They will remember 2013 as a year when lines were drawn by Leeds United: one through Neil Warnock, another under Ken Bates and overdue lines of communication established between the club and a disenchanted support.
It also saw the start of United’s 10th consecutive season outside the Premier League and the appointment of their ninth full-time manager since David O’Leary was told to clear his desk in the summer of 2002. Some might call it a nothing year in footballing terms; others will think of 2013 as a time of transition with highlights, lowlights and all the hallmarks of a club who never sleep...
Player of 2013
Ross McCormack. His goals for the calendar year number 23 which, for the sake of relevant comparisons, is seven more than Charlie Austin and five fewer than Jordan Rhodes. He has matured to the point where the presumption of influential performances sits easily with him, as it did with Robert Snodgrass and Luciano Becchio before him, and there is captaincy material in McCormack which barely existed before. Good players are not always the same as big players and in the past 12 months he has crossed over from one category to the other. The unfortunate realisation is that at no point in that period have United found a way of adequately supplementing McCormack’s goals or compensating for his droughts. But look – here comes the transfer window.
Young Player of 2013
Alex Mowatt. It turns out that United’s 18-year-old prodigy is fallible after all. One laboured performance against Barnsley and scrutiny of Mowatt’s physical and mental prowess begins. But half of the battle with prodigious teenagers is knowing when to save them from themselves and Mowatt was in need of a rest over Christmas. All in all, his achievements this year have been exceptional – captain of a title-winning Under-18 squad, the pick of the bunch during an FA Youth Cup tie at Liverpool in February, and a first-team initiation which earned him a new contract within four months of his debut. Mowatt’s England Under-19 call-up proved that he is more than a star in his own back yard, and the Premier League have cottoned on quickly.
Goal of 2013
Rodolph Austin v Burnley, April 16. Total football by Championship standards – patient retention of possession around the halfway line, a neat touch and a pinpoint pass towards the penalty spot by El-Hadji Diouf and a nonchalant finish from Austin as the ball dropped over his shoulder. Only the Jamaican’s goal against Birmingham in October deserves to be placed in the same bracket.
Signing of 2013
Marius Zaliukas. A strange choice until you consider the alternatives: Stephen Warnock, Steve Morison, Habib Habibou, Matt Smith, Luke Murphy, Noel Hunt, Scott Wootton and Dexter Blackstock. Murphy has had his moments but not necessarily as many as you’d want from a £1m signing. Smith gives Zaliukas a run for his money too. But the centre-back’s impact has been more immediate and telling than that of anyone else on that list – a fact that says more about United’s business in the past year than it does about him.
Performance of 2013
Leeds United 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1, January 27. For a man whose interest in cup competitions was virtually nil until his daughter laid a guilt-trip on him, Leeds were never more dangerous under Neil Warnock than in those games where Championship football took a back seat. The FA Cup was a prime target for the now-departed AVB – as demonstrated by the first-rate team he fielded at Elland Road – but Spurs suffered a sound defeat and were beaten by splendid goals from Luke Varney and Ross McCormack. Nothing spoke more highly of their humiliation than Gareth Bale declining to take Sam Byram’s shirt as Byram collected his.
Moment of 2013
Luke Murphy’s goal against Brighton. The million-pound man on the first day of the season in front of a crowd in excess of 33,000. The neutrals will shout for handball every time they see the replay (and Brighton did exactly that) but his breathless winner on 94 minutes was a champagne moment and a sublime way to set the season in motion. Anything seems possible on a day like that.
Championship moment of 2013
Troy Deeney’s play-off winner against Leicester City. Watford’s methods of player recruitment are highly dubious and you’d be less than delighted if your daughter brought Deeney home for tea. But his strike in the play-off semi-finals is why football never lets you off the hook; a saved penalty at one end of the pitch followed seconds later by Deeney volleying past Kasper Schmeichel at the other. Gianfranco Zola ruined his suit in his haste to celebrate and never quite regained his feet at Vicarage Road.
Story of 2013
Ken Bates’ sacking as United’s president. You got the feeling that GFH Capital would be happier without Bates in the background at Elland Road but the allegations leading to his dismissal on July 26 were wholly unforeseen (see the column of November 30 for a full shake-down). A private jet contract, disputed expenses and a range of arguments which Bates and Leeds will fight out in the High Court. You didn’t expect him to go quietly.
Chant of 2013
“You can’t fault their effort, they’re a great set of lads.” So many chants are plagiarised, banal or uninspired but from time-to-time subliminal messages creep through – like the Kop singing the tune of Match of the Day to Alan Shearer while his Newcastle team were being turned over at Anfield. Warnock rarely faulted the effort of his Leeds players and the sound of Elland Road chanting one of his stock phrases during a fateful defeat to Derby on Easter Monday was a damning vote of no confidence. United sacked him later that night.