warnock’s appointment have yielded four points, and precious points at that. Without them, the play-offs would be out of sight. Their injury-time win over Doncaster Rovers a fortnight ago “raised the hair on my back”, according to Warnock, but he looked every bit as satisfied by a goalless draw at Portsmouth.
The evidence of United’s Yorkshire derby against Doncaster suggested to Warnock that clean sheets were virtually beyond his team. He called the scoreline at Fratton Park “a surprise” and will cross his fingers for another tomorrow, against a team who have scored almost two goals a game.
The ever-dangerous and reliable Lambert has netted 23, and Lallana lays claim to 10. Guly Do Prado, their Brazilian forward, has also reached double figures. Set against a creditable defensive record, the statistics do not leave much of Southampton’s progress under manager Nigel Adkins to the imagination.
“They’re the best footballing side in the league,” Warnock admitted. “West Ham have been well organised, as you expect from Sam (Allardyce), but Southampton are very close. Whoever finishes above those two will get automatic promotion. And it does look like being those two.
“They’ve got very good players. I sold them Jose Fonte a few years ago and Danny Butterfield also went there from Crystal Palace. Then you’ve got Lambert. He’s not dissimilar to Grant Holt who’s doing it at the top of the Premier League, and Lambert could do that too. Adam Lallana’s as exciting a talent as there is in the league.
“They’ve got great players all over and it’s going to be good for me. I’ve seen my players away from home, and against Doncaster which was very up in the air. Now I’m going to see them against the league leaders with the best forward line.
“That will tell me a hell of a lot – whether we’re not too far away or whether we’re miles away from that sort of level. We’re never going to be tested more than we are by Southampton.”
Warnock spoke highly of Adkins, and also of Southampton who he described as a “well-run club.” Investment in players like Lambert and midfielder Jack Cork, a former Chelsea trainee, has moved them to within 13 games of a second successive promotion and a place in the Premier League. This time two years ago, they were halfway down League One.
“I like Nigel and I’m really pleased for him,” Warnock said. “He’s one of the nice guys in football. He did well at Scunthorpe, picked the right time to move on and got the right financial backing. Southampton are making offers for really good players at the moment and looking ahead. It looks like a well-run club with a very good future.
“They play the ball around quickly and they’re flying, full of confidence, like you’d expect. It’s similar to what we were like at QPR last season. We never thought we’d lose a game – that’s what happens when you’re top of the league.
“But they should go away from Elland Road knowing they’ve been in a hard game, not just us. My players shouldn’t play in fear but in awe of the atmosphere and the surroundings. I’ve been at clubs who would love to have 25,000 in the stands. It’s fantastic.”