Neil Warnock expects his Leeds United squad to compete for a play-off position in the Championship this season, admitting: “I don’t think we’re automatic promotion material.”
On the eve of the new season, the United manager said he was confident of being “right in the running” beneath the Championship’s top two places but claimed his players would surprise him by repeating the title success he experienced at Queens Park Rangers in 2011.
“If I put my hand on my heart, I don’t think we’re automatic promotion material,” said Warnock. “That’s not me being defeatist, I’m just being realistic about the squad we’ve got. I’m telling you what I see.
“As far as the play-offs go, I’m optimistic that we’ll have as good a chance as most clubs of getting in there. You need a bit of luck to finish in the top six and you can’t always rely on luck but, first and foremost, you need the players. I’m going into the season with a lot of the players I wanted.”
Ten have joined Leeds since the end of last season and El-Hadji Diouf, the controversial Senegalese forward, will become United’s 11th new signing if he and the club agree the terms of a permanent contract before their league season starts with a televised game against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday.
Diouf appeared as a substitute in last weekend’s League Cup win over Shrewsbury Town, having signed on a non-contract basis to allow him to play. Warnock’s approach to him was driven by the need for a right winger and an additional striker, positions Diouf is suited to, and a summer dominated by takeover negotiations and painstaking transfer deals has brought United to the start of the 2012-13 term with work on their squad still required.
Warnock made similar, sweeping alterations at QPR in the months and weeks preceding the 2010-11 season and his squad embraced the changes overnight, going 19 league games without defeat. They won the title by four points and finished eight clear of the play-off positions.
“We had a few more tools in the box at QPR,” said Warnock. “Although in saying that, not too many more.
“I had the best midfield player I’ve ever worked with in (Alejandro) Faurlin, and the person everyone focused on was (Adel) Taarabt. People think we got promoted because of him. But that success was as much down to your Paddy Kennys, your Shaun Derrys and your Clint Hills. You can’t do it without reliable players like that – players you’d always trust to cover your back.
“We’re not the finished article and we do need a couple more players but if I can’t sign anyone else before the season starts then I’d still be happy going into it. I really mean that. I’ve got genuine players here and I also know that teams will have to be really good to beat us. Really good.
“Some of the lads here have played for me before, most have played in the Championship too and most have still got things to prove.
“As a manager, I think you look at your players in the dressing room before a game and ask ‘would I have him at my back in a battle? Would I have him in the trenches with me?’ In fairness, most of my players who are here now I’d want with me. Last year, I’d have been worried having half of them behind me.
“We’ve got a difficult start to the season and it couldn’t have been more difficult. But I like that. I like being thrown in at the deep end and starting with a bang.”
Wolves are one of the three teams relegated from the Premier League last term and, as such, are naturally considered to be a threat to the Championship. But their own summer has be intriguing to watch, beginning with the appointment of manager Stale Solbakken, a Norwegian who had previously been sacked by German club Cologne.
The more valuable members of their squad were left untouched for much of the transfer window but Stoke City signed Michael Kightly last week and Sunderland had a third offer for Steven Fletcher – thought to be worth up to £12million – rejected yesterday.
Fletcher appears destined to leave after submitting a transfer request and no fewer than three other players are carrying injuries ahead of Saturday’s game, Kevin Doyle included. “I’m hoping none of those are too serious,” said Solbakken.
United travel to Blackpool, last season’s beaten play-off finalists, four days after their meeting at Wolves and play Blackburn Rovers before August ends. Warnock joked that he had “once won promotion after losing the first five games” but losing ground at an early stage will not be in his mind.
The 63-year-old drew inspiration from the resounding success of the Great Britain team at the Olympic Games in London, an event which he said underlined the value of endeavour and effort in professional sport.
“If the Olympics haven’t lifted everybody then there’s something badly wrong with this country,” Warnock said.
“I’ve never cried so much in my life. I’m a grown man watching sports that I’ve never really seen before and I had tears coming out my eyes.
“I’m a passionate and emotional guy but I didn’t expect it to make that much of an impression on me. I watched these lads and lasses fighting for medals and saw what sport is all about.
“Emotional is what sport needs to be. It’s what football has to be. Every kick of the ball should matter to you. When I’ve lifted trophies or won promotion in the past, the satisfaction I felt was so intense. You never forget it. I can’t imagine what it would be like at Leeds if it happened. The roof would come off.
“That little bit extra counts for so much when it comes to winning things. That’s what I want my players to think about when they’re in the dressing room for the game against Wolves.
“We’re not going to win the league against Wolves but I want us to go out against them, a team who won’t have made many changes from their Premier League squad, and get stuck in. I want us to go the extra mile and realise what can happen when you do.
“We’ve all got to want that winning feeling. And we’ve all got to feel the privilege of being employed by a club like Leeds. If the players take those extra yards, anything is possible.”
United’s Yorkshire derby against Hull City at the KC Stadium on Saturday, December 29 has been moved to a 12.30pm kick-off.