Boss Brian McDermott’s passing style will help to dispel thoughts of ticket prices and unattractive football. Phil Hay reports.
The reasons for declining attendances at Elland Road are varied and well-documented: ticket prices too high, the standard of football too low and – in the past two years at least – a lack of faith in Leeds United to the meet the public’s idea of ambition.
On Tuesday night, the crowd fell once more to its lowest level since October 2006, dropping beneath 17,000 and equating to the levels of support seen during Leeds’ most destructive season.
The contradiction was that those who attended the win over Burnley were unusually satisfied with the value for money offered by United. This was not a night when the club’s football sold their supporters short.
In the past two months, Leeds and their owner, GFH Capital, have tackled one of the arguments for non-attendance by significantly cutting the cost of season tickets. With the initial deadline for renewals and new applications falling this weekend, whispers at Elland Road say that sales for the 2013-14 term have been less than brisk. Meaningless though Tuesday’s Championship game was, a crowd of 16,788 suggested that the reluctance to pay continues to run deep.
Increasingly, complaints about the cost of seats have been usurped by claims that the management of and investment in United’s squad is not worth the expense of season or match-day tickets. By the time Leeds sacked Neil Warnock on April 1, dissatisfaction with his tactics and his choice of teams was palpable both at Elland Road and in the aggressive world of social media. Warnock’s football did not appeal; but by appointing Brian McDermott, United appear to have ticked another pertinent box.
There was a moment in the second half of Tuesday’s defeat of Burnley when the Kop began an impromptu chant of ‘we’re passing the ball.’ United’s fans do sarcasm as well as most supporters these days but there was a degree of surprise in the realisation that Elland Road was being entertained. McDermott’s approach was fluid and methodical and, for the second time in two games as manager, the patience of his team found the opposition wanting. Reading played that way under him to great effect in the Championship. Rodolph Austin eventually settled the game with what might prove to be the goal of the season.
If McDermott continues to mould his team in the same flowing vein, the argument about unattractive football will go by the wayside with the argument about excessive ticket prices. All that remains is the wait to see how heavily GFH Capital supports him in the transfer window, another source of perennial angst. The evidence of the past three years, never mind the past week, is that McDermott is a manager worth supporting.
“The lads have played without any pressure in the last two games,” McDermott said. “If they want to play with pressure and put it on themselves then that’s up to them but I feel football’s there to be enjoyed. Go out and play.
“The crowd are a good crowd to play for and I’ve been saying to the players that they really want to get behind us. They want to see football they enjoy and they want success. We’ll try and give them both.
“I’ve come here to enjoy myself and so have my staff. I want the players and the fans to enjoy themselves too. That’s what life’s about.
“I’ve told the players to have no fear about a game of football because I want them to have that philosophy. I’ve learned an awful lot in the last three or four weeks from what happened to me at my previous club (Reading) and I hope that Leeds have got a better manager on the back of what happened to me.”
McDermott employed a midfield diamond against Burnley, using Paul Green to protect his defence and El-Hadji Diouf to support Ross McCormack and Luke Varney. It was, in no small way, a means of compensating for the obvious lack of width in United’s squad. Leeds are not blessed with Jimmy Kebe or Jobi McAnuff, two of the players who underpinned McDermott’s formation at Reading, but Burnley were comprehensively outplayed once McDermott moved Diouf up front and dropped McCormack into midfield. “Apart from a late flurry, they were the better team,” admitted Burnley’s manager, Sean Dyche.
“I try to play a system that suits the players we’ve got,” McDermott said.
“When I was at Reading we had two wingers and we had to play a certain way – a pressing game.
“We got out the league playing that way. We won a lot of games 1-0 and we were difficult to play against.
“This team here have players who can pass the ball and who can keep the ball so we play the way we have to play. But I’m enjoying watching them and we had a lot of the ball against Burnley.
“The players looked comfortable on it and they looked like they wanted it. That’s the most important thing. You have to be brave to play football and they were. To look at the possession stats, we were well out in front.
“We changed the system a little bit in the second half. We talked about Ross (McCormack) dropping into the hole where Diouf was and Diouf playing up front.
“He might be a good manager one day, Ross.
“He’s got so much ability, he can see a pass and he’s going to get better and better. I can see that. He’s a super player.”
McDermott admitted after full-time on Tuesday that he regretted the fact that the season was ending in a fortnight’s time.
The benchmark for sixth place this season will be no higher than 73 points and all of the clubs competing for that position are struggling to clear 70. Should United’s strong start under McDermott develop into a sustained surge, it might still come too late to make the play-offs attainable.
That ship sailed with Warnock two weeks ago.
McDermott’s immediate task this weekend is to produce a first league win away from home since December against a rapidly improving Birmingham City team who lie 12th in the table after relegating Bristol City at Ashton Gate on Tuesday evening.
The 52-year-old insisted he was unaware of United’s woeful record, saying: “I don’t know anything about the away form and I’m not even going to look at it.
“I’m just going to look at getting another result.”