Releasing Richard Naylor on Monday morning was a cut Simon Grayson made with regret. There was no pleasure to be gained from telling his captain and most influential signing that Leeds United’s plans did not include him.
In Grayson’s time as manager, few players have contributed more to the grand plan of freeing Leeds from unprecedented obscurity and the hell of League One.
Others appeared in more fixtures and many members of United’s squad scored more goals, but Naylor’s command of the dressing room was his personal gift to the club he supported from a young age.
There was more to Naylor than leadership alone, and his first four months in the centre of United’s defence were his zenith as a player at Elland Road.
More recently, his captaincy was of the off-the-field sort – a steadying hand behind a team of which he was rarely part. Grayson’s refusal to extend Naylor’s contract did not cause particular surprise but the departure of a respected servant was a “horrible moment”, according to Grayson’s coach Glynn Snodin.
“I’m as sad as anyone to see him go,” said Snodin. “You come to these decisions eventually in football – and we all know how the game works – but it’s a sad day when you say goodbye to a lad like Richard Naylor.
“The gaffer (Grayson) came out afterwards and said ‘that’s one the hardest things I’ve ever had to do’. I know what he means. There aren’t many people I’ve got more respect for than Nayls and you won’t find one person anywhere in this club who’s got a bad word to say about him.
“From Richard’s point of view, I’m sure Monday was a disappointing moment; probably one of the worst of his life. This is his club and he’s done us proud.
“It’s hard enough to play well for Leeds United, never mind captain the club and captain it well. You need broad shoulders and he’s got some of the biggest.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the part he’s played.”
Naylor’s brief upon joining Leeds from Ipswich Town – initially on loan but, soon after, on a permanent basis – was to rid United of the brand of League One. The date was January 14, 2009 and Leeds were in disarray: 10th in their division, embracing a change of manager and struggling to stay in touch with the play-offs.
The centre-back was Grayson’s first port of call, his maiden signing as United’s boss, and as effective a deal as he has completed at Elland Road.
The club closed out the season with nine wins from 11 matches, seven achieved with clean sheets. A defeat to Millwall in the play-off semi-finals unexpectedly sunk the division’s in-form club.
In the summer which followed, Naylor underwent surgery on a slipped disc, the first of several injuries which disrupted his two full terms with Leeds.
He was able to start 29 league games last season and also featured in United’s FA Cup win over Manchester United, but he was a spectator on the afternoon of their promotion from League One, bothered by a hamstring strain.
Grayson, nevertheless, would still concede that the club’s second-placed finish owed much to their Easter Monday win at Yeovil Town, a match in which Naylor scored both of Leeds’ goals.
At the time, Grayson’s squad were licking their wounds from four straight defeats and their season appeared to be on the brink of collapse. In isolation, that brace stands out as Naylor’s most decisive contribution.
Snodin, who joined Grayson’s coaching staff little more than a fortnight after Naylor moved north from Portman Road, said: “He came here to help us get out of League One and he’s going away with that target achieved.
“I know he’d have liked to have taken us further, but he’s done his bit and he’s played his part. Not many players come to Leeds and make that sort of impression.
“Some people say that the captain of a club doesn’t really matter – that you want 11 leaders on the pitch – but having someone like Nayls in the dressing room is so important.
“Over the last couple of years, you’ve seen no problems and no in-fighting. You’ve not seen any ill-discipline, or players on nights out when they were supposed to be at home. That’s partly down to the standards he set and the example he set.
“He’s sensible, he’s professional and he’s someone players respect. Not everyone’s cut out for captaincy, but he was made for it.
“I always thought of him as the silent assassin. He didn’t shout or bully people, and he went about his job fairly quietly, but you knew that if you upset him or crossed him, you’d spend a long time regretting it. He had cannons in those arms of his.”
Naylor’s exit after 76 appearances leaves the position of club captain at Elland Road vacant, albeit with an obvious replacement. In all but the 15 games in which Naylor appeared this season, Jonathan Howson carried the armband with Grayson’s complete confidence.
It is likely that Howson’s promotion will become permanent next season, barring the signing of another player with more convincing credentials. United are expected to make an official announcement once the squad return for pre-season training.
Naylor will not be among their number, though his spate of appearances in the closing weeks of this season appear to have dispelled the suspicion that his body might be giving up on him.
Two goals conceded in United’s final four games was, by the club’s standards, a creditable defensive record, and Grayson’s comments upon releasing Naylor implied that he expected the defender to have offers aplenty. Naylor, for his part, had stated openly that he wanted to extend his career with Leeds.
“Anyone who takes him on will be getting a top, top professional,” said Snodin. “As coaches, he’s made our job an awful lot easier because we’ve never had to worry about what was going on in the dressing room or how the players were. You always felt certain the squad was really tight.
“I couldn’t criticise Richard on any level – as a player, a captain or an ambassador for the club.
“Leeds United need guys like him and if I was him I’d be very proud of myself. We’re losing an absolute diamond.”