Leeds United: Five months remain to ‘work a miracle’

Ross McCormack in match action against Millwall.
Ross McCormack in match action against Millwall.
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This time last week, Neil Warnock thought the game was up. His body language said as much. No money, no takeover, no players, no hope. A week is a long time in management.

Thursday’s press conference stopped short of a carnival but it no longer resembled the last rites. If nothing else, the fight in Warnock revealed itself again. “Seven days ago I was thinking ‘what a wasted opportunity’,” he said. “Now it feels like I’m opening the curtains.”

There are, of course, clouds in the sky: a troubling league position and an acute shortage of players, a shortage so bad that Warnock made 33 phone calls in pursuit of new signings while the takeover of Leeds United sank in on Wednesday. An overnight solution was too much to ask for with the January transfer window so far away and Warnock said he had “five months to do a miracle”. He at least made it sound like a miracle could happen.

United’s manager cut a sombre, depressed figure in the days before last weekend’s defeat to Millwall. He was close to writing off the season. But for the first time yesterday, he was able to speak about the takeover in certain terms rather than discussing an event which might never happen.

GFH Capital, the new owner of Leeds, has not spoken in detail about what its buy-out of Leeds will mean for Warnock but the 63-year-old is willing to assume that the situation facing him cannot get worse. Funds were invested by GFH Capital within hours of its takeover on Tuesday night and more has been promised for January. Warnock will meet David Haigh and Salem Patel, two of the driving forces behind GFH Capital’s successful bid, to discuss the way ahead after tomorrow’s game against Crystal Palace.

“It’s a fabulous step forward,” said Warnock. “It’s been a long time coming but it’s a progressive step for the club.

“We’ve been standing still so it’s a positive thing for everybody’s mental outlook. When you wake up in the morning it’s a different feeling. At last it gives us closure on the whole saga.

“The last two or three weeks have been as difficult as they come. You start thinking it’s you. Are you a Jonah with football clubs? Everywhere I’ve been in the last how-many years, they’ve all had new owners. But we still got success and it’s a matter of being positive. What’s that saying? Look too much at the clouds and you forget about the sunshine.

“I suppose seven days ago I was thinking ‘what a wasted opportunity.’ Now it feels like opening the curtains. We’ve got to look at it and say ‘let’s have a go.’

“Really, my season starts now and I’m almost feeling like I feel when I come back for the first week of pre-season. Yes, we’re short of players but I only look to the future. Because in my eyes I’ve got five months to work a miracle.”

The Championship table after 17 games says exactly that: Leeds in 18th position and eight points short of the play-off spots. As Warnock himself admitted last week it would be brash of United to talk about promotion with the league as it is, and rash to assume that the club were immune to a much worse fate. Asked if his squad were presently contesting relegation or promotion, Warnock said: “I don’t actually know.

“At the moment and before the news (about the takeover), probably the first one. But I’ve not given up anything. I can’t give it up and I’m not going to give it up. I’ll have to bite my tongue and go with what we’ve got for a few weeks but at the same time I’m going to plan for January so that when it comes we can have a right good go.

“In the meantime, we’ve got to pick up as many points as we can. We’ve got major problems at the moment and we’re decimated with injuries and suspensions but it’s not the takeover that gets you sent off or makes you lose your man in the box. You can’t blame that for everything. We’ve got to get on with being footballers.”

Leeds were afflicted by both of those problems at Millwall – a red card shown to Luke Varney and a goal conceded to a free header from Chris Wood five minutes from time. Varney begins a three-match suspension against Palace tomorrow, joining centre-back Jason Pearce in sinners’ corner. Michael Brown returns from a one-match ban but Rodolph Austin is injured and Warnock said Ross McCormack ended his appearance for the United’s Under-21s on Monday complaining of pain in the ankle on which he had surgery in September. The striker’s hasty return as a substitute against Millwall was very much a symptom of the pressure on Leeds.

Warnock has seen worse situations in his time, including his spell as manager of Palace. He was the coach in charge when the South London club entered administration in 2010 and began fighting liquidation but Palace have truly turned a corner. Blessed with the fruits of a productive academy, they come to Leeds tomorrow as Championship leaders after five straight wins.

“I’d love to see them in the Premier League,” Warnock said. “Just because of what we had to put up with when I was there. It was a horrendous time for the whole club and me as well. To see them doing what they’re doing now, I can’t tell you how pleased I am.

“But tomorrow I’ll be doing my utmost to beat them. This game – personally I’m pleased that it’s top of the league we’re playing. And then Leicester on Tuesday. They’re two of the best teams at the moment.

“It’s appropriate in a way, even with all our disappointments and problems. It gives everyone here an opportunity to get together and give it a go.

“We’re struggling numbers-wise but it’s still only 11 versus 11. It’s a new era and we’ve got to play like that; play above ourselves because Palace are the best team in the league. That’s the short-term – trying to get something off the best team in the league.”

GFH Capital made it clear from an early stage of its protracted takeover that Warnock would be retained as manager upon completion of the deal and then supported with sufficient funds in January.

Chairman Ken Bates, who is remaining in his post until the end of the season but will relinquish his majority shareholding to GFH Capital next month, made a telling comment on Wednesday morning, saying: “Neil Warnock will continue as manager and have more support than the present administration have been able to give him.”

It has doubtless occurred to Warnock that in the longer term, GFH Capital will judge him on results.

There are few ways to disguise United’s current form: three straight league defeats, four defeats in five and seven games without a win. The weeks leading up to January, the moment when GFH Capital’s takeover will come in for its first bout of serious scrutiny, are still likely to dictate whether the transfer window offers any sort of salvation.

For Warnock, this was meant to be the crowning year of a long career in management. “It’s been difficult for me,” he said, “with my family being in Cornwall as well. It’s bound to be difficult. But Sharon (Warnock’s wife) realised what an important year this was for me. Really, my year starts now.

“I don’t feel like I’ve been working. I feel I’ve been doing a job that most people could have done. But it’s onwards now. Look to the future and be positive.”

Leeds United's Liam Cooper.

Leeds United captain Liam Cooper banned for four matches after red card