Ross McCormack scored more goals for Leeds last season than the current crop of strikers have amassed between them this time. Phil Hay reports as United aim to deny their former hero tonight.
Leeds United could hardly be more familiar with the strikers at the front of Fulham’s team. They knew enough about Ross McCormack and Matt Smith to think that selling them for the thick end of £12m last summer made financial sense.
The difference those two players might have made to Leeds since then is a moot topic of debate. Their combined total of 42 goals equated to 15th in the Championship last season, two places below the position Leeds occupy ahead of tonight’s game at Craven Cottage, and Fulham are the division’s most unlikely candidates for relegation with nine fixtures left.
“They’re good players but footballers come and go,” said Neil Redfearn, United’s head coach and a man who worked with both strikers while Brian McDermott was in charge at Elland Road. Redfearn thinks a hypothetical discussion about what McCormack and Smith would offer him now is waste of his time and effort but he would not deny that a reliable, goal-scoring forward is something he needs.
Between them, Leeds’ recognised strikers – Billy Sharp, Steve Morison, Souleymane Doukara, Mirco Antenucci and Edgar Cani – have amassed fewer goals than McCormack raked in alone during his final year in Yorkshire. It barely helps to add in the contribution of players who left the club after this season started or have scarcely played; Noel Hunt, Brian Montenegro, Dominic Poleon and Smith himself, who appeared five times prior to his move to London. The statistics speak volumes.
Redfearn watched United fight out a goalless draw with Nottingham Forest on Saturday and saw again where Leeds are weak.
Organised at the back with a fit and competitive midfield, what his side lacked on an uninspired afternoon was a player capable of poaching a goal from nothing, as McCormack used to do.
“That’s something everybody’s looking for,” Redfearn said. “Goals and goal-scorers are priceless commodities. They’re sought after and they’re the sort of players who cost you money.
“When you’re building a side it’s important to have goal-scorers in it. I do think we’ve got goals in midfield – Alex Mowatt will get goals, Lewis Cook will start getting some, Luke Murphy scores, Sam Byram scores and I can see Charlie Taylor scoring.
“But when you come up against a side who are organised, when there’s not much give in the game, it’s your goal-scorers who get you over the line. It’s probably right to say that I’d be looking for the club to do something in that area.”
It is true, still, that Leeds got the better of the deals involving McCormack and Smith; deals which traded both strikers at the very peak of their value and arguably beyond it.
McCormack has scored 10 league goals for Fulham and once in each of the cup competitions. Smith was sent off on his debut and Fulham’s boss at the beginning of the season, Felix Magath, did not bother with him. The 6ft 5in university graduate went on loan to Bristol City and made a point by striking 13 times for a club who lead League One by a street. He went back to Fulham last month and has scored twice in the three games, including an equaliser at Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday.
“He and Ross pose different threats,” Redfearn said. “You’ve only got to look at the size of them – one’s 6ft 5in, the other’s 5ft 8in or thereabouts.
“They’ve got different attributes and both are very good players. We know that because they’ve done well for us in the past. They’re dangerous and, to be honest, that bit of Fulham’s game probably isn’t a problem. It is the other areas where they’ve struggled.”
The league table suggests as much. Kit Symons’s squad have conceded more goals than any side bar Blackpool – a club who are days away from relegation – and their total of league defeats will climb to 20 if Leeds win at Craven Cottage this evening. The odds for survival are on their side still but they are dismally devoid of form and consistency. Prior to the season, they were title favourites.
“They’re a typical example of how unforgiving the division is,” Redfearn said. “If I’m honest, I don’t think they’ve done a right lot wrong.
“They had a mini-revival when they beat us at Elland Road and they looked like they’d breeze their way out of trouble. But the division caught up with them again. That’s the nature of it.”
United, almost three months on from their own crisis of confidence, are more at home in the league than they were when Fulham shaded a forgettable match in Leeds. Saturday’s draw against Forest was no classic but Redfearn’s players did not look susceptible to a team who have averaged almost three goals a game since Dougie Freedman became manager.
Redfearn is happy with his team and, in the midst of several injuries, satisfied with the players he is looking to. He is supportive and defensive of Steve Morison, a player who has switched from lone striker to right winger in the second half of the term and has foregone goals in the process. Morison last scored for Leeds more than two years ago and he had the age-old humiliation of striking a corner flag with a 20-yard shot on Saturday.
Speaking ahead of tonight’s match, Redfearn showed no sign of wavering faith, saying Morison’s attitude and contribution was being undervalued.