DCSIMG

Leeds United: Next few games are crucial - Ritchie

Luciano Becchio coverts the winner from the penalty spot against Leicester City.

Luciano Becchio coverts the winner from the penalty spot against Leicester City.

  • by Phil Hay
 

The last time Leeds United pieced three league wins together, Neil Warnock was managing the opposition.

His Queens Park Rangers squad visited Elland Road at the peak of United’s pre-Christmas surge in 2010, losing to two unanswered goals from Max Gradel. It has taken Leeds the best part of two years to produce the same sort of impetus.

Andy Ritchie, United’s former striker, watched Warnock’s side for the first time this season at Huddersfield Town on Saturday and saw obvious impetus in both the club’s performance and their comprehensive victory.

He is optimistic that Leeds will spend the second half of the term at the right end of the Championship, provided the weeks leading up to Christmas do not take them “back to square one.”

“They’re in that borderline position at the moment,” Ritchie said. “They’ve got the momentum of three straight wins but when you’ve struggled like they did for a few weeks, the key to everything is backing up your results.

“I don’t think they’ve done enough to feel like they’re properly in the mix but they’ll be back in the top six if they carry this on for another couple of games.

“At the same time, a couple of poor results and they’ll be back to square one before they know it. I’m sure Warnock will be making that point.

“Christmas is always a big period of the season but the next few weeks are critical for Leeds. They’ve taken a big step forward but they had quite a bit of ground to make up. I can’t imagine the players feeling too comfortable yet.”

Warnock took the same attitude after United’s win at Huddersfield, responding to questions about his side’s potential by saying: “If we lost the next three games then we’d be talking about avoiding relegation.

“And if we win the next three we’ll be talking about promotion. I’m too long in the tooth for all that.”

But the sights of Warnock’s squad have been raised dramatically by an eight-day spell in which the club resolved what seemed to be an ingrained crisis at Elland Road.

In the days preceding the takeover of Leeds by GFH Capital, Warnock had no expectation of his players producing United’s longest run of league victories since December 2010.

Should the club win at Derby County this weekend they will string four together for the first time in more than three years, a remarkable riposte to a worrying spell in which promotion appeared no more likely than relegation.

“To look at the players and the fans on Saturday, you didn’t get any sense of crisis,” Ritchie said. “They’ve obviously had a difficult time with everything off the field but there were no signs of that at Huddersfield.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen them this season and in that isolated game I saw nothing to suggest they’re any worse or less capable than 90 per cent of the clubs in the Championship.

“The two lads in midfield (David Norris and Michael Tonge) were really strong in the second half and they’ve got good options going forward when McCormack, Becchio and Diouf are all fit and playing well.

“I’m sure if I’d watched a few of the games before the takeover then I’d have understood why people were so worried but you could sense a bit of confidence on Saturday, in the players and the supporters.

Confidence is half the battle because no-one can tell me that Neil doesn’t have good, experienced players in his squad.

“The whole club will have benefited from the takeover going through and I know what it’s like at Leeds.

“When negativity kicks in, it gets to everybody and it’s probably fair to assume that the players are performing better because the atmosphere’s improved. It does make a difference.

“In theory, players should be professional enough to ignore things like takeovers but it’s very hard to ignore the doom and gloom when it gets as bad as it seemed to get at Leeds.

“It must be difficult to keep the faith when people around you are struggling to do the same.”

Norris, whose second-half goal broke Huddersfield’s back in a 4-2 defeat, admitted last week that Warnock’s squad had suffered from the uncertainty caused by protracted takeover negotiations, saying: “As much it shouldn’t really affect us as players, it seemed to be around the whole club. When it went through it gave everyone a lift.”

GFH Capital’s takeover is due for final completion on December 21, a date which may yet be moved if Football League approval fails to materialise before then.

The governing body has been asked to sanction the appointment of three of GFH Capital’s management team – David Haigh, Salem Patel and Hisham Alrayes – to the board at Elland Road and to authorise the firm’s 100 per cent buy-out of Leeds.

GFH Capital has already acquired a third of the shares in Leeds City Holdings Limited, United’s parent company, after agreeing a deal with chairman Ken Bates on November 20.

The buy-out was a watershed moment for Warnock, preceding the loan signings of Jerome Thomas and Alan Tate and leading directly in his view to United’s victories over Huddersfield, Crystal Palace and Leicester City. With injuries easing and Luke Varney – the only suspended player in Leeds’ squad – returning this weekend, Warnock no longer seems bereft of options.

Two goals from Luciano Becchio earned United their win at Huddersfield, with Michael Tonge scoring in the first half and Norris striking crucially on 70 minutes. Town’s manager, Simon Grayson, admitted that Leeds “look a better side” than us, contrary to Huddersfield’s reputation as strong play-off candidates.

“It wasn’t a particularly great game,” Ritchie said, “but Leeds were the stronger of the teams.

“You look through their line-up and they’ve got decent players in a lot of areas. Norris and Tonge have been there and bought the T-shirt, and the combination of Paul Green and Sam Byram on the right hand side looks really impressive. They made a lot of inroads into Huddersfield’s defence.

“Becchio’s a 20-goal striker when he plays well and McCormack and Diouf are big assets. If you’re being honest, it doesn’t look at all bad - or nowhere near as bad as people were making out.

“They’ve obviously had a sticky patch but that’s what happens when you’re down on numbers and under pressure. Every club in the Championship will go through a bad spell.

“The way things are, Leeds have got a really good chance of getting into the play-offs but they do need to kick on.

“They’ve dropped quite a lot of points already and you’re always in danger of dropping one too many. These next few weeks are key.”

 

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