In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks at the expectations surrounding the club.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, 2015 hit ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
A new signing is feverishly received by football fans like we’ve woken up on Christmas Day. And yet, in the case of Diego Llorente, it was quite typical of 2020 that Christmas was cancelled. And in the case of Robin Koch, we broke our new present before the turkey was even in the oven. We felt the first rush of excitement but never quite captured the true buzz of something new, and that was all ours.
The recruitment policy at Leeds United has moved on from something old and something borrowed, but there is a palpable frustration when something barely out of the wrapper is tantalisingly out of reach, particularly when it is most needed. This made Llorente’s appearance for the Under-23s versus Stoke City this week extremely welcome, but also ensured reactions to it were doused in an unmistakable sense of trying to temper our giddy excitement.
It was easy to conclude from Llorente’s nonchalantly dominant 45 minutes at Thorp Arch, that he is the second coming of Jack Charlton and Rio Ferdinand rolled into one; the perfect combination of presence, power, composure and ability. He was authoritative and controlled, he scored the only goal of the game with a neat header, and nearly preceded it with a quite astonishing 35-yard volley which skimmed the crossbar and thudded into the fence behind the goal, with a fizz that distracted the neighbouring houses from their afternoon tea.
As impacts go it was exactly what we wanted to see. But then the blood and thunder of the Premier League is a far cry from the more accommodating confines of a relatively sleepy Under-23s fixture, and of course we have been here before, so desperate to mend cracks in the squad that we pin all our hopes on a player we know next to nothing about.
The name Kevin Nicholls will evoke involuntary shudders in most Leeds fans. He was signed by Kevin Blackwell in the summer of 2006 and, probably due to some inexplicable fascination they each shared in Luton, immediately installed as captain. This instantly raised expectations way beyond any reasonable level, particularly when a knee injury delayed his debut into the dying embers of Blackwell’s desperately failing reign as manager. It soon became apparent that Nicholls was not the new Gary McAllister. He wasn’t even the new Gary McSheffrey, and after 14 appearances he declared his desire to jump ship and return to his former club Luton Town, albeit he ended up at Preston. As club captain, it was one of the most undignified and sorry episodes of a new century at Elland Road already overburdened with strong competition. Relegation to League One soon followed.
We vowed never to be fooled again by the glamorous sheen of a shiny new signing, at least until we’d seen them in action. But a few of us will have been guilty of furtively watching LUTV coverage of Under-23s games whilst pretending to work in 2018, desperate for an injury-hit Izzy Brown to show some of the promise that retained him on Chelsea’s books, and saw him stand out in loan appearances against Leeds for both Rotherham and Huddersfield. We were still clinging to a, frankly distressed, semblance of hope deep into the second of his much-delayed and over-hyped sub appearances in the Play-Off Semi-Final versus Derby County at Elland Road. We already knew it, but Izzy Brown was not our saviour.
Expectation is a funny thing, and as football fans we can’t help but compare new signings to previous ones. This might seem unfair on vulnerable human beings launched into new surroundings and with their own identities and unique skillsets, but football is a cut-throat business. And as Leeds embark on a new Premier League adventure, all eyes are on them and expectations are skewed further.
It is no secret within Leeds United circles that this season has seen us deal with unprecedented handicaps going into virtually every game. Quite apart from the briefest of pre-seasons and little time to prepare and adjust to a new level of football after 16 years away, Marcelo Bielsa’s men have been disrupted by a procession of injuries that have robbed them of any sense of balance and continuity in defence.
People were quick to praise the performance of Ben White for Brighton last weekend, and how playing every minute of every game for Leeds in their promotion campaign contributed so much to its success, but failed to acknowledge how his absence might subsequently affect the solidity and organisation of his former team. This is particularly true given the two players bought to replace him have made just 12 appearances between them, a third international centre back, captain Liam Cooper, has been in and out of the side, as has Kalvin Phillips, Gaetano Berardi is also injured and Pascal Struijk is learning very quickly on his feet.
Previously Bielsa has relied on the Under-23s to bolster his squad in an emergency, and while the Championship was a challenging playground in which they could be educated, the Premier League is rife with tormentors ready to steal your dinner money and leave you upturned in the nearest dustbin with your shoelaces tied together.
And yet despite this disruptive background and patchwork existence, Leeds must be the only newly-promoted team receiving of the gravest scrutiny simply because they don’t win every game. Players like Stuart Dallas must wonder what they have to do to avoid an overload of expectation. Having finally escaped the suffocating clutches of the second tier, now people expect Leeds to immediately romp the Premier League with a team which ended the Brighton game fielding 11 Championship regulars.
It is hard to explain, but this is where the true status and potential of Leeds United becomes clear. It will always be like this, and Leeds won’t be judged the same or offered the allowances that other clubs are, regardless of where or who we are playing. That’s just the way it is.
Internally, Leeds fans know that a team with a settled defence and fully utilising the talents of a multi-million pound transfer spend in what little time the summer allowed us, will present a more coherent, balanced and credible opportunity to judge. Until then, it was always going to be a ride in which we would have to sit tight, rely on what we knew and retain some belief in what got us here in such glorious fashion.
Leeds are 12th, on 23 points and one game shy of the halfway point in the season. And we have yet to field our strongest team at any point. Injuries and disruption might affect every team the same, but then not every team is judged like Leeds United. So the only expectation that is worth worrying about is our own, the club and the fans, and against that context, we’re doing just fine.