What do you expect from the Championship this season, will it be stronger or weaker?
Luke Varney (LV): I must admit that the league looked daunting last season and trying to pick a team you’d like for the first game was impossible. It’s exactly the same this time. Even the teams coming up are spending a bit of money so I’m not expecting the league to be any easier. It never is.
Ross McCormack (RM): It’s going to be harder. I’ve been in England for six years now and every season is more difficult and more competitive. But I’ve said before that last season was a good chance for us because of how open the league was. There were no outstanding teams and Cardiff had it fairly easy. That might not be the case this time.
Was 13th position in the final table last season a fair reflection of Leeds United’s performances?
LV: I don’t know. Even Neil Warnock said before he left that it was a bit of a nothing year. We ended up in mid-table but there were points where it went really well for us. The problem was that we always seemed to have a lull again. Basically we weren’t ever consistent and consistent teams get out of the Championship. A few things need to change and the away form especially. That was nowhere near good enough and if we want to be competitive then we can’t have that.
RM: Thirteenth was about right. Mid-table’s a fair reflection. We won a few games but we had some bad defeats and some heavy defeats too. You can’t make it into something it wasn’t.
How happy are you with the way pre-season’s gone?
LV: If you look at the results then you can pick fault but the gaffer seems delighted with our fitness and there’s been no chat or negativity about what’s gone on. We’ve had the odd difficult moment – Walsall away wasn’t the best – but it didn’t affect the mood. We took a telling off from the gaffer and moved on. Nuremberg was disappointing too but they were so good on the ball and I’d put that down as a hard test – maybe a good warm-up for how Brighton will play.
RM: It’s gone well for the group. Fitness-wise we’re all flying. As much as we’ve lost a few games we didn’t have too many easy games so I’m feeling positive about it. We’ve learned a lot about how we need to play.
Do you think the squad at Elland Road is stronger than it was in May?
LV: It’s hard to say. You’re judged on your league performances rather than pre-season so time will tell but I feel like there’s more competition up front than there was before. There are probably five lads looking to start there on Saturday. I don’t think it’s a secret that the gaffer wants a few more bodies through the door and I’d be surprised if something doesn’t happen before the end of the month. But that’s his business, not mine.
RM: I think so. Noel Hunt, Luke Murphy and big Matt Smith coming in means we’ve got different options in different areas and Steve Morison’s the only player who’s gone. All in all the squad’s stronger.
Were you expecting more new signings to arrive before now?
LV: Probably. But if you do the maths, there have to be some outs too. We’ve got a big squad and you can’t just keep buying player after player. The outlay in wages must be pretty high and I’m not oblivious to that. You get scenarios where Steve Morison goes, Noel Hunt comes in and that suits all parties. But I’ve had times in my career when I’ve not moved until the last two weeks of August so there’s plenty of time yet. Teams lose a couple of games and start panicking. Suddenly it all opens up.
RM: I expected more to happen. When you finish 13th and you weren’t really in the hunt for promotion, you expect your position in the squad to come under threat. But it’s early days, we’ve still got four weeks before the transfer window closes so anything can happen. But I thought more new players would be here by now.
Is the squad as it stands good enough for the play-offs or promotion?
LV: The gaffer’s been very good at telling us to build game by game. It’s an old cliche but when you think about how tough it was here last season, maybe it’s for the best. If we’re competitive and we brush up on our away performances then I think we can have a good year.
RM: We can have a go. If you look at the teams who’ve gone up in the past few years, their success has been down to their unity and their hard work first and foremost. We’ve got good lads and good players here and that’s half the battle. We’ve also got the supporters and at Elland Road especially they can push us on too.
The manager says he knows his starting XI for Brighton on Saturday – how much thought have you given to whether you’re in or out?
LV: Not a great deal. Before the Stevenage game a lot of lads were thinking that the team he used against Walsall was the team for Brighton. But who knows what he’s thinking? The morale’s so good this year that I don’t think it matters. Everyone will support everyone else. But I’m hoping to start, definitely.
RM: I’ve not thought about it at all. Obviously you want to be playing but it’s not possible for everyone to play when you’ve got a squad of 25 guys. The word squad’s important because there’ll be times when the first-team regulars aren’t quite at the races. Everyone’s going to be involved.
Do you think you’ve done enough to deserve a place?
LV: I’ve enjoyed my football and the hat-trick against Stevenage was great for me. But I don’t like to talk myself up. It’s the manager’s decision.
RM: I’m happy with pre-season but pre-season has never been the best time for me. I’ve got a strange habit of not scoring goals. But my fitness is good, I feel sharp and the league games are where it counts. We’ll see what happens.
Leeds are expecting a crowd of over 30,000 for the Brighton clash, their highest league attendance for over a year – how much does that matter to the players?
LV: It couldn’t do anything else but inspire you. Some lads will make their league debuts on Saturday and for them, 30,000 around them will bring the best out of them. It was always going to be a big occasion but a huge crowd makes it a massive occasion. We’ll look to do them proud.
RM: It makes a difference, of course it does. Compare the noise 30,000 fans make to the noise 18,000 fans make and tell me what you prefer. It’s the first game of the season, a fresh start and you’re never more optimistic than on the opening day. Elland Road’s at its best when it’s full or thereabouts.
Finally, what are your aims for this season?
LV: All I’m looking to do is to build on my form at the back end of last season. I’ve had a good relationship with the fans these last six months and I appreciate their support.
RM: We’ve got to go for promotion. Top six is the minimum for a club this size. If I’m standing here now and I don’t believe that we can have a go then I’m as well just hanging up my boots, aren’t I? I believe in myself and I believe in the other guys here. They’re good enough to challenge.