Players who sign for Leeds United are quickly made to appreciate the shirt they wear.
“They’re privileged,” said Neil Redfearn earlier this week. “It’s an honour to be at such a big club.”
That much is true but these are hard times for the squad at Elland Road, caught between a rock and a hard place – the rock of their own form and the hard place of the fight raging between chairman Ken Bates and an element of the club’s support.
Redfearn, United’s caretaker boss, came under attack after replacing striker Ross McCormack at a crucial stage of Tuesday’s loss at Coventry City but the abuse of him was a precursor to more intense and familiar criticism of Bates. This season, no Leeds game would feel the same without it.
It has been this way for weeks on end and tomorrow’s match against Doncaster Rovers is unlikely to be different. Events on the field since August 6 have influenced the loss of patience off it but the positions of Bates and Leeds’ disillusioned fans is now entrenched: the crowd at Coventry warning United’s owner that they’d “all had enough” and United’s owner responding in a radio interview by criticising “people prancing up and down, waving their banners. They’ve got no positive solution to what they perceive as a problem. All they do is add to it by deterring potential investors from coming into the club”.
Bates’ comments were in reference to a protest march involving hundreds of supporters which covered three miles between Leeds city centre and Elland Road before last weekend’s defeat to Brighton. The group who organised it, the Leeds United Supporters Trust (LUST), do not intend to halt their “Campaign for Change” there. “This is only the start,” said LUST chairman Gary Cooper.
Caught in the middle are United’s players – hardly blameless for their low standing in the Championship but unable to resolve what are now deep-seated grievances. The fight in them seemed to drain at Coventry after McCormack’s substitution sparked open revolt on the terraces. “Perhaps it did,” said Redfearn. “But we were poor and that’s the bottom line.”
United’s talismanic winger, Robert Snodgrass, agreed with that. Pointless though it would be to pretend that the squad are oblivious to the climate in Leeds, Snodgrass was not about to use it as an excuse for a league table which shows Leeds in 11th, six points short of sixth place and handicapped by games in hand held by several clubs.
“It doesn’t matter what goes on off the field,” Snodgrass said. “You, as a player, need to be mentally strong to deal with whatever goes on. At the end of the day you’re brought here to do a job, not to affect what goes on outside. If you don’t do your job properly, somebody will replace you. It’s very simple.
“The fans were singing ‘Bates Out, Bates Out’ but we can’t just relate to that every time. The players have got to take criticism as well. The fans get frustrated and whatever they want to shout, us as players need to make things right by earning the right to win games and putting our bodies on the line. At the moment, I don’t think that’s happening.
“Every game you go into, you have to believe that you’re going to win it. The day when you stop approaching games like that, I’d hang my boots up and never play again.”
To the credit of Redfearn and his squad, on a night at Coventry when they deserved little, there was no attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility for another injury-time surrender. There was a refusal, too, to concede defeat in the fight for a play-off position, but successive losses to Coventry and Brighton were a colossal set-back. For so many reasons, a victory against Doncaster in the last of Redfearn’s four matches as caretaker appears imperative.
Much in Redfearn’s comments and body language after full-time on Tuesday said he no longer expected to secure the job until the end of the season.
Bates dangled that carrot in front of him after Leeds’ 3-0 win at Bristol City but Redfearn’s opportunity was entirely dependent on results and a surge towards the play-off position which Simon Grayson, United’s deposed manager, struggled to hold on to. Losing at Coventry felt like a step too far, particularly once the replacement of McCormack saw his judgement questioned publicly.
Snodgrass said: “We obviously haven’t got a (permanent) manager but Neil Redfearn’s been first-class. People can’t question what he’s done or the decisions he makes.
“The guy played over 1,000 games and he knows football inside out. His sessions as a manager are very progressive and he knows exactly what to say to the lads in terms of getting the best out of us. This is nothing to do with him; it’s down to the players.
“We know ourselves that the performance at Coventry wasn’t good enough. At half-time, Neil came in and gave us a kick up the backside and we needed it. That’s the sign of being a good manager. We weren’t at the races in the first half and that’s not down to him. We’re good enough to be hitting another two or three gears.”
Snodgrass is a partial reason why unrest in Leeds has spiralled this season. With less than 18 months remaining on his deal and his reputation ironically enhanced by his involvement in United’s term, the suspicion is that this season will be his last at Leeds – another fine talent lost amid United’s struggle to smash their way into the Premier League.
The Scottish winger is rapidly approaching the contractual position which hastened the sales of Max Gradel and Jonathan Howson, and Grayson revealed before his sacking that talks about a new deal have not taken place since last summer. It remains to be seen whether the next two months will be the parting shot of a player who has scored 11 times this season and laid claim to the creation of 10 more Championship goals. In total, Leeds have scored 49.
It would not be Snodgrass’ style to let the season run out with a whimper. “We need to grow up and grow up fast,” he said. “No-one ever gives you a football match.
“People might talk about the inexperience of the squad but getting thrown in at the deep end is a test of character. It tests you as a player and it tests your mentality. You’ve always got to be switched on and ready. If you’re not, you get found out.”