Leeds United: Phil Hay’s review of the season

Charlie Taylor.
Charlie Taylor.
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Two years in England have opened the eyes of Leeds United’s owner. Back at the start, Massimo Cellino promised promotion by 2016; promotion, he said, “or you can tell me I’ve failed.”

Even last summer, when that target struck him as wholly unrealistic, he spoke of a “beautiful season” ahead. What transpired was another stretch in bedlam: two head coaches, another Football League ban, sporadic protests and an unprecedented run-in with the great and the good at Sky Sports. And then there was the football itself which, after 46 games, will leave Leeds halfway up the final table on Saturday, or halfway down depending on your point of view. Here is how the YEP saw it:

Player of the Year

Charlie Taylor. United’s most consistent, certainly, but to pick him out as player-of-the-year on that basis alone would do Taylor a disservice. He has been better than that: defensively disciplined against some high-calibre Championship wingers, end-to-end as modern full-backs are supposed to be and immune to fatigue despite his bout of glandular fever and the fact that he has started and finished 42 games. Only Stuart Dallas has more assists this season and Taylor added another to his own tally against Charlton last weekend by covering 11.4km. To put that figure in context, Dele Alli and James Milner – two of the Premier League’s hardest runners – cover an average of 11.8km a game. Taylor is, as Uwe Rosler said, a machine of a footballer and there has long been a view at Elland Road that among the club’s most prominent kids – including when Sam Byram was still on the books – Taylor would be most suited to stepping into a Premier League line-up tomorrow.

Young Player of the Year

Lewis Cook. To draw an easy comparison, Fabian Delph’s performances in the season when he won the Football League’s young-player-of-the-year award were more effective and electric than Cook’s but Delph was playing at a lower level of the pyramid and, by the standards of League One, had more ability around him. Cook himself seems less than thrilled with his form in the past nine months but to be virtually ever-present in the Championship at the age of 19 and to cope physically as he has done is no small feat. When his talent oozes he is brilliant to watch and even in the periods where United’s season creaked, it never felt as if dropping Cook was the answer. He can think of himself now as an established Championship midfielder.

Most improved player

Gaetano Berardi. Had it not been for his injury over Christmas, Berard might have won the YEP’s player-of-the-year poll. He was extremely close to Taylor in the voting, despite missing two months of the term, and as Championship full-backs go, Leeds appear to blessed with one of the better pairs in the division. Berardi was cast as a lunatic when he first moved to Yorkshire but he has come to be seen as a cold, calculated, aggressive defender – a potential candidate for the captaincy in the eyes of some. He has a lot of Taylor’s energy and the same willingness to get forward and the encouraging thing for Leeds is that the bones of a good defence is there. They simply need to get a grip of the two central positions.

Goal of the season

Lewis Cook v Fulham at Elland Road, February 23, 2016. You would call it a one-in-a-thousand strike had Fulham’s goalkeeper, Andy Lonergan, not been beaten on the same ground, in the same net and from the same range by Nottingham Forest’s Adlene Guedioura in 2011 but Cook’s goal was as sweet as they get. It was Cristiano Ronaldo-esque in the manner of striking cleanly through the centre of the ball and inviting pace and gravity to do the rest. At such a long distance out, Cook needed to put that finish on a postage stamp. He gave Lonergan no chance.

Best performance

Leeds United 1 Burnley 1, August 8, 2015. The first day of the season and easily forgotten now. Easily forgotten how Stuart Dallas hit the crossbar with virtually his first kick as a Leeds player, and easily forgotten how Leeds pressed a side who won automatic promotion last week, squeezing them until Mirco Antenucci produced a glorious goal on 83 minutes. The hard work done – only for Giuseppe Bellusci to lose Sam Vokes three minutes later and watch Vokes bury a header from six yards. The tone for the whole campaign, set right there.

Signing of the season

Liam Bridcutt. The big transfers last summer were Stuart Dallas and Chris Wood and both are demonstrably good players. Leeds will not regret those signings, though they need to make more of them next season. But Bridcutt was the player who brought order to the midfield. Bridcutt was the player who brought the season under control by contributing so heavily to Leeds’ unbeaten run over Christmas, at a time when relegation could easily have become an issue. His record as a defensive midfielder is nine defeats from 27 games. He would be well worth keeping next season if United can find a way to accommodate his salary.

Quote of the season

There are always so many to choose from. Cellino complimenting Steve Evans by calling him a “motherf*****” was a highlight. Evans, too, set the talking-in-the-third-person ball rolling in style after his first game at Fulham, responding to a question about whether the players might see a good performance as a corner turned by saying: “I think they see a corner turned when Steve Evans walks through the door.” But coaches who depart Leeds have a knack of going out in style. Darko Milanic departed with an icy “see you” in 2014 and last October it was Rosler’s turn after his final match, a 2-1 defeat to Brighton. “I’ll have a good drink tonight and be ready for work on Monday,” he said. Hmm.

Story of the season

The threatened black-out of Sky Sports ahead of United’s meeting with Derby County at Elland Road in December. Cellino away in Miami, Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey sat in a 4x4 in Fullarton Park, on his mobile and trying to break the deadlock, and Sky’s staff kicking their heels in the pot-holed car park, waiting to see if Leeds would open the gates in time for them to broadcast. Cellino duly did, less than five hours before kick-off, and a crisis was averted. You have never seen it all in football and you have never see it all at Leeds.

Team of the year (from the rest of the Championship):

4-3-3: Dimi Konstantopoulos (Middlesbrough); Matt Lowton (Burnley), Daniel Ayala (Middlesbrough), Michael Keane (Burnley), George Friend (Middlesbrough); Adam Clayton (Middlesbrough), Joey Barton (Burnley), Beram Kayal (Brighton); Ryan Fraser (Ipswich Town), Andre Gray (Burnley), Alan Judge (Brentford).

Who will prevail in the latest encounter between Wolves and Leeds?

Wolves v Leeds United: All you need to know about Wednesday night’s Molineux showdown (well, almost)