AWAY attendances are Leeds United’s forte. In the past four years their crowds away from home have outstripped the rest of the Championship, peaking at an average of almost 3,500 in 2010-11.
Their largest turn-out during that season – a total of 6,763 – came in Barnsley and no bigger away crowd has been recorded since then but Leeds are close to exceeding it at Blackburn Rovers this weekend; close to selling an allocation of 6,900 tickets.
Twice in two years Ewood Park has drawn a following this large. Twelve months ago Leeds took 6,727 supporters to Blackburn, one of the few clubs in the Championship who are able or willing to provide so many tickets. Leeds are involved in a constant fight for increased allocations and Blackburn obliged ahead of Saturday’s game, bumping up an initial offer of 4,200 in the Darwen End.
“It’s a huge bonus for us,” said United’s head coach, Neil Redfearn, but the 49-year-old accepts that a following of close to 7,000 does not come free of charge. He travelled with Leeds to Ewood Park last season, a member of Brian McDermott’s coaching staff, and he remembers the flat performance which ended in a 1-0 defeat. A goal from Tommy Spurr, bundled in with his shin, settled the match and disappointed the masses seconds before half-time.
Leeds’ statistics on that afternoon – two shots on target and only one chance of note – told a story of a side who failed to rise to the occasion. On Saturday, Redfearn expects a different game and a different atmosphere.
“Sometimes it goes that way,” he said. “There was quite a big build-up to the game last season, a lot of talk about the crowd we were taking, and it almost reaches the point where the football can’t live up to the expectation.
“It was a bit drab, a bit flat, and I suppose it was a missed opportunity with a crowd like that behind us but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m aware of the numbers going this weekend and the players are aware of it too. If I was them I’d be buzzing about it. Ask yourself this – how many times do you get to play in front of that sort of following? It’s special and pretty rare.”
The contradiction of United’s huge travelling crowds last season was that McDermott’s team were eminently beatable away from home. Their results are following a similar pattern this term – a respectable record at Elland Road offset by a return of five points from eight matches elsewhere.
Four of those points were accrued during Redfearn’s spell as caretaker, in between the dismissal of David Hockaday and the ill-fated appointment of Darko Milanic as head coach, and a 3-1 win at Bournemouth in September was a high-value reward for a second half when Leeds played with abandon. Redfearn promised the same approached at Ewood Park, against an accomplished Blackburn side on the fringes of the play-offs.
“I’m not looking for us to be gung-ho or reckless but I want us to be a team who always go forward,” Redfearn said. “With respect to the fans who are with us, I think you can harness their support and make it work for you better if you play positively and play to win. You’re giving them what they want.
“The way we play and the way we are, I’d like to think that we’ll always be in games. I’d like to think that we’ll carry a threat, even when we’re behind or when things are tight. And when we’re ahead, I don’t want us to sit on a 1-0 lead. I want us to close games out. I was like that as a player and I’m no different as a coach.
“Obviously there’s expectation on us to perform and the pressure increases when you’ve got a huge crowd with you. Of course it does. But to be honest I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t rise to it. I’m not worried about that.
“The foreign players who’ve come in, the likes of Mirco (Antenucci), Marco (Silvestri) and others – they’re loving these crowds. It’s quite new for them and you can tell that they’re feeding off it. As for the English lads here, they know that this is Leeds. It’s part of the appeal, surely.”
United’s 3-1 win over Blackpool before the international break was a first victory in nine games – the right result at the right time, prior to a month of difficult fixtures. Redfearn’s squad is largely in tact, with Tommaso Bianchi recovered from the clash of shins he suffered against Blackpool, but Rodolph Austin is due to return to England from international duty tomorrow and is not certain of featuring at Ewood Park. The Jamaican international was used as a substitute against Blackpool, in a second half which Lee Clark’s side controlled, but the performance which earned United a 3-0 lead at half-time will prompt few changes tomorrow if any. Redfearn’s key decision is whether to recall Giuseppe Bellusci after the Italian defender’s one-match suspension.
“We’re in decent shape and the international break’s been good for us,” Redfearn said. “It’s been a chance to reiterate certain things – working the ball in tight spaces, working the right options, that sort of thing.
“It’s not rocket science and I’m not reinventing the wheel but the group were a bit low and a bit short of confidence when I took the job on a few of weeks ago. You get confidence by going through the basics again and the international break gives you time to do that.
“Over time we’ll improve, I’m sure of that, and we’ve done okay so far. If you’d offered me four points from the last three games then I might have settled for that, just to get us going again.
“I wouldn’t rule us out of anything this season because you never know where the games will take you but my priority, and what we really need, is a year which lets us hit the ground running next season. I don’t think that’s too much to expect.”