Video of the week was that of a Newcastle fan winning the crossbar challenge at Sunderland and reenacting Alan Shearer’s trademark celebration in front of a cold, sparse crowd at the Stadium of Light. The sobering thought for Sunderland was that it would get worse before it got better, as it did when Darron Gibson was charged with drink-driving later that day.
There is a circus in full flow at the bottom of the Championship but even Sunderland, in wholesome disarray, have had it better than Leeds United since Boxing Day. Sunderland nine points, Leeds United eight, which from 14 games is relegation form by another name. Sunderland are gone but Leeds will be too good for that, on the grounds that 40 points was reached and breached at Christmas.
No excuses, said Paul Heckingbottom over the weekend, and there really are none. Leeds have been peppered with injuries and punitive suspensions throughout but no more than Sheffield Wednesday who tipped up and won at Elland Road on Saturday by literally placing bodies on the pitch. Confidence would be a defence of sorts were this sequence of results not inferior to that of a club whose home crowds are fading like Herbert Lom in the Pink Panther Strikes Again. It became so bleak in the second half against Wednesday that a disgruntled Norman Hunter marched down from the West Stand gantry and went home early.
All of which means that Andrea Radrizzani’s threat to take a knife to the dressing room at the end of this cannot be merely a threat. His outburst in itself might knock noses out of joint to the point where certain players start making alternative arrangements but the indulgent approach – new contracts, cosmetic improvements at Thorp Arch, the sort of day-to-day treatment which higher-level footballers expect – has been short-changed by a soft core amongst the squad. There were times when visiting captains were well-advised to make Leeds play towards Elland Road’s North Stand in the first half, removing that factor from the stage of a game where teams become stretched and defenders start to panic. On Saturday, having won the toss, Tom Lees need not have bothered.
Lees knew Leeds at a time when the club’s players were visibly uncomfortable in their own skin. It was part of the reason why he sought solace elsewhere, though Sheffield Wednesday have regressed to the mean in the past 12 months. There is, in this Leeds squad, that same body language of players weighed down by the knowledge that they are coming up short and losing the crowd. Anxiety breeds anxiety and Leeds as a team look unnaturally tight. Quality at this stage almost feels irrelevant, much as a lack of it prompted the season’s decline.
The easiest remedy is financial and if 18 months in England has taught Radrizzani anything, it is that money tends to pay in the Championship. It is true, as Ken Bates used to insist in defence of his own expenditure, that a heavy outlay is no guarantee of promotion but it can as easily be said that a lighter outlay is a guarantee of another year in the league. Leeds discovered as much some time ago and have been living in hope of winning the lottery for too long.
Nothing tells a club to go back to basics like a 14-game run which is worse than Sunderland’s.Phil Hay
The jackpot dropped into Huddersfield Town’s lap last season, on a distinctly modest budget, and there were hints last summer, beyond some fleeting interest in David Wagner, of Leeds mirroring the Huddersfield model: the foreign coach with a slender track record, a director of football to pick over the transfer market and a model of recruitment which ignored the obvious, expensive transfers. Wagner led on signings in a way which Thomas Christiansen never did but some of the principles were the same. Chris Schindler, at £1.8m, was a pre-Premier League transfer record.
Over time that model became Huddersfield’s identity. At Leeds there is less clarity of thought about the type of club they want to be. Christiansen was the continental coach with no reputation to speak of outside of Cyprus and no understanding of the Championship. Paul Heckingbottom is the polar opposite: a similar age but English and Yorkshire, a manager who grew up in this league as a player and is growing up in it as a manager. Back in May, Radrizzani put his first season as United owner in the hands of Victor Orta and the scouting network Orta controls. As of last week, the Italian was talking about replicating Wolverhampton Wanderers’ tie-up with Jorge Mendes and using specific agents to bring players on board. It took a matter of days for Leeds to be linked with Diogo Goncalves, the young Benfica winger. The standard of Wolves’ recruitment could easily drive a rival owner to that but it is hardly a vote of confidence in the way Leeds have been operating.
On that basis, it is no surprise either that questions arise about the bigger picture. In footballing terms there are green shoots further down the chain at Elland Road – an accomplished Under-18 team who are three points off the top of their division, an Under-23 side who have picked up form and panache after much discussion about the signings at that level – but some of what Leeds are doing is less joined-up.
They went to town with new contracts before Christmas but are now hinting at a dressing-room cull. They have a player in Vurnon Anita who was capped by Holland as a midfielder, did a turn for Newcastle at right-back and has somehow become an auxiliary left-back. They have a set-piece specialist on their backroom staff but only eight Championship teams have scored fewer goals from set-pieces and only four have conceded more. They have a partnership with Cultural Leonesa in Spain but are gaining little from watching Yosuke Ideguchi kick his heels there on loan, as the faceless Ouasim Bouy did during the first half of the season. For all that is made of the association with Qatar’s Aspire Academy, it is yet to be shown that the relationship is more beneficial for Leeds than it is for the expansion of Aspire’s profile.
Viewed in its entirety it could almost be said that the structure needs simplifying or projected in a way which inspires more confidence in it. It could almost be said that Leeds have strayed beyond the boundary of being clever, to the extent that the fundamentals are going awry. Their situation brings to mind Geoff Boycott’s comments about the weighty dossier given the England’s cricketers before their dismal Ashes tour of Australia in 2013: you’ve got an 82-page book on nutrition but you can’t bowl line and length. Nothing tells a club to go back to basics like a 14-game run which is worse than Sunderland’s.