Leeds United’s record at home last season was bettered by just six Championship clubs. Elland Road did not kowtow to its guests, or not in the way that other stadiums did. It merely seemed that way.
Between dwindling crowds, laboured football and poor results at critical times, United’s form felt less valuable than the 42 points it was worth. Noel Whelan saw a team muddling through and flattering to deceive; strong in results but not in performance.
The first day of the new Championship season is a chance to turn the tide. Tickets for Saturday’s game against Brighton sold briskly all summer and have ticked over steadily in recent days. A projection of 25,500 over the weekend climbed to 28,000 yesterday and the crowd could rise above 30,000 before kick-off. The stadium, the experience, the price of seats; all have regained their appeal.
Whelan, United’s former striker, thought the stress of United’s home matches last season was a fundamental reason for their dice with relegation and a final league position of 13th. Leeds were dismal away, winning only four times, but Whelan claimed one was a product of the other – excessive pressure away from home caused by the strain of fixtures at Elland Road.
“On paper, you’d say that Leeds were great at home,” said Whelan. “That’s what the statistics say. But most of the performances I saw didn’t tally with the results. The reality was quite different.
“So much of the time, it was hard work, a case of churning out results in front of a crowd who weren’t particularly impressed with what they were seeing. So many of the games felt like a grind, a bit of a scramble, and that really takes it out of the players. You don’t get the buzz or the lift you’re looking for.
“You expect your battles to be away from home. You don’t expect games at Elland Road to be easy but you want to be on top of your game there. If the results are ticking over and you’re feeling good, the difficult trips start to look more and more winnable. You don’t feel so much pressure and I’m sure that was part of the problem for Leeds.
“They need two things at Elland Road this season – to get results but to play better, too. Do that and they’ll be right in the mix.”
United’s results during the 2012-13 campaign were a reverse of the previous season. In that difficult term, the club suffered a record 13 league defeats at Elland Road and collected more points from away matches. In the season that followed, their consistency at home was the difference between relegation and a fourth successive year in the Championship.
Whelan said: “They used to say that Mike Tyson won fights before he even stepped into the ring. Basically, his opponents knew the odds and they knew what he was going to throw at him. They didn’t fancy it.
“Ideally, you want it to be the same at Leeds and in my time there (between 1993 and 1995) we put a lot of emphasis on playing the right way. You didn’t want teams coming to the ground believing you were fragile.
“The one thing you can never do is blame the crowd for the way you perform. Whether the stadium’s full or there are empty seats all over the place, the way you play should inspire the crowd, not the other way round. There are a few exceptions to that rule but Leeds won’t beat Brighton on Saturday because of the supporters. They’ll beat Brighton if they perform well.”
Whelan, like others, has been surprised at the lack of movement in and out of Elland Road.
Employed as a scout by Millwall this summer, the 38-year-old soon became aware of a lack of movement across the Championship as a whole. There is barely a finished squad in the league and United’s work is not complete.
The club’s manager, Brian McDermott, has been stuck on three signings since July 3, waiting for a departure to fulfil Leeds’ policy of one out, one in. An enquiry for one of his players was made last week but McDermott has little more than 48 hours to tie the many threads of a deal together. At this late stage, his plans for Brighton already appear to be in place.
“I expected more to happen at Leeds,” continued Whelan. “It sounds like the manager did, too.
“The owners (GFH Capital) did a limited amount in January and I thought ‘fair enough, they’re waiting for the summer.’ January’s a difficult time to buy, players are over-priced and a club like Leeds need to get their signings right. Long-term options are what they want in the main, younger lads who can bed in for three or four years.
“For me, the squad hasn’t changed enough but I’ll tell you this – it’s the same at a lot of clubs. I can’t believe how little activity there’s been and I’ve been waiting for an explosion for weeks. Now we’re three days out from the start of the season and you wonder if it’s ever going to happen.
“Maybe most managers are quite content – though I don’t get that impression – or maybe everyone’s wary of the Financial Fair Play rules. I’ve heard a lot said about how people will bend the rules or find loopholes but at the end of the day, the rules are there and you’ve got to adhere to them.
“The Championship is split into the haves and the have-nots and its fair to say that Leeds are in the group of have-nots. What I’m hoping is that the familiarity between their players will help them. That can be an advantage.”
McDermott has tweaked his formation in the past seven days, foregoing the diamond midfield which served him well last season and experimenting with a lone striker. He used that system during a friendly against Shelbourne in Dublin on Monday night, fielding Ryan Hall up front with support from Matt Smith and Noel Hunt. On his first appearance of the summer, Hall scored twice in a 4-0 win.
McDermott has ridden the frustration of a slow transfer market to reach the new season in an optimistic frame of mind. “He’s carrying a lot on his shoulders,” said Whelan, “but Leeds appointed him very quickly last season so he’s obviously the man in their eyes.
“His teams have a good style and they won’t be easy to turn over. I just think it’s a shame that he’s not got everything he was looking for in the transfer market. But I guess there’s time left yet, if someone can find him some money.”