Last night in front of a crowd over over 30,000 people goals from Samuel Saiz and Stuart Dallas helped guide Leeds United to the top of the Championship for the first time ever. The performance, although by no means spectacular, demonstrated the steely and resilient characteristics required to escape the grasps of the lower divisions which have had their claws wrapped around the Yorkshire outfit since 2004. It’s early days, of course, but we’ve all started thinking; does this mark a return of the old guard?
Leeds are not alone among the ‘traditional’ big clubs of English football in getting off to a good start. Both United and Wednesday of Sheffield are in the promotion places after a string of good results and Nottingham Forest are even making a charge towards the top of the league under the stewardship of Mark Warburton. A pick of just one or two of the four aforementioned teams would be welcomed as a healthy return to the Premier League for the domestic game, and at the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I’m doubtful the likes of Bournemouth, Swansea, Burnley and Brighton will be sorely missed.
Burnley and Swansea were both involved in dull 1-0 clashes in the misleadingly-labelled “Super Sunday” fixtures at the weekend, and although both results are pretty useless on face value the attendances do tell a tale. The former club forced the dismissal of Frank de Boer in front of just 18,862 people and the latter were defeated at the hands of Newcastle United in front of just 20,872 folk. Imagine if that had been at Elland Road or Hillsborough.
Of course results speak for themselves and it’s testament to Burnley that they edged the game over Palace to pick up all three points and in doing so propelled themselves to seventh in the league, just shy of Huddersfield, who are also relative minnows compared to some of their Yorkshire rivals. But they have provided some fantastic entertainment so far this year and more than held their own in the top tier. This is a points-based business, simple as that, and all Premier League clubs are there on merit alone.
Of all clubs, Leeds need little reminding of that. Indeed, so pronounced is the downfall of Leeds United that the expression “doing a Leeds” is now firmly entrenched in footballing folk-law. After suffering a financial meltdown the club have endured years in football league wilderness, occasionally stirred by the magic of the cup and the likes of Jermaine Beckford, Luciano Becchio and Robert Snodgrass who all promised to propel the club to greater things. Of course that often transpired to be a fat transfer sum gobbled up by corrupt foreign owners, but there are signs that this year could be different for The Whites.
For a start, Gary Monk has done an excellent job in laying the foundations for success in terms of building a stronger defence by bringing in the likes of Pontus Jansson, Luke Ayling and Kyle Bartley. The sale of the club to a new owner has also been a decisive step, with Andrea Radrizzani wiping away the controversy of the previous owner and building for the future with a good recruitment structure in place headed by Victor Orta.
This is underpinned by the work Thomas Christiansen has done in integrating the new signings into Monk’s squad, which was key, because a wholesale replacement would have meant more years in football wilderness for the club. Kalvin Phillips has integrated well while the likes of Liam Copper has stepped up to the mark. And to welcome them, so have the fans, with huge gates over the past few weeks.
Speaking to The London Economic, Leeds fan Chris Moss said: “The new owner has done a lot to reengage with the fans which has been a huge boost and added to the “feel good factor” as it seems like he actually cares.
“He immediately bought back Elland Road which Massimo promised to do and never did, the stadium has since been re branded with banners all over displaying Leeds legends and “side before self” slogans. Even bringing back Leeds United ladies has gone down well.
“They are trying to make going to the football a family event too with new fan zones, even having Tom Zanetti DJing to provide extra entertainment.
“It’s only early but I think the sale of Chris Wood has been of benefit to us too as we are no longer a one trick pony.
“There was too much reliance on him and almost a “get it to Chris Wood” feeling about the side, but we appear much more free flowing now and goals are quite literally coming from everywhere.
“We’ve already had nine or ten different goal scorers this season. Last year Chris Wood scored 27 in the league and behind him were three players scoring just six goals. Already this year Samuel Sáiz has scored six across all competitions, Kemar Roofe has scored five across all competitions and Philips has scored three in the league.”
The question that remains is whether their early success is sustainable. Although a lot of Leeds fans will err on the side of caution, in Moss’s eyes they have what it takes to go up this year.
“I think we have a strength in depth that we haven’t seen for years and the players are playing for each other. Already they are covering different positions when needed (Dallas played left back last week, Ayling moved to centre back last night. Anita can play multiple positions).
“The main concern people have spoken about is how the foreign players will handle the winter months, but last night was a great test as the weather was awful.
“The characters we have in and around the club are brilliant too, people like Jansson and Gaetano Berardi just “get” what it is to be Leeds.
“A lot of our players are relatively unknowns too which means that they don’t have the pressure of a multi-million pound marquee signing or the prima donna personality that can come with a “big name” signing.
“The management, board and recruitment all appear to work well together too. Everything about the club is fantastic at the moment.
“Is this our year? I believe at long last it is.”