The initial odds on promotion from the Championship always lean towards the three clubs newly relegated to that division and the market for the 2016-17 season is no exception. But the fixture list will allow Leeds United’s squad to compare themselves to more familiar opponents before the bookmakers’ favourites cross their path.
The first month of the new campaign is United’s chance to see how far they and others have moved – forwards or backwards – since the 2015-16 season concluded on May 7. Their initial run of games, published by the Football League yesterday, will pit them against a beaten play-off finalist, two clubs who finished beneath them in the last table and two others who finished narrowly in front.
The club’s opening match, away at Queens Park Rangers on Sunday, August 7 and duly chosen for a live broadcast by Sky, is a meeting with a side who competed in the same ballpark as Leeds for much of the 2015-16 term.
QPR, under the guidance of three different coaches, finished a point above United in 12th position, a long way adrift of the top six. Leeds’ first home fixture against Birmingham City, meanwhile, faces them off against the club who came 10th. Prior to thinking about Newcastle United or Aston Villa, Garry Monk will find out where his players are in relation to their actual competition last term.
United’s new head coach might be justified in looking on the new fixture list as a favourable run. Leeds will meet Fulham, Sheffield Wednesday and Nottingham Forest before the end of August, the latter two fixtures away from home, and the club are not scheduled to play any of the sides relegated from the Premier League until November. Like buses, those matches then come in quick succession – Norwich away on November 5, Newcastle at home on November 19 and Villa twice in December, including a visit to Villa Park on New Year’s Eve.
Eddie Gray, the former Leeds player and manager, said the first month of the campaign would give a good impression of how Leeds were shaping up in comparison to other sides who had under-achieved last term.
“Sheffield Wednesday are the team to gauge ourselves against in August,” Gray said. “They were play-off finalists and the gap between us and them in the table was very big so you’d want to see that close.
“But Fulham will look to do better, QPR will look to do better and Forest will look to do better. Birmingham will feel like last season was a good platform for them so it’s a really interesting month. We’ll see how we’re coping against sides who’ll maybe fancy their chances a bit more.
“Avoiding the big boys, the Premier League sides, until November is no bad thing and it makes it a good start for us. It’s a chance to get some points on the board early, which we have to do. But, at the end of the day, it’s only a good fixture list if we get results early on.”
Leeds have a commendable opening-day record, showing 15 wins and only three defeats in 26 games since 1989, and the club held eventual champions Burnley to a solid 1-1 draw in their first game last August, but a slow start over the next two months undermined their entire campaign.
Head coach Uwe Rosler was sacked after 11 league matches, with Leeds 18th. They rarely ventured into the top half and finished 25 points behind the play-offs positions. Steve Evans, who replaced Rosler in October but made way for Monk last month, said United had shown themselves to be the essence of a mid-table side. “Not good enough to get out of it, too good to go down,” he said.
Gray, who sat with Monk when the 37-year-old was unveiled as head coach on June 2, said: “Garry emphasised at this first press conference the importance of making a quick start – of having everything in place and ready to go when the first weekend comes around.
“Last season we were playing catch up right the way through. You just can’t do that in the Championship. It’s tough to make up ground on the consistent clubs and we found that once we were out of the top group there was no way back in.
“But a lot depends on players, too. I’m hoping to see Garry bring in four or five who genuinely make us better. Because we need to be better.”
Owner Massimo Cellino, has staked much on the 12 months ahead. Leeds’ season ticket promotion will see 25 per cent refund if they fail to make the play-offs; 50 per cent if sales pass 15,000 before the end of next month. The current take-up is just under 13,500 and United will be looking at a sizeable liability next May if the top six teams outrun them.
Cellino, much as he did 12 months ago, promised “something special” in the 2016-17 term. “After all the things the fans have said about me, now they will start to understand. Next year, we’ll play football.”
United have agreed a three-year deal with Kalmar striker Marcus Antonsson, for a fee rising to £2m, but Cellino appears to be in the middle of a boardroom tussle with the club’s minority shareholder, GFH.
The Italian, who controls an 81 per cent stake in Leeds through Eleonora Sport Limited, called a board meeting for Tuesday to discuss an injection of fresh cash in the club. Amid apparent reluctance on GFH’s part to commit further funds, Cellino is reported to have asked for a second board meeting to address the matter again. Cellino spoke last week about sorting out “little problems with the shareholders” and implied that United’s transfer strategy would be negatively affected if those issues remained.
Meanwhile, Leeds have announced a third pre-season friendly away at Peterborough United on Saturday, July 23.
The club confirmed yesterday that they will play Irish sides Shelbourne and Shamrock Rovers in Dublin on July 13 and July 16.
A home friendly is expected to be organised for the final Saturday before the start of the Championship season.