Brian McDermott thinks Leicester City at home on Saturday is a great game for Leeds United.
He’s right. Not because it’s easy or especially winnable but because it changes the emphasis of expectation on his team.
Leeds United are underdogs this weekend and underdogs they need to be. They’ve been embarrassed by Rochdale and battered senseless by Sheffield Wednesday who, let’s not forget, are toiling in the Championship. Tomorrow is very different: much less of a hiding to nothing than either of those matches.
Leicester are expected to win at Elland Road. The odds on Leeds doing a job on them are as long as they’ll ever be for a league game at home. So although a win would be a huge shot in the arm, Leeds can take comfort from the fact that a good performance will earn them credit. If nothing else, they’ll be cut a bit of slack because frankly, no-one in the world fancies them.
Newcastle United had a similar experience over the weekend. They’ve been shedding points all over the place recently and like Leeds, they seem to go through contrasting patches of form. They hosted Manchester City at St James Park last Sunday and we all fancied Newcastle to lose. Lose they duly did. But at the same time, they played pretty well. And their players will be feeling an awful lot better because of it.
Make no mistake, results like Leeds’ defeat at Wednesday are difficult for players to get over. You’ll hear the usual rhetoric – move on, put it to the back of your mind etc – but it’s extremely tough to stop the tension gnawing at you. That’s especially true when you’ve been done in by Rochdale the week before and failed to produce any sort of reaction. This is a huge test of character for them, and also for McDermott.
If I was him, I’d be sending certain players out tomorrow with the message that this is their last chance. It doesn’t need to be an aggressive warning but the situation should be very clear. Bad results happen and terrible results happen too. They don’t have to be defining. But they can’t continue indefinitely and if form like this goes on long enough, it’s normally the manager who starts to take the consequences. McDermott will appreciate that full well.
I know from experience what these situations are like. No matter how tight-knit your group of players are, tough spells always lead to finger-pointing and a blame culture of sorts. That’s not unique to any club or specific players. It happens everywhere and I’ve no doubt that there’ll be elements of unrest at Leeds.
It’s small, silly things like players trying to exonerate themselves or criticising others. Quite naturally, you become very defensive when the knives are out. But if you let unhappiness fester for too long, it can get out of hand and cause real problems. So I think McDermott was very astute in calling a meeting at Thorp Arch last Sunday.
It’s going a bit far to call it a ‘crisis meeting’. The word crisis really implies that certain issues are beyond repair and I don’t believe that’s the case. It just helps sometimes to clear the air, to let people have their say, to work out exactly why it is that a team who were in the play-offs before Christmas are now looking anything but promotion material.
I’ve been in these sorts of meetings and if Sunday’s was anything like mine, the senior players will have led the discussion, after McDermott obviously. Your older heads have their say and in turn, the younger players feel a bit more confident about talking openly. After all, it’s not a particularly easy environment. Imagine how awkward it would be to sit down in your work place and start dishing out a few home truths – knowing full well that criticism might come right back at you.
But there are times when things need to be said and the message on Sunday will have been clear. What’s said in this room stays in this room. Get it out of your system and move on. You often feel much better for it and maybe clubs don’t go down this route enough. It’s a chance to be constructive and to get everything into the open.
What a meeting like that doesn’t mean is that the season is over or the squad have lost it. They’re four points away from the play-offs and there’s masses of football left to play. But they need a performance tomorrow, for everyone’s sake. It’s the only way to turn their slump around.