Matt Smith’s development in the past few years has been pretty meteoric. Into the Football League, onto Leeds United, given a new contract and then off to Fulham.
That’s enough to make you think that Smith’s got a lot of potential – or at least to think that plenty of people rate him – but it wasn’t a surprise to see him go from Leeds on Monday.
It was more of a surprise to see him signing a new contract with the club last month. To be honest, with the way the squad was shaping up, I assumed at that stage that Smith would be moving on.
He wasn’t getting much game-time and the club had loads of other strikers. They seemed to be targeting players with more pace and mobility, and mobility isn’t really Smith’s strong point. In hindsight, maybe that new deal was just a way of earning Leeds a few dollars more.
I like Smith and I thought he did extremely well last season. In terms of his all-round game I’d say the jury’s still out and you might ask if Fulham paid over the odds by offering £800,000 for him. But then again, isn’t everyone paying over the odds for just about every player they buy? That’s the era we’re in.
Leeds did plenty of business in the transfer market and 15 signings is some tally. I might be a bit old-school but I’m never a fan of making so many changes in one summer and I’m not too certain how the deals they’ve done will work out. It really is like starting from scratch, especially with a new head coach arriving soon.
One of the reasons why I felt sorry for David Hockaday was because he had nowhere near enough time to get to grips with the players coming in. With the greatest of respect – and I really don’t mean this as a criticism of Massimo Cellino – Hockaday can’t have known much about the lads who moved here from Italy. In my spells as a manager I had plenty of control over transfers so by the time deals were done, the players we brought in were very familiar. We’d scouted them and analysed them. Everyone needs a chance to settle into a new club but I was quite happy signing someone on Friday and playing them on Saturday.
Getting to know players you’ve got no knowledge of is really difficult. If they train well then you might find that two or three sessions give you a decent understanding of what their strengths are and what their best position is. But some players show less in training and only come to life in matches. You need practice games to get them up to speed and even in those, you never play at full tilt. It can take weeks to get to grips with a newly-built squad.
No matter who replaces Hockaday as head coach, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll know every Leeds player inside out. It’s a cliché to say things can’t turn around overnight but in this instance it’s true. You’ve got a lot to work on at Leeds.
For starters, the coach needs to build up a relationship with the players. I’d usually work lads out by watching them play but sometimes the best way to be clear on where to play them or how to use them was by speaking to them and asking how they saw things. That’s easy enough when you’re an English coach with a bunch of English footballers but it’s not so easy when your dressing room is full of different nationalities.
Whoever comes in is going to have to lean pretty heavily on Neil Redfearn – assuming of course that Neil isn’t given the job himself. Redders is an old mate of mine and I was made up for him after the win over Bolton. It was a bit nervy towards the end but for him to be thrown the reins at late notice and then pull three points out of the bag was really impressive.
It’s a funny thing to say but as it happens, Neil now knows more about this group of players than just about anyone else – perhaps with the exception of Cellino himself. He’ll be a valuable asset for a new head coach because he’s had a competitive game in charge, he’s taken training this week and he’s actually had a chance to examine the squad.
He’ll need to be honest when the time comes. It’s tempting to be noncommittal when a new broom comes in and pretend that everyone can do a job but it’ll help Hockaday’s replacement if Neil can single out the players he fancies and the players he doesn’t.
The club have had a tough start to the season and to come out of last month with six points wasn’t the worst result by any stretch. But for all the changes they still really need to get some quick momentum, just to make sure that the first half of the season doesn’t leave the club in trouble. Every new coach needs time but I know from experience that time flies – especially when the pressure’s on.