It still isn’t so long since
Leeds United beat themselves Derby County beat Leeds United 4-2 at Elland Road to progress to the Championship play-off final. I was lucky enough to be there on the night and was so swept up in the emotion of it all that I wrote:
“Regardless of the result at Wembley, the way in which everyone – players, staff, manager, chairman/owner, supporters – were so tightly bonded has to have a meaningful legacy. It has to be a platform that we build on as a club for seasons to come.”
Unfortunately, I’m not sure it has really turned out that way. That night was more of a tantalising glimpse of success, of what is possible, but the man who threatened to light the blue touchpaper let us down soon afterwards, firstly through a Wembley team selection which only served to confuse and disappoint everyone and secondly by decamping, in a wholly undignified, excruciatingly drawn-out fashion, back to his parent club.
Mel Morris sought to replace Frank Lampard with an equally decorated individual. It was never going to be possible for him to get a figure with the same stature in the English game, but he was able to hire another international centurion, with the benefit of a much better managerial CV than Frank Lampard.
But Phillip Cocu is a very different character to Lampard. The Chelsea man’s extrovert nature and easy charm – at least partly learned at the knee of his uncle, Harry Redknapp – helped him to bond easily with the fans, the majority of us bouncing eagerly into his arms at the first sniff of success. Lampard was also able to exert his influence and sign three unbelievable loan players from Chelsea and Liverpool, all of whom have gone straight onto featuring regularly and impressing in the Premier League this season.
Cocu doesn’t have the same charisma, contacts or status in the English game, which is why, particularly given the very short amount of time he had to work with his squad before we kicked off at Huddersfield, it should be no surprise to anybody that it hasn’t been all roses in these early stages of the season. Add in the fact that the club disposed of various senior players in the summer to control its excessive wagebill, asked the manager to start trying to integrate young players into the team and then surprised everyone by committing to a marquee signing who won’t make his Rams debut until January and there’s no surprise that results and performances have not been stellar thus far.
I have a lot of sympathy for Cocu, because although I think he got it wrong to an extent at Forest, circumstances have conspired roundly against him ever since he took the job. Joining at the eleventh hour, the fixture calendar throwing up a series of extremely difficult games one after the other, arguably the nastiest possible league cup draw, missed penalties – even the fact uncovered by the analyst Peter A. Lohmann that seven points after seven games, while hardly brilliant, would not usually leave a team as low in the Championship table as 19th (it has only happened once before this century).
But Cocu, you sense, is a gritty character, who will simply – well, OK, maybe not grin and bear it, but certainly, he will soldier determinedly on.
There have been no such problems for Leeds United. Marcelo Bielsa has simply carried straight on from where he left off last season and his team’s early performances have been flagged by every single statistician I follow as being on a different level to everyone else in this season’s Championship. The average shot count in their games so far has been 18.1 – 8.7 and they have averaged more than 60% possession. They’re top of the table for shots on target, shots in the penalty area, shots in the six-yard box (2.1 per game). They are absolutely flying and this is not a good time to go to Elland Road. Add in the fact that their fans will be screaming for a measure of revenge to help them move on from the shock of last season’s play-off defeat and the script, it seems, is written.
Just as it was seemingly written last season, when they had beaten us so easily three times on the spin that there was simply no way back for the Rams. We all know how that turned out.
As dominant as Leeds have been and as splendid as some of their performances have been, they are not unbeatable. Forest went their, were out-shot 15-6 and skanked a 1-1 draw through a scrambled Lewis Grabban effort late in the game. Swansea City went one better, leaving the Home of Hubris with a win, despite barely having had a kick in the 90. They are second division players and second division players, no matter how well coached, are fallible.
Cocu will know, I’m sure, that he blew a lot of good will when he effectively conceded the league cup game against Forest. He would get a lot of credit back in the bank if he could magic up a victory against another old enemy, but there is an understanding, I think, that the odds are firmly against him on this occasion and I’m certain that any sensible Rams fan would snatch the proverbial hand off for a point if offered it now.
After Leeds, we have a run of fixtures from which it is imperative that the team start to pick up some momentum.
A home win as soon as possible is vital for everyone’s morale and I’m certain that it is coming. Ideally, somebody would get a right hiding off us, but however it comes, we will definitely settle down, pick up some results and start to improve. Exactly how much better we get – and what situation Wayne Rooney will walk into this winter – remains to be seen.