Don Revie appreciated skilful footballers and he preferred to win games in style. But when all was said and done, he liked winning games full stop.
Confidence and concentration were his watchwords and he never tired of telling us that. It actually became a bit of an in-joke among the players at Leeds United. “Confidence and concentration,” we’d say to each other – when Don wasn’t listening of course! But as usual our manager had it spot on. To be a truly successful team, players en masse must do two things – show confidence in their technical ability and maintain the concentration needed to do their jobs professionally from the first minute to the last. As a philosophy, it served us well for many years.
I thought about Don’s favourite phrase on Tuesday night after watching Leeds United’s draw with Barnsley. I think it’s fair to say that Simon Grayson’s squad are fulfilling half of the bargain. Confidence oozes from so many of his players and they look like a team who expect to win games. But for no good reason, their concentration has a habit of going absent without leave. All three of Barnsley’s goals were easily avoidable.
Their first stemmed from United’s failure to deal with a routine free-kick. Their second was down to certain players ignoring Barnsley’s left-back breaking from deep. And as for the third? A rash tackle on the edge of the box followed by a free-kick that flew straight through the wall. A catalogue of errors in other words. If I was Simon, I’d have been tearing my hair out every time.
The collapse of the wall seven minutes from time was the best example of a fatal slip in concentration. A moment like that has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with professionalism. Footballers do not need told that the first priority when defending a direct free-kick is to make the target as small as you can. What would Revie have done if I’d stepped out of the wall like a couple of players did on Tuesday? He’d have absolutely bollocked me. But only after Bremner and Big Jack had let me have it first. The grief we got for careless mistakes always made us think twice about switching off again.
I sincerely hope that harsh words were exchanged by Simon’s squad at the end of the Barnsley match. That might sound like an extreme reaction to a 3-3 draw but you could not argue with any conviction that two points were lost to good football. They were lost to cheap concessions and critical lapses, the sort of failings a good, ambitious side cannot afford or tolerate. The lads at Elland Road should be angry about that and calling each other to account. As many people have said, this Leeds side score enough goals to win the Championship title. At this rate, the number they’re conceding could threaten their chance of qualifying for the play-offs.
Not for one minute would I agree with anyone who lays the blame at the door of the backroom staff. Trust me, Simon and his coaches will be working on organisation and the defence of set-pieces day after day and hour after hour. The players cannot lack any certainty about their individual responsibilities.
There was no great secret to Barnsley’s goals; they merely accepted invitations to score. It’s a matter of discipline on United’s part, plain and simple.
I’d imagine that Simon and his squad sat through a replay of the game on Wednesday or Thursday and reviewed the errors in fine detail. They’re an honest bunch at Leeds and those who deserved a portion of blame will doubtless have held their hands up and taken it. Mistakes are part of football and everyone makes them but the frustration this season has been their repetitive nature. Successful sides don’t fall down the same pitfalls time and again.
In hindsight, a number of players will look back at the Barnsley game and say: ‘I should have done this’ or ‘I should have done that’. But to be brutally honest, it’s no good admitting your failings after the event. The job of a professional footballer is to avoid those mistakes in the first place. As Revie used to stress, concentrating for 89 minutes is asking for trouble. It leaves 60 seconds for the opposition to take advantage. And at this level, most clubs will do precisely that.
Criticising a team who are sixth in the Championship is strange, I know. It has to be said that United’s season has been outstanding and a real credit to the squad as a whole. But what we’re talking about now is a serious chance of promotion, a huge opportunity to reclaim a place in the division where Leeds United will always be most at home. The errors that Leeds are committing will not stop them finishing comfortably inside the top half of the league but they might ultimately sacrifice a play-off place or better. Big prizes are often decided by the regrettable loss of one or two points.
Were Leeds to lose at Swansea City tomorrow, I won’t be ruling them out of the running for automatic promotion. But I’ll be forced to accept that a top-two finish is highly unlikely. An eight-point margin with 12 games to play is a big deficit in a league where few clubs seem capable of stringing numerous wins together. But Leeds being Leeds, I can see them returning from Wales with a massive result in their pocket. Their spells of disappointment never last for long.
For their sake, I hope that they don’t end up looking back on this season and regretting the days when wins became draws or the occasions when soft concessions cost the club dearly.
No-one in Simon’s dressing room will be interested in the possibility a mid-table finish. They’ve come too far to settle for that. Confidence is not a problem but their concentration must improve. To quote Mr Revie, one is worthless without the other.