The Leeds boss took previous club Reading to Slovenia in 2010 and 2011 and saw no reason to change his routine. Phil Hay reports.
Football managers are creatures of habit, which is why Brian McDermott knows parts of Slovenia like the back of his hand.
Leeds United’s disappearance to a picturesque but obscure region of eastern Europe was not arranged on a whim, as little of McDermott’s work is. Two previous tours of the country with Reading made Slovenia a safe and suitable base for 10 days of exertion.
United’s manager and his squad flew to Graz in Austria on Monday before travelling south to the Slovenian city of Ptuj. McDermott has not only chosen a familiar country for pre-season; Leeds are using the same location, the same hotel and the same training facilities as Reading did in 2010 and 2011. This is his answer to Neil Warnock’s Cornwall, minus the nearby home.
McDermott’s rationale for revisiting Slovenia is that he “knows what I’m getting in every respect.” Three-and-a-half weeks before the Championship season rolls into motion, the 52-year-old is anxious to avoid the unknown and prevent any nasty surprises – poor surfaces, ludicrous heat, inadequate infrastructure or unsuitable opposition. He travelled to Ptuj in June to ensure that everything was as he remembered it.
“I know Slovenia so well,” he said, “and I didn’t want any problems. I wanted to know everything about the place we’re going to, everything about the environment.
“Because I’d been there a couple of times when I was at Reading, I know the training ground, the hotel, the kind of games we’re going to get. I also know where our fans will be going and how it’ll be for them. I wanted to make sure it was a good environment for everyone.”
Ptuj is an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, and a short trip from Murska Sobota on the north-eastern Hungarian border. Murska Sobota provides the venue for the opening friendly against a Slovenian select XI this evening, a representative team comprising of domestic professional players.
By definition, tonight’s opposition at Fazanerija Stadium – the 3,800-capacity home of ND Mura 05 – are the least predictable. Europa League participants FC Domzale, who host Leeds on Saturday, finished third in Slovenia’s premier division last season and Ferencvaros’ involvement in the last of three game next Tuesday brings together two clubs who went hell-for-leather in the final of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1968. The old European powerhouse will cross from Hungary to play United, again at the Fazanerija Stadium.
There is more might in the reputations of this year’s opponents than there was in the teams involved in last summer’s tour of Devon and Cornwall but pre-season fixtures vary in their levels of competition. Leeds met fit and feisty teams when they toured Germany and the Czech Republic in 2007, on the cusp of the Bundesliga season, but encountered less convincing sides in Slovakia three years ago.
McDermott said: “Our first game is against a select XI and then we’re playing another game against a Premier League side. After that we’ve got a match against Ferencvaros and I think that rather speaks for itself.
“But I don’t concern myself too much with the opposition in pre-season. The concern is getting things right with my own players. That’s always what I concentrate on. Being out here means you’re together for 10 days, playing three games and training all the time. That’s very good for us. It’s a great place, Slovenia, and it’s not particularly expensive. The Leeds fans will like it, I’m sure of that.”
The attendances at foreign friendlies involving Leeds invariably have the capacity to run into thousands. A planned fixture against Dynamo Dresden six years ago was cancelled because the German police – occupied by matters and political protests elsewhere – lacked the manpower to chaperone a four-figure influx of Leeds supporters on the morning of the game.
Farsley recorded the crowd for last weekend’s friendly – a game won 5-0 by Leeds at Throstle Nest – at around 3,000. McDermott, who admitted that the summer attendances would keep his players honest throughout their programme of non-competitive games, was asked after the final whistle whether he was already in the process of making judgements about which players might hold which positions when Brighton visit for the first Championship game on August 3.
“I’ve got no decisions to make yet,” he replied. “All I’ve got to do is drive back to my place, pack my gear and fly to Slovenia. What we’ve got to do as a group is get better every day and keep working every day. That’s all.
“This is about the whole squad and everyone together. I really don’t concern myself about the 11 for the first game of the season. The season’s 46 games long so we’re going to need every single one of the players we’ve got when it starts.”
There is limited scope in any case for McDermott to begin finalising his line-up. He has signed three players but expects to bring in at least as many more before the end of the month. Several existing squad members were left out of Saturday’s win over Farsley and not all will make appearances during the tour of Slovenia.
Sam Byram is in Ptuj but will not be used until Leeds are confident in the condition of his injured hip. Jamie Ashdown (foot), United’s second choice goalkeeper last year, is in a similar position and minor issues with the fitness of Luke Murphy have seen McDermott ease his £1million signing into pre-season gently.
El-Hadji Diouf is a player who the Leeds boss will not be able to assess until the friendly at Walsall on July 20 at the earliest. The Senegalese forward, who spent part of the summer in Africa and was the subject of reports about unflattering off-field incidents, is undergoing treatment on an infected shin. He begins next season with a two-match ban.
McDermott said: “Diouf’s not travelled. He’s got a bit of an infection in his shin so we need to take care of that and make sure it’s okay.”
“It’s something that could become a problem if we let it become a problem. We have to make sure he’s looked after.”