SUNDAY’S FA Cup defeat at Newport County was a good game to miss but Eunan O’Kane’s absence from it did not stop this feeling like a very slow week.
“It’s funny, I’ve just had that conversation with Pontus (Jansson),” he said as Leeds United’s players prepared to travel south for this afternoon’s game at Ipswich Town. “It feels like it’s taken a long time to get round to Friday and the match.”
Humiliation in the FA Cup has that effect but the result at Newport was barely the half of it. On Monday Leeds lost Samuel Saiz to a six-match ban after Saiz admitted spitting at Newport’s Robbie Willmott.
On Tuesday, they ruled Luke Ayling out of the rest of their Championship season by sending him for surgery on his injured ankle. This week was expensive even before United paid £1.5m to sign left-back Laurens De Bock from Club Brugge on Thursday.
De Bock’s transfer addressed a blatant shortage in Thomas Christiansen’s squad – that of a left-back who actually is a left-back – but Saiz and Ayling are marquee players and awkward absentees. Ayling’s scenario was plain bad luck, the result of a 50-50 challenge between the right-back and Liam Bridcutt during Leeds’ 0-0 draw with Nottingham Forest on New Year’s Day. A jovial personality and a popular individual, he will not play again until pre-season begins in July.
“He was really unlucky because it wasn’t a bad tackle, just a coming together, and to be out for that length of time is going to be a challenge for him,” O’Kane said.
“From the group’s point of view, he’s a good character and good in the dressing room. He keeps morale high when we’re in bad spells. He’ll be missed on the coach, on those long journeys.”
Saiz has attracted less sympathy, experiencing first hand how English football frowns on spitting.
He accepted a six-match suspension from the Football Association on Monday and apologised publicly within 24 hours of the incident. He had earlier said sorry to United’s players en masse for an error of judgement which will mothball him until the final week of next month.
“He was very apologetic to us as a team,” O’Kane said. “It was clear he’d learned his lesson.
“I personally didn’t have a conversation with him and I don’t know if anyone else did but the first thing that happened when we came back in was that he apologised to us and from his apology, I think he understood that he was wrong and it shouldn’t happen. I can’t imagine it’ll happen again.
“Most of us are the same as everyone else. It’s frustrating that it’s happened and it’s disappointing but it’s something we can’t affect as a group of players.
“We’re without him but that’s football. It’s up to the rest of us to pick up the slack now.”
He does bring a lot to our team but we’ve got people ready to come in.Eunan O’Kane on how Leeds will cope with enforced loss of Samuel Saiz
O’Kane was reluctant to see Saiz’s suspension as an insurmountable blow for a club who are hanging in the play-off race. Leeds’ position in the Championship is promising but precarious: seventh with teams within shooting distance above them but clubs hovering below too.
Saiz will miss games against some of those sides as he takes his medicine for the next six weeks.
The Spaniard has been an inventive mind and an easy-on-the-eye talent since signing from Huesca last summer. “Samu’s an excellent player and an excellent footballer,” O’Kane said. “He does bring a lot to our team but we’ve got people ready to come in.
“Pablo (Hernandez) plays in that position and he was one of our best players for a large part of last season. I don’t think it’ll be a huge, huge miss. We’ve got players who can take on that responsibility.”
The injury to Ayling and the suspension of Saiz come at a time when the strength of Christiansen’s squad is already open to debate; specifically open to the question of whether Leeds can last the pace of the top six.
Almost everyone in Leeds saw the need for a new left-back before De Bock arrived from Belgium. Many, including Christiansen to judge by his comments yesterday, would welcome the recruitment of another striker.
O’Kane has won promotion from the Championship before, with Bournemouth in 2015, and knows what type of squad is needed. Asked if Leeds had sufficient depth, the midfielder said: “I don’t think that’s really for me to comment on. If Victor [Orta, United’s director of football], the owner and the manager think they need to bring in more bodies then so be it.
“If they feel what they’ve got is good enough then that’s their decision.
“From a personal point of view all I can say is the quality within our squad is really good. If new faces join and add quality then that can only be a good thing but if we close this window with the same players we have now, personally I wouldn’t be too disappointed.”
In Christiansen’s dressing room, especially after defeat to a League Two club last weekend, there will be an urge to avoid making the club’s hierarchy think that the existing team falls short of their requirements.
Today’s game at Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich, where football is robust and the pitch tends to look like bare carpet this side of Christmas, is a substantial test. Christiansen is down on numbers and Ipswich’s tactics are the sort that his side tend to struggle with.
“They’ve got their own style which they stick to and it’s maybe a style which people say doesn’t really suit us,” O’Kane said.
“It’ll be tough. We expect them to get the ball in our box as much as they can and it’s up to us to defend against that and influence the game in the way we want.”
“Personally, off the pitch Mick seems like a really nice man but that’s definitely not something I’d say about his teams. They’re definitely a bit ugly and hard to beat. It is a test. He has his own style and they’ve had some success from it.”
The same was true of Newport, who deservedly overwhelmed Leeds with a late onslaught on a difficult surface at Rodney Parade. Despite being rested, O’Kane apologised for the result and said he was anxious to draw a line under it. “
That conversation happened very quickly,” he said. “Yes it was disappointing but we’ve said that we can’t let that result affect our league form or our league position. We need to make sure one defeat doesn’t become three, four or five. We’ve got other things to fight for.”
Promotion is top of the list, as it was before Newport, and O’Kane laughed when he was asked if Leeds still had a serious chance. “What position are we in?,” he replied. “Yes, it’s definitely within reach.”