The buzz felt at Spotland last night owed itself to a man without a name but the catalyst of Leeds United’s win over Rochdale required no formal introduction.
The away contingent in a crowd of 3,935 warmed to a trialist who Leeds and their manager steadfastly refused to identify, before full-time or after it. His short and worthwhile appearance caused much intrigue but it was one of Simon Grayson’s more proven squad members who conjured a third successive pre-season victory.
Max Gradel’s goals peaked at 18 last season and his first of the summer, created from very little as tends to be his way, put Rochdale to the sword in a friendly sense.
On the assumption that interest from West Ham United and Fulham comes to nothing, it is Gradel rather than a mystery trialist who Grayson would count on to force the pace of Leeds’ next Championship term.
His clinical finish from the edge of the box was the isolated highlight of a wet but willing first half, though even he could not claim to have interested United’s crowd of supporters in the way that his anonymous team-mate did.
Leeds saw genuine merit in hiding the player’s identity, though it would require a leap of faith on the back of a single friendly for Grayson to find room in his squad for the winger. Less surprising would be a second appearance at Sheffield Wednesday, where Leeds play next this weekend. His name might be forthcoming by then.
Grayson’s need for new players grows more pressing by the day and the bad news last week was the serious knee injury sustained by Davide Somma. Yesterday, strong rumours began to indicate that Luciano Becchio would join him in missing the start of the Championship season, bothered still by a pulled hamstring.
Neither player was expected to play last night and neither player did. The omission of Patrick Kisnorbo and Robert Snodgrass and Lloyd Sam, on the other hand, caused far greater surprise.
The light relief for Grayson, with Andy O’Brien and Federico Bessone missing for the third game in a row, was the inclusion in his squad of Jlloyd Samuel, the former Aston Villa and Bolton Wanderers defender.
Samuel is a recognised left-back and, on the basis of his presence at Rochdale, a clear option to fill a problematic position in United’s line-up. Grayson is presently faced with the choice of the injury-prone Ben Parker or two players in Bessone and Aidan White in whom he has shown limited faith.
One other trialist, Isaiah Osbourne, was also included in a squad of 20. Osbourne left Villa Park in May and, at the age of 23, has 46 Premier League and Football League appearances to his name. How much value Grayson places on a defensive midfielder with those credentials remains to be seen.
The fact that the unnamed trialist was the only one of the three to start – and the only one who Grayson sought to guard closely – gave the impression that he was also the player of most interest. The dark-skinned winger, apparently of French origin, completed 45 minutes on the right side of midfield and finished with pass marks, showing enough pace for the away crowd to chant ‘sign him up’ and crackle whenever he touched the ball. The pressure to impress was not exclusive to him. Parker’s searching run forward in the third minute created the game’s initial chance, dragged wide from 18 yards by Ross McCormack, and McCormack’s anticipation of a pass from Grayson’s trialist gave him a second invitation to beat Matt Duke nine minutes later.
Duke stood up to the ball and turned it wide. Rochdale’s first attack appeared to have yielded a goal after Andrew Tutte dispossessed Parker but his cross caught Chris O’Grady offside before the striker could direct a shot beyond Paul Rachubka. Rachubka’s fingertips were called upon shortly after to deny Tutte from 25 yards.
O’Grady’s evening lasted for only 19 minutes, ended by injury, and heavy rain began to stifle an enthusiastic start. But Gradel’s low effort which Duke controlled safely in the wet was the precursor to a goal from the winger on the half-hour.
Neal Trotman put Rochdale’s defence under needless pressure with a stray clearance to the feet of Billy Paynter, and Gradel’s sweetly-struck shot caught Duke unsighted and flew inside his left-hand post. Rachubka protected that lead late in the first half by meeting Tutte’s strike at full stretch.
The start of the second half presented Samuel with his chance and Rochdale did not seek to ruin his appearance.
Osbourne followed on the hour, replacing Jonathan Howson and joining Michael Brown in the centre of midfield.
Leeds exerted what dominance their was, and Tom Lees’ header from Gradel’s corner came within a yard of sneaking inside Duke’s far post. Jason Kennedy’s wild reply lacked the accuracy it needed to stay inside the stadium.
Twice Lewis Turner went close, denied on the second occasion by a desperate block in front of Duke, but the rendition of every Leeds chant under the sun was indicative of the friendly’s slowing pace on a chilly night in Greater Manchester.