David Prutton: Leeds United risk becoming a bit of a '˜soft touch'
Bolton Wanderers are next up at Elland Road and reports of Sheffield Wednesday's win there last Saturday will please Phil Parkinson, as strange as that sounds.
The result has taken Wednesday a little farther out of the mire but Bolton, in truth, are fighting other clubs for survival and they’ll like the suggestion that Leeds United have become a soft or generous touch. Leeds, if they’re honest with themselves, should hate the idea of anyone thinking like that and no matter how little they’ve left to play for this season, none of the players should want to become that team who others see as easy pickings on the way to promotion or survival.
Somewhere along the line, like a home game against an injury-ravaged Sheffield Wednesday side, you want to prove that you’ve still got something about you. You want to do yourselves justice.
That’s not a criticism of the squad’s application because, as I’ve said many times, I genuinely think a lot of these players care. It’s easy to equate bad results with footballers taking it easy but I feel like they’re trying and I do reckon this form will be hurting them.
It doesn’t take an ex-footballer to see that their confidence has gone completely. It’s been gone for so long now that the elementary aspects of their performances are falling away too and you won’t see two simpler goals than Wednesday scored at Elland Road. In a good frame of mind, Leeds defend both of those in their sleep. The way they are now, it doesn’t take much to break through.
Because of that, these eight remaining games are more important than they seem.
Leeds won’t go close to the play-offs now, and we’ve all sensed that for a while, but this run of results they’re on is terrible and the last thing they need is for this slump to carry on up to the summer. If this form persists to the very end, it’s going to hang over everyone, and Paul Heckingbottom most of all. The club have to find some inspiration. Forget all that about players playing for their futures – this comes down to the very basic process of starting to turn the corner.
I don’t doubt that Heckingbottom would have liked to have seen more of an improvement in the team than he has. It was unrealistic to ask anyone to pick up and revolutionise the struggling side Thomas Christiansen left for him, but, in my view, the changes so far have been pretty limited. As far as results go, I take very little interest in the cliché of the managerial bounce because you often find that a new boss picks things up for a limited period but I do like to see significant alterations in the way a side plays, the way they defend and they way they adapt to a new voice.
The reality is that a manager can make a big difference. Where clubs often go wrong is in ignoring wider issues and thinking that simply changing the manager is all it takes to improve. To take you back to 2008, I was at Leeds when Gary McAllister was sacked after five defeats in a row.
Histon fell in amongst those matches and we couldn’t buy a win. It was pretty grim. If you’d watched us at home to Colchester or away at Tranmere and MK Dons, you’d have ruled us out of the play-offs. I can remember how poor and out of sorts we looked.
Then Simon Grayson arrived and the mood changed. Fairly quickly, everything changed. There were key signings in the early stages – Richard Naylor and Sam Sodje being two – but he basically built a team out of the squad he inherited. The defence clicked and our form went through the roof. We made it to the play-offs quite comfortably.
Jermaine Beckford coming back from injury helped enormously but still, the crux of the line-up was the same.
Over the next eight games I’d like to see the skeleton of a side fall into place at Leeds because, as much as I agree that some major recruitment is needed, the club can’t start from scratch in the next window.
They can’t dispense with the entire squad and the fact is that some of the players at Elland Road are better than these results. Some players at Leeds would slot into a competitive Championship side. For his own sake, Heckingbottom needs to establish a framework which he can build around when the summer comes.
I don’t blame him for any of the problems this season, but Leeds can’t just wade through six more weeks of draws and losses. No-one around here will tolerate that. The games remaining are essentially tough. In amongst them, only the last two – Norwich away and Queens Park Rangers at home – look like genuine dead rubbers.
Leeds are still to go to Fulham, Preston and Aston Villa and Bolton are scrapping like hell. In many ways I think that’s a good thing: a spell of matches which, despite the fact that Leeds will fall short of the top six, leaves nowhere to hide. Finishing mid-table is frustrating but sometimes it happens. Sometimes a strategy just doesn’t work. But being the team who other sides look at as a nice opportunity for easy points is completely different and that, to me, is where this squad are now.
I can say this as someone who was never blessed with the greatest of footballing ability: quality is expensive. Pride costs nothing.