Brendan Rodgers’ opening gambit as Liverpool manager was to put the names of three players in envelopes and claim that the individuals concerned would “let us down this year – the cause, the fight, everything.”
Leeds United’s own Irish ringleader took a different tack and kept his glass half-full.
Speaking in July with signings scarce, Brian McDermott predicted that “someone will come from within this squad and surprise you. I’m convinced. It happens a lot.”
McDermott named no names but he would single out Luke Varney now. There are others too who for reasons of fitness, tactics or attitude look more comfortable in Leeds United’s skin than they did six months ago.
McDermott asked for their effort and promised loyalty in return. It is a healthy and fertile arrangement.
Leeds were in the habit of muddling through at grounds like the Reebok Stadium when McDermott stepped in to clean up the car crash but Varney’s sixth-minute goal and the aggressive sparring which followed it on Saturday was the work of a squad with clear direction and no divisions.
Therein lay a lesson for Bolton Wanderers, depressed by the realisation that the time to panic will soon be upon them.
United’s players have taken McDermott’s message and run with it; so too the away crowd who prevented the Reebok from drowning in awkward silence.
Bolton did not bother announcing Saturday’s attendance – a sensible policy when their own supporters numbered fewer than 15,000 – and Leeds were left to their own exuberant devices at full-time. “To come to Bolton and win 1-0 is a great result for us,” said McDermott after a packed stand emptied reluctantly.
Dougie Freedman took the defeat with good grace, like the affable coach he is. There were penalty claims – numerous penalty claims – and chances at both ends but Leeds showed an underlying vein of confidence which was not apparent in Freedman’s team.
“The referee didn’t decide that game and you can always talk about statistics,” he said. “We got beat 1-0 and that’s a fact.
“Maybe last season when we finished well, one or two players thought our form would automatically carry on. But it doesn’t. You’ve got to fight for everything. That’s what Leeds did.”
The application of McDermott’s squad is strengthening his commitment to them.
Varney – a player who could not buy a start around Christmas – is suddenly the striker who starts without question. McDermott persisted with Noel Hunt on Saturday when many were clamouring for the Irishman to be dropped and watched Hunt turn in his most proficient performance yet.
United’s boss is a man of the people but not a populist. His activity in the loan market in the weeks ahead might make that clear.
McDermott has focused attention on transfers by speaking candidly about the deficiencies at Elland Road but talk of loans and incoming players is starting to wear his patience thin.
After a victory which edged Leeds to sixth in the Championship, he all but admitted that the option of working with his existing resources appealed to him more than injecting fresh blood.
“You can’t keep talking about players you haven’t got – that constant wish for another signing,” he said. “I’m working with a good bunch and I’m enjoying working with them.
“I’ve got Alex Mowatt here, for example, and Paul Green didn’t play on Saturday. Michael Tonge came into the team. I’m trying to find a way to make it all work and I want to use the players who are here.”
Mowatt and Green were among his substitutes, along with El-Hadji Diouf, Matt Smith and Dominic Poleon, but McDermott hardly looked to his bench and might have ignored it altogether were it not for the groin strain suffered by Lee Peltier after half-time. Cover was provided by Tom Lees, United’s England Under-21 international.
Peltier is in that category of players who have emerged from their shell this season and the addition of Tonge to the midfield – more proficient with the ball than Green – allowed Leeds to vary their play and avoid the predictability which plagued them against Queens Park Rangers.
Their first few knocks on Bolton’s door exposed gaping cracks and badly crossed wires between Zat Knight and Matt Mills in the centre of Bolton’s defence.
Presented with the option of signing Mills this summer, McDermott should pat his back for ploughing money into Scott Wootton instead. Neither Knight nor Mills were anywhere to be seen when Varney applied a glancing header to Luke Murphy’s corner and beat goalkeeper Adam Bogdan.
There was enough of a wobble in United’s backline to keep Bolton keen but their spells of pressure were burst by convictionless football and a misfiring David Ngog. The former Liverpool striker clipped a 12th-minute shot beyond Paddy Kenny’s far post and missed a far better chance towards the end of the game, hooking the ball wide after Bolton substitute Robert Hall skipped away from Hunt.
Bolton were lucky to be in the game at that stage, kept alive by Varney curling the ball past Bogdan’s goal in first-half injury-time and driving another opportunity straight at the goalkeeper with Bolton stretched late in the game.
Jermaine Beckford took to the field after an hour but the lure of a penalty was the only likely salvation for Freedman’s side. They claimed for an alleged trip by Stephen Warnock on Hall and again when Darren Pratley collided with Wootton with 90 minutes up.
Referee Andy D’Urso shook his head twice. When Kenny was called upon at the death, his fingertips turned Pratley’s strike onto a post. Driven towards the finish by the 5,000 whose appetite they fed, Leeds ran the clock down. There were boos at the final whistle but the noise from one end of the ground made them largely inaudible; noise which reminded McDermott why the Republic of Ireland job he was linked with last week can wait for now.
“That crowd...it’s why we play,” he said. Or to put it another way, if you can’t turn it on for a following like United’s, what can you do?
Bolton Wanderers: Bogdan, Baptiste, Knight (Beckford 62), Mills, Tierney (Medo 85), Ream, Spearing, Pratley, Eagles (Hall 68), Chung-Yong, Ngog. Subs (not used): Lonergan, Wheater, Moritz, Mears.