Seven games in and Adam Forshaw is yet to taste victory in a Leeds United shirt. Six games in and Paul Heckingbottom has registered only one from the dug-out. Both men could be forgiven for asking what was really on offer when the club came calling for them.
They were tempted by Leeds with the promise of a bright outlook but their earliest weeks at Elland Road have involved them in a Championship season grinding to a halt. There was no great expectation of a top-six finish before Wolverhampton Wanderers took United to school on Wednesday night and absolutely none at the end of a humiliating defeat.
For that lack of opportunity, Forshaw blames himself and United’s players. Heckingbottom he described as “top class”, saying the squad’s failure to enjoy any sort of bounce under their new head coach should not be hung around Heckingbottom’s neck. In his own way, Heckingbottom gave the same message after Wednesday’s 3-0 loss. “If we want to be a team at the top of the league or for top-six places, we’re short,” he admitted.
Heckingbottom saw hard times at Barnsley and left a club teetering above the relegation places when he took over at Leeds last month, but his new job came with far greater public glare: more expectation, less patience and less tolerance of the club’s failure to bother the top six in any way since Christmas. Five points from six games is his record so far.
He was, nonetheless, well spoken of before Leeds appointed him and Forshaw, who won promotion under Aitor Karanka at Middlesbrough, insisted Heckingbottom’s coaching had impressed him.
“The manager’s been top class, he really has,” Forshaw said. “He’s come in and he wants to improve us as players. He’s a really good coach and although results haven’t been brilliant so far it’s nothing to do with him.
“I’m going to be brutally honest. We have to perform better. We need to take this on the chin ourselves as players. As a team we have to be better.”
Forshaw had a decision to make before Leeds signed him in January. An experienced midfielder with a consistent track record, the approach from Elland Road came after an initial bid from Cardiff City. Cardiff were happy to meet Middlesbrough’s £3m asking price and their manager, Neil Warnock, expected a deal to be done.
Forshaw opted for Elland Road instead and signed a four-and-a-half year contract with Leeds.
As the Championship stands, Cardiff are on their way to automatic promotion and will finish in the play-offs at the very least. Leeds are nine points back from sixth place and would need the most improbable of dramas in the last 10 games to make it. Forshaw, though, insists he made a sound decision in coming to Leeds, despite the season running out of steam.
“I’m playing for one of the best clubs in the country,” he said. “I’m not just saying that because I’m here. You look at everything that surrounds the club. For me to have the opportunity to play for Leeds, I am just trying to repay that faith.
“Yes, we’re not having a great time at the moment but I’m genuinely playing for one of the best clubs in this country. So by all means I’ve 100 per cent made the right choice, definitely.”
Forshaw was left out of Heckingbottom’s starting line-up at Middlesbrough last Friday having missed the previous game, a 1-0 win over Brentford, to attend the birth of his son. Leeds were so weak at Boro that Forshaw appeared at half-time and was duly restored to the team against Wolves.
Wednesday’s game, though, ran away from him and the other outfield players as Wolves’ pace on the counter-attack and precision on the ball brushed Leeds aside. United were clinging to faint hope in the play-off race already but the last 10 games now leave little to play for, beyond the fight to be part of Heckingbottom’s squad next season.
Even then, many of the existing players are tied to long and hefty contracts.
“I couldn’t stand here and say I’m pleased,” Forshaw said after the loss to Wolves. “We’ve all got to take a look at ourselves, individually and collectively.
“They’re a good side. They’re by far the best side I’ve come up against in the Championship. They’ve got so many players with pace and trickery and they get at you. From that point of view they’re probably a cut above.
“But our goals are poor goals to concede. They’re the fundamentals really, the things you can really knuckle down and work on in training. From our point of view we’re really disappointed. I’m not really sure what else to say about it.”
Tomorrow takes Leeds to Reading, a club who United battled for a play-off place last season.
As it stands, both could finish in the bottom half of the Championship in May. Reading, last year’s play-off finalists, have gone backwards dramatically and last won a league game at home in November. They sit 18th in the division, five points clear of relegation.
Asked what Leeds could realistically aim for now, Forshaw said: “Play for pride. Whatever it might be, and I’m being really honest, as a player find what motivates you and really, really show what you’re about.
“Whether it be for different reasons or what have you, just find that reason and play for the shirt. Really show what it’s about to play for Leeds.”