The value of long-termism is something Eunan O’Kane feels qualified to speak about. A stressful week at Elland Road brought renewed talk of projects and vision but of all the players on Leeds United’s books, O’Kane has the benefit of seeing first-hand how patience can pay off.
There are too many differences between Leeds and Bournemouth, the club where O’Kane won two promotions, to draw precise parallels but when the midfielder was asked yesterday to spell out his faith in Thomas Christiansen, he replied by saying the “biggest compliment” he could give was that United’s head coach is “as close to Eddie Howe as I’ve seen.”
Howe, in two separate periods as manager, took Bournemouth from the knackers’ yard to the Premier League. The club were so invested in him that they wasted no time in taking Howe back after a spell at Burnley which failed to work out. Bournemouth trusted his ideas implicitly, even amid a run of one win in 11 games which began their League One season in 2012 and featured a 4-0 hammering at Swindon. It was O’Kane’s first taste of Howe’s management.
Football brings hardships and Leeds are in that zone; six defeats from eight league matches and in a state where a revolution which drew admiring glances while Leeds were top of the Championship in September is now requiring some dogged defence. That O’Kane was asked about his confidence in Christiansen told a story about the pressure Christiansen is under but the midfielder drew on his time at Bournemouth as a reason for Leeds to dig in and persevere.
Bournemouth’s grim start in 2012 did not stop the club finishing second with 83 points. “It was similar to now,” O’Kane said. “You feel a bit like ‘what do we have to do to win a game of football?’ The slight difference then was that we took a couple of bad beatings. I remember playing Swindon away and we lost 5-0, something like that. We haven’t had that here.
“We’ve been in games and we’ve given ourselves opportunities. We’ve probably had enough chances to win most of the games we’ve played in, bar one or two. In the first however many games those chances were going in. Now they seem to be going wide or hitting the post and coming back out. Sometimes that’s football.”
O’Kane is one of the more experienced members of Christiansen’s squad and speaking before today’s game at Brentford, he cut a picture of controlled frustration; frustrated with Leeds’ form but frustrated too that United’s form was prompting a rush to write the club and Christiansen off. Leeds are two points outside the play-offs, a position O’Kane said he would have settled for at this stage of the season. They might return to the top six after tonight’s fixture at Griffin Park. The slump, in his view, has not been long enough to class United as a side in freefall.
“We’re going through a bad spell and it’s been a difficult couple of weeks but it’s very easy to look at it through a narrow tunnel of vision and say we’ve been on this run of losing this amount of games,” O’Kane said.
“If you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, when we were top of the league we were saying then that there’s no trophies handed out at this stage. At the end of the day, no-one gets promoted at this stage either. We’re two points outside the play-offs and I don’t think there’s any real reason for concern.
“If (the form) continues and continues and we start to freefall then there’s a problem but at present there’s no need to overreact. There’s no need to get carried away when you win games because no-one’s getting promoted now.
“There’s no need to get carried away when you lose a few on the bounce. If you were asking me this question in May then my answer would be slightly different but as far as I’m aware, we’re only in November.”
Christiansen received the backing of Leeds’ owner, Andrea Radrizzani, after Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to Derby County and Radrizzani’s attitude at Elland Road since his takeover in May has been undeniably long-term. On the playing side, Leeds have tied old and new players, O’Kane included, to long contracts and widened their scouting network significantly. The repurchase of Elland Road in June has been followed by plans to work with Leeds City Council to regenerate the land around the club’s stadium and move United’s training ground to a state-of-the-art facility in the city centre by 2020. The football might be failing presently but progress elsewhere has been tangible.
“Everyone here and everyone connected with Leeds knows what happens when managers turnover really quickly or when owners change, whatever else,” O’Kane said. “It is about long-term projects and you have to buy into that. You have to give them time.
“There were periods at Bournemouth like the season when we got promoted from the Championship where we didn’t win for six or seven games after Christmas. It took us until the last day to win the league but Bournemouth were comfortable about getting promoted. It was never in question inside the dressing room.
“These things happen. Sometimes things don’t go your way and sometimes decisions go against you. If we can continue with the process and the project here, it’s got everything here to be a success.
“The fact that we started so well, maybe people just expected us to keep doing that. But that’s not football. And never mind the Championship. Did anyone see Real Madrid against Tottenham the other night? The best players in the world go through spells where they don’t play well. We’re going through one at the minute where we can’t seem to buy a win but it’s about keeping faith in what you’re doing.”
Christiansen described Brentford as a must-win game after Tuesday’s late loss to Derby, a comment made in the aftermath of painful defeat. It implied a fear that the same result at Griffin Park this evening might have consequences for his job. Christiansen toned his expectation down yesterday, asking his players to be relaxed and saying he would not “put a gun to their heads” but placing excessive pressure on tonight’s fixture. Brentford are in good shape after eight league games without defeat.
O’Kane expects Leeds to resolve their own form before long. “If you go out and you don’t carry out what’s been asked of you and you lose, it’s hard to take,” he said. “When you go out and execute the gameplan and then for one reason or another you lose, it’s still difficult to take but at least you know the process is right. You’re working towards the right thing.
“Brentford are very high on confidence off the back of a couple of wins. It’s two teams in contrasting conditions in respect to confidence but I don’t think the players’ mentality has wavered. At the start of the season if you’d asked if we’d have taken two points outside the play-offs in November, I think a lot of people would have done. We’re on a bad run but there’s a lot of football left to be played.”