An away crowd of 4,000 at Reading does not make Leeds United unique. There are other clubs in the Championship who can muster those numbers when the wind blows in a fair direction.
United’s following is a precious rarity because of its ability to repeat in any circumstances: 4,000 at Reading three days after 3,400 at Doncaster and three days before a full allocation of 1,300 at Bristol City. Uwe Rosler is worried about his players undervaluing that support but his players aren’t the problem. The Football League’s fixture list is where liberties are being taken.
One look at the club’s schedule in August – three away games in six days, rearranged kick-offs on all four weekends and a Thursday cup tie – is enough to query why clubs tolerate so much tinkering. Then you remember that money talks and English football takes more money from Sky than anyone else. Dennis Wise put his foot down once, as Dennis Wise always did, but broadcasters usually get their way with Leeds. Was Rosler happy to play at Doncaster last Thursday? “I wasn’t asked,” he said.
Away from the influence of television scheduling, there is a separate trend developing by the year: the uncanny way in which midweek games seem to throw up the longest away trips.
Leeds were lumbered with five 400-mile journeys on Tuesdays and Wednesdays last season and had the pleasure of Bristol City away last night.
In no way are the club being victimised. Brighton were at Huddersfield Town on Tuesday.
A former director at Leeds once told me that the arrangement of long, midweek journeys has tacit support among Football League clubs. Those clubs would never admit to that for fear of being seen as complicit in late finishes and regular road closures their supporters put up with, but financially the policy makes sense.
Leeds are an anomaly because their away following is so large and consistent but clubs have come to realise that teams travelling 200-odd miles will typically bring a reduced crowd with them, regardless of when the game is staged. And so the thinking goes – take a marginally bigger hit on midweek attendances and maximise income from away supporters with more local opposition at the weekend.
If this is not the way of the world then it is purely coincidence that United’s five midweek games away from home are at Bristol City, Fulham, Wolves, Ipswich and Cardiff. And purely coincidence that midweek games at Elland Road this season involve Ipswich, Cardiff, Fulham and QPR. Welcome to the beamback era.
In the short term it is obvious why Rosler’s first concern at the start of the season was to safely negotiate the opening month.
It would be nice to start drawing conclusions about his team a week-and-a-half into the term but these four weeks are about common sense and practical management. Reading away was a good point; a forgettable match but a good point.
To disregard the strain of playing at Doncaster 72 hours earlier would be to disregard the fact that Lewis Cook was suspended, that Giuseppe Bellusci wasn’t fully recovered and that Kalvin Phillips was a safer bet than a not-quite-100-per-cent Luke Murphy. Leeds’ creativity was minimal but an absent Cook and a leggy Alex Mowatt drained the spark from Rosler’s midfield.
The strength of Rosler’s team in their first two league matches was their shape and their understanding of who should be where, when the ball is coming at them. Reading had three shots on target on Sunday, all from long range. Burnley on the first weekend of the season created four. Statistics can tell all sorts of lies but to the naked eye Leeds never looked like losing either game. It’s a good start for a club who lost 20 last season.
What Rosler needs is a little more variety at the front end of his team. In what remains of the transfer window, attacking signings are what Leeds should be concentrating on.
It is less about competition than it is about support: making players like Stuart Dallas and Sam Byram feel that the production of chances is not solely on them; allowing Alex Mowatt an off day when he has one; and guarding Chris Wood from obtuse and lazy criticism of his transfer fee if goals don’t come rapidly and in bunches.
Rosler said last week that his small squad could be “an advantage” for him, a way of keeping his camp happy and involved. That might be true to a point. Compare this season to last and the mood of United’s players is visibly improved.
Already it is clear what Rosler wants to do and how he wants his team to play. And it is obvious enough that his squad get the idea.
This month was never designed to show Leeds in all their glory but if a senseless fixture list can make any difference at all, it’s in reminding the club that a couple of late signings would not hurt them or their head coach.