There are certain teams who were good enough to treat the Championship as a sprint – Queens Park Rangers two years ago and Newcastle United before them – but the majority of clubs will see the start of this season as the onset of a marathon.
Asked about the significance of the league season opener against Wolves, Neil Warnock said: “The result isn’t going to determine whether we do well or not. We’ve got a hard start and the first few months are extremely difficult. It’s one of those where we’ll be hanging in there.”
The worry for United’s manager is whether his squad has the legs and the resources to see through a campaign which, if his assessment of their potential is correct, could run for 48 games up to the play-off final on May 27.
Last season the squad at Elland Road finished eight positions and 14 points shy of sixth place, devoid of the necessary stamina or ability. With the new season here and the transfer window due to close in less than two weeks’ time, Inside Elland Road considers the question of whether United are in better shape now than they were over the course of the 2011-12 campaign.
In its own way a problem position for a couple of years. Or perhaps more accurately, an area of the team where doubt has persisted. Kasper Schmeichel came and went in the space of 12 months with precious little protest about his sale to Leicester City.
And though Andy Lonergan showed himself to be competent – in short, a keeper of Championship stock – he seemed to suffer from a chronic loss of confidence after recovering from a broken finger last season. Signing a new keeper was hardly Warnock’s most urgent priority but Paddy Kenny was a good answer to a definite niggle.
He is as capable a signing as Leeds could have sourced within their budget and his laid-back, assured attitude should help the defence in front of him. It is an advantage too that any injury to Kenny would not leave United reliant on Paul Rachubka or Alex Cairns.
Paul Connolly, Tom Lees, Alex Bruce, Zac Thompson, Adam Smith (remember him?) – the attempt to find a regular right-back last season was a hopeless affair.
Warnock had a clear idea of how to address that shortcoming, moving for Joel Ward as soon as the summer began, and his inability to fund Ward’s £400,000 price tag might prove a blessing in disguise. He landed instead 25-year-old Lee Peltier, a defender who Warnock compares to Kyle Walker and who could conceivably be ever-present this term. The unheralded emergence of teenager Sam Byram as trustworthy cover is a bonus Leeds did not expect.
If we’re talking numbers, United are in a weaker state. They began last season with Lees, Bruce, Andy O’Brien, Leigh Bromby and a fully-fit Patrick Kisnorbo. How great the talent was in that particular pool of professionals is a matter of debate but Simon Grayson had numbers to work with. Warnock in contrast has two fit and recognised centre-backs, Lees and Jason Pearce. They have the making of a strong partnership – how United need that – but the loss of Lees to a groin strain last Saturday forced Peltier to deputise as best he could. Rodolph Austin is another makeshift alternative but promoted teams rarely get there by plugging round holes with slightly square pegs. With Bromby injured and Kisnorbo short of match fitness, another addition is needed.
Possibly the most glaring hole in the side at Elland Road last term. In no way can it have been Grayson’s plan to start the season at Southampton with Darren O’Dea on the left side of defence, 24 hours after his move to Leeds from Celtic. Aidan White had a bash and Danny Pugh helped out but not even the signing of the experienced Paul Robinson from Bolton Wanderers could settle Warnock’s nerves when teams attacked down the right flank. Adam Drury is in the same age bracket as Robinson but many who watched his years of service at Norwich City think Leeds have invested wisely by taking him on a free transfer. Between them, he and White should offer far more stability.
Robert Snodgrass has gone and the argument ends there.
It is no slight on White, Paul Green or the indisputable talent of El-Hadji Diouf to say that the loss of United’s former club captain is likely to be felt.
At his best, Adam Clayton was a dynamic figure in United’s midfield but he was also maddeningly inconsistent.
Michael Brown struggled to get going last season and for all the appreciation of Jonathan Howson, central midfield has never been his position.
The less said about Mika Vayrynen the better. As the squad stands now, Warnock has a fit and engaged Brown and the transfer-listed Pugh to supplement Green, David Norris and Rodolph Austin. The unit is not bullet-proof in terms of injuries but there is far more purpose to it.
It is easily forgotten that Leeds began last season with Max Gradel on the left wing. He was sold before the end of August but in all the discussion about Snodgrass, there is little attention paid to the class of Gradel in his happier times at Elland Road.
That said, Grayson used Pugh to replace him to no great effect over several months, and only by switching Snodgrass did Warnock find a solution in the closing weeks of the season. This is Luke Varney’s bag now and the early impression of him is encouraging but he will do well to mirror Gradel’s influence.
Plus ca change...for all that went on last year and all the work done this summer, Luciano Becchio and Ross McCormack are still the two main sources of goals at Elland Road.
Billy Paynter’s exit was neither here nor there and Andy Keogh – signed on loan from Wolves a year ago – predictably found prolific goalscoring a challenge. Mikael Forssell failed to strike once. Leeds need another reliable forward. In truth, they have needed that for some time.
The squad list in the Shrewsbury matchday programme included 19 players, excluding injured pair Bromby and Davide Somma but including Byram, Thompson, Dominic Poleon and two players who are on the transfer list.
The situation at Leeds can be summed up as thus: the team is virtually there but the squad is not. Rarely has Warnock needed two weeks of the transfer window like he needs the fortnight ahead.