Last season was a hard year for the new signings made by Leeds United. Only Matt Smith rose above a standard which ranged from the ordinary to Jimmy Kebe, the Crystal Palace winger who lost the crowd at Elland Road after a few weeks and a handful of games.
Scott Wootton was one of those signings and calls the season a “difficult one”. Brought in from Manchester United a few weeks before it began, the middle of his season was lost to an injury suffered on a swamp of pitch at Charlton Athletic in November.
The 22-year-old defender was a fixture in the team at that stage and a fixture in a team who were ticking over nicely. November came to be the height of United’s campaign, yielding regular victories and disguising the post-Christmas slump which followed. When Wootton returned midway through February, Leeds were falling away from the play-offs.
In total, the former Liverpool trainee played 22 times and started 19 league games. He is not yet in a position to know if his prospects are better for the nine months ahead.
Head coach David Hockaday has used youngster Ross Killock regularly this summer but is essentially picking from three centre-backs – Wootton, Tom Lees and captain-elect Jason Pearce. United’s owner, Massimo Cellino, wants other central defenders to arrive from outside and a deal for Catania’s Giuseppe Bellusci was on the table until Bellusci’s wage demands saw Cellino abandon the transfer.
United’s tactics will also dictate much: a four-man defence, as Hockaday has used in each of Leeds’ friendlies, or a backline of three. For now, Wootton is just crossing fingers for a year in which his fitness holds up and gives him a chance of playing 40-plus games.
“That would be a start,” he said. “An injury-free season is the first thing I’m looking for. I want to be involved and I want to be in the team but you don’t have a chance if you’re out for a few months like I was last season.
“The injury at Charlton, it came at a time when we were doing pretty well. It was difficult. I felt I was playing well, doing okay and doing enough to deserve a place, and the results were decent. We were basically top six and quite a few of us felt like we’d tied down a place.
“The pitch was pretty bad that day and I did my ankle. I got back eventually, in the last nine or 10 games, but by that time I’d missed a lot of the season. I’m eager to get going again.”
Wootton missed United’s training camp in Italy earlier this month because of a different injury but he has played in their more meaningful friendlies, away to Guiseley last weekend and at Mansfield on Tuesday.
Hockaday’s plan for tomorrow’s visit to Chesterfield is to name his strongest line-up as it stands, a decision which will leave his players in no doubt about who holds favour with the new season a fortnight away.
“If that is the case, we’ll all be hoping to be involved,” Wootton said. “It’s a battle at the moment because there’s me, Jason Pearce and Tom Lees and I’m not sure what formation we’re going to play. At the moment it’s a back four so you’re looking at two out of three. The competition’s good.
“Centre-back’s my best position. I’ve played right-back a few times but centre-back’s my best position.”
Wootton completed the final half-hour at Mansfield, a period in which Liam Hearn scored twice and earned Mansfield a 2-0 win.
Hockaday dismissed the result as “not significant” and Wootton spoke highly of United’s head coach a month on from Hockaday’s surprising appointment.
“He knows what he wants,” Wootton said. “He’s very meticulous and he likes to get the details right. The lads have taken to him and you can see that in the performances.
“He’s said to us that we’re playing for the shirt now, for the first game of the season. That’s good and it’s up to us to do that.