Ross McCormack’s return to the first team at Leeds United could be delayed until the end of this month as Neil Warnock fights the temptation to recall the striker prematurely.
McCormack is poised to resume full training with United’s senior squad next week, two months after injuring ankle ligaments in the club’s 2-1 defeat at Cardiff City.
The Scotland international underwent surgery to repair the damage and remove a fragment of bone from his ankle and Warnock initially feared that McCormack would be missing until around the turn of the year.
But he is set to be recalled long before Christmas having neared the end of his rehabilitation process. The forward – United’s top scorer last season – is scheduled to rejoin first-team training at Thorp Arch in the next seven days.
His imminent availability is a bonus for Warnock after a spell of games in which United’s lack of versatility and potency up front has become increasingly apparent.
The club were without a win in five league matches prior to today’s meeting with Watford, and Warnock said McCormack’s return would offer the “spark” his side have been missing.
But in spite of Leeds’ recent form, their manager claimed he was reluctant to hurry the 26-year-old back into his squad after eight weeks on the sidelines.
Warnock claimed that McCormack would be held back “for at least another three weeks”, a timescale which would run close to United’s Yorkshire derby against Huddersfield Town on December 1.
“He’s been doing light training and we’ll try to push him on next week,” Warnock said. “But I really don’t think it’s a situation where we can rush him too much. Not when we’ve waited all this time.
“He’s nowhere near being ready really. I can’t see him playing for at least another three weeks, other than in a reserve match or two.
“You know what Ross is like but we’re talking about September when he last played so you can’t just throw him back in. Otherwise he’ll injure something else.
“We’ve got to get him right up to scratch and at least get a couple of reserve games under his belt. Ross being Ross, he always get the tackles. He has to be fully fit before he comes back in, ready to ride them.”
United fielded a number of first-team players in Wednesday’s development league match at Derby County – Ryan Hall, Paul Green and Patrick Kisnorbo – and Neil Redfearn’s side have another fixture scheduled at home to Crewe Alexandra on November 19, 24 hours after Leeds’ Championship game at Millwall.
McCormack will almost certainly be pencilled in for that youth-team date if Warnock sticks to a plan to time his comeback cautiously, and United are also considering how best to step up Davide Somma’s recovery after the South African’s 18-month injury battle. Somma has not been seen in Leeds colours since suffering serious damage to knee ligaments in a behind-closed-doors match in July 2010.
He has undergone repeated operations since then and has never been fit enough for serious consideration in all of Warnock’s nine months as United manager.
The striker’s injury was a major set-back for a player who had come to prominence in impressive style during the 2010-11 season. Somma scored 12 times in his first full campaign as a senior Leeds player but has lost a year-and-a-half of his career to knee problems.
Warnock joked: “I’m hoping he’ll play his first game about February, March time. I was told when I came here ‘don’t worry about strikers because Somma will be fit in a few weeks.’ That was last February. So let’s not get too carried away. “But he’s training and he’s not had any reaction. He’s going to join in with the football side of things as of next week.
“The trouble is, when you’re not doing well up front you think back to Somma at his best. You don’t think back to him struggling or anything like that. It’s harsh to think that somebody’s going to be a saviour when they’ve been out for so long.”
McCormack is a different proposition, a player who Warnock signed to a new three-year contract in August and planned to rely on heavily over the course of the Championship term.
Without him, United’s boss has employed a partnership of Luciano Becchio and El-Hadji Diouf but the effectiveness of that pairing has waned recently and Warnock was critical of their contribution to Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat at Burnley.
Becchio has scored 10 goals this season but, aside from one credited to him fortuitously at Brighton, he has not struck in a league fixture since converting a penalty against Barnsley on October 6.
The Argentine’s most effective performances came in the first month of the season when a lively McCormack laid on no fewer than three of his goals.
Asked how much United had missed McCormack, Warnock said: “You always miss good players and with him, it’s not just missing him on the pitch. It’s the ability to change tactics and personnel on the bench.
“I don’t know how many goals he scored last season but he’s always likely to get one. There’ve been times when we’ve looked tired up front and needed a bit of a spark. Ross gives us that.
“Obviously there are times when he’s the same and we need to pull him out and put someone else on, just to spark something up. But from any manager’s point of view you’re better off having him in the squad.
“Our play up front has been a bit disappointing. I thought Becchio did okay in the first half at Burnley but I was disappointed with him and Diouf in the second half. They gave the ball far too much, at a time when we were dominating. That made it even worse.”
Leeds will have the luxury of an empty schedule next week, the first time outwith international breaks that the club have avoided a Tuesday-night game since early August.
Their extended participation in the Capital One Cup has packed their fixture list and they and Middlesbrough are the only Championship clubs left in the quarter-finals.
But Warnock said: “I’m not going to knock it because I’ve loved the cup this season. I’m enjoying being in it.
“But the frustration for me has been not having enough ammunition to changes things when we needed to. Luciano’s not been playing as well as he can and that’s nothing to do with a lack of effort. It just hasn’t been there for him.
“You’ve got have something different when that happens.”