The bottom line in pre-season – the most important aspect of every summer for a footballer – is getting fit and keeping fit.
It’s nice to play well and nice to hit a bit of form, and I always felt happier at the start of a league campaign if I’d banged in a few goals in the friendlies we played. But there’s only so much you read into the matches and the results.
On paper, you’d look at Leeds United’s defeat at Mansfield Town on Tuesday and class it as a poor result. Mansfield were a League Two club with a bunch of players on trial so you couldn’t class them as strong opposition. It’s a contest Leeds should win.
Even so, consider the reality of what’s going on. Were either of the starting line-ups used by David Hockaday at Guiseley or Mansfield really the strongest XI available to him? I don’t think so. All he was doing was making sure that between those two matches, everyone got a full hour on the pitch.
It’s very much trial-and-error – not least for a coaching team, who have only been in their jobs for a month or so – and I’d be very wary of passing judgement at the moment, despite the scoreline at Field Mill.
The friendlies so far have been about fitness work, basically. That doesn’t stop players starting to gel or systems falling into place but only now is Hockaday at the point of nailing positions and tactics down. He’s said that we’ll see his best team at Chesterfield on Saturday so this is the stage where we can draw some fair and accurate conclusions about how the players are going to cope in the Championship.
Managers and coaches tend to keep their cards close to their chest throughout pre-season and I remember Brian McDermott this time last year, refusing to say whether the team he fielded a week before the season started would be the team who kicked off at home to Brighton.
In many ways, it’s a total charade. By the time you get to the nitty-gritty of pre-season, most coaches in the country know how they’re going to play and how their team is going to look. It’s just traditional to keep the players, the supporters and the press guessing for as long as possible.
Hockaday’s plan is quite sensible. It can’t do any harm at all to give 11 players the confidence of knowing that as things stand they’re in line to play against Millwall on August 9. Obviously, that could change as new signings arrive but there are three friendlies left and two weeks for people to mentally prepare for Millwall away.
By committing to a side and fielding it consistently, players get the chance to build up partnerships, improve their understanding and really focus on finding their form. Don’t get me wrong, nothing should be set in stone now. Anyone who struggles or falls short in the friendlies we’ve got left should find themselves out of the team. But, in general, now’s the time to start firming things up.
I saw Massimo Cellino say last week that five or six more signings could be on the way and that’s good news as far as I’m concerned. I said many times last season that we were lacking quality and I still think that’s the case. Although I don’t know too much about the new recruits from abroad, I’m reading good things about them and I hope they’ll make an impact, but more class is needed definitely. We want players who will lift us above the mediocre standard we reached last season.
The problem in 2013-14 wasn’t a lack of fitness or a lack of willing. For a lot of the season, the squad were able to compete with most sides in the Championship. The results went very sour towards the end but there were numerous reasons for that and, in truth, the worst results reflected a club who were all over the place behind the scenes.
In short, we had a squad who were able to compete in the Championship when all was well. What we didn’t have was a squad who were able to do well in the Championship. Fifteenth in the table was a very fair finishing position and from Christmas, we were no real threat to the top six. You see the same scenario every year – eventually you get to the point where the cream rises to the top and the sides with that extra edge, that extra percentage, start to climb away from the others.
It’s very possible that we’ll see a flurry of business at Elland Road before the season starts and a few more deals could change the squad quite dramatically. That’s why it’s a bit rash to start judging the pre-season performances now. No doubt it’ll have disappointed Hockaday to have lost at Mansfield but he’ll be far more focused on the condition of his players – and most frustrated by the injuries to Noel Hunt and Lewis Walters.
Lewis is a young lad with years ahead of him so I hope this won’t be anything more than a minor setback but the injury to Hunt is a blow to him. We know how much he struggled last season and how much he wanted to make amends for that.
He’s a great lad with a great attitude and, going back to the times when I watched him play for Dundee United and Reading, I honestly think he’s a very good player. To be injured at this stage is so unfortunate and I really feel for the lad.