As I woke on Sunday morning I reached out, as I always do, to my bedside table to check my phone. I had an e-mail from YouTube - “Comment posted on your video ‘Gary Speed Tribute’”. The comment simply said ‘R.I.P. Gary’. My initial thought was “what the hell does that mean?” The possibility that Speed was dead didn’t even register with me, despite the comment being as blatant as it possibly could be.
As I got up and headed to the shower my mind cleared and the gravity of the comment hit me - R.I.P. Gary. Hold on a minute - could Speed be dead? I immediately grabbed my phone again and typed the words “Gary Speed” into a Google search. Ignoring the first result, which was actually a news story about that mornings breaking tragedy, my eyes were instinctively drawn to the second result - Gary Speed’s Wikipedia entry. There, in a preview of the article itself, were the words: Gary Andrew Speed, MBE (8 September 1969 – 27 November 2011) was a Welsh football player and manager.
I was stunned. Gary Speed was dead. My immediate instinct was to call my dad, the man who steered me from a young age towards following Leeds United. He hadn’t yet wakened so hadn't heard. I informed him of the news and as I hung up the phone I tried to compose myself. What had happened? My immediate thought was a tragic car accident or something similar. Certainly not anything sinister. Further internet investigation revealed the truth. For the rest of Sunday, and everyday since to be honest; my thoughts haven’t strayed far from Gary Speed.
As a child I remember vividly the Christmas of 1993. Squad numbers and names on shirts had become the new thing in football and I was delighted to wake up on Christmas morning to my shiny new white Leeds home shirt. And on the back? Only one choice: Speed 11. In fact on the street I grew up on, in a small Northern Irish town, there were two other kids - brothers - that supported Leeds. They too had ‘Speed 11’ on their shirts. Why Speed? To us he was the superstar of the team, the young, handsome, home-grown winger, capable of scoring spectacular goals and always giving 100%. In that famous midfield quartet of Strachan, McAllister, Batty and Speed, the latter two were the old heads, the responsible players, the players your dad related too. David Batty's role was difficult for a small child to appreciate. His game centred around crunching tackles and he scored few goals. He was unglamorous. Speed was the young maverick. Arguments would inevitably ensue as to who got to “be” Gary Speed when we had a kick about.
It’s a hobby of mine to compile video tributes to my favourite Leeds players past and present. Just last week I compiled one for Gary Speed. Going back through all that old footage was wonderful - from “go on Gary Speed, get one yourself son” through to his final season at Leeds, reliving those childhood memories is a big reason why I enjoy making those videos so much. From 305 views before the news broke of Speed’s death, the current view count sits at just north of 222,000. That is the measure of people that have been affected by his passing. The heart-felt comments left on the video range from the clubs he played for to their biggest rivals. Leeds and Manchester United, Everton and Liverpool. Why? Because Gary Speed was the kind of player any supporter would have wanted in their team. He wasn't quite world-class, but he could hold his own on any pitch and he always gave his all. He was never in the front pages of the papers. He was never even really a player talked about much. He was simply a constant, something taken for granted. Gary Speed’s name would always be on the team sheet, and he would always give 100%.
On Tuesday night in Nottingham the travelling Leeds support gave Gary the send-off he deserved. The chanting of his name sent shivers down my spine as I listened on the radio. The players also responded with a top class performance. The timing of the first goal, just as the 11 minutes of non-stop chanting of his name ended; was like something out of a fairytale. Today I booked flights I can’t really afford so that I can be at Elland Road this Saturday. Win, lose or draw I just have to be there so that I can chant the name of Gary Speed alongside my fellow Leeds supporters. I have never wanted to attend any game as much in my life.
It’s hard to explain why the death of a footballer has had such a profound affect on me. It’s hard to understand myself. Gary Speed was part of a Leeds team that delivered, a team I was in awe of as a small child. A team that has not been bettered since. The life of a football supporter, especially a Leeds one; can be a heartbreaking and cynical experience. In this day and age players come and go with such frequency an emotional bond is hard to establish between them and the fans. In 1992, with the advent of Sky, football changed forever. The days of the same group of players staying together under one manager over a prolonged period of years is gone. Testimonials are a thing of the past. Gary Speed broke into the Leeds team in 1988 and stayed there until 1996. To think he also served seven years at Newcastle is pretty remarkable.
As a child my VHS tape of the 1991/1992 title winning season was almost worn out because I watched it that much. In adulthood it is viewed with less frequency but still at least a couple of times a year. Last night I watched it and the feeling of nostalgic joy I usually get from it was tinged with sadness. I suspect this will now forevermore be the case. On Sunday 27th November 2011 Gary Speed chose to end his own life. The reasons why may never be revealed or understood. All I know is that with him died a very important piece of my childhood. But, tainted as they are with sadness, the memories live on and for me they always will. For that, Gary Speed, I thank you. Rest in peace.
A video I made showcasing some of Gary Speed's best moments in a Leeds shirt...
EDIT: 27/11/11 - I made this video one week before Gary's death. I am very saddened but at the same time pleased that I got around to putting this video together before he passed. Who knows, he might even have seen it. It stands now as a tribute to a great player and a man who left us too soon and left us wondering 'Why?' R.I.P. Gary Speed.
Footage courtesy of Sky, ITV,Leeds United - The Second Coming - 1989/90 Champions DVD & Leeds United Season Review VHS tapes (1989-90, 1990-91, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1993-94, 1994-95 & 1995-96 seasons); made using Apple iMovie '11.
With the 2011/2012 season starting today, here's what I think of the Leeds squad and my thoughts about our prospects for the season.
1 - Andy Lonergan - A solid if unspectacular 'keeper. Better than Schmeichel? Remains to be seen, but he was certainly a lot cheaper and that's the key factor for this club.
2 - Paul Connolly - Again solid is the word, which is really all you can hope for from a full-back at this level. Works hard and gets forward well.
3 - Patrick Kisnorbo - Could be the key. If he stays fit and gets back to his old form he could be the difference maker that sees us get promotion. However his injury record is pretty terrible and it seems the club are gambling a lot on him staying fit. If he gets injured we're left with the same disastrous defence as last season. We're taking a big gamble here, the failure to invest in a quality centre-back is staggering. 4 - Alex Bruce - Decent back up at best and quite versatile. Too inconsistent to be a regular starter.
5 - Andy O'Brien - An interesting case. We needed him to be a leader last season and he's not a leader. He looked very good in the last couple of games alongside Naylor who was a leader, so there's genuine reason to be optimistic about a potentially very good partnership between him and Kisnorbo, who is also a leader. 7 - Max Gradel - I'm counting the minutes until the transfer window closes. As long as we have Gradel and Snodgrass we have a chance. It would be unbelievable if it wasn't Leeds United that we have let him get down to one year left on his contract. Have we even offered him a new one? Of course not. I'll be stunned if he's still here at the start of September.
8 - Michael Brown - If he's anything like the player he once was he'll be exactly what we were missing in the midfield last season - a nasty player who can tackle and break up opposition attacks. But he's old and hasn't played since Christmas. Time will tell. 9 - Billy Paynter - Much maligned, some of it justified. Will never be a goalscorer at this level. Becchio's out. Somma's out. Come in number 9 your time is now. As long as he does his basic job - wins headers and holds the ball up - we have the players in Gradel, Snodgrass, McCormack, Nunez, Sam and Howson to score the goals until Becchio is back.
10 - Luciano Becchio - Somebody made a balls up by not getting him the surgery he needed at the end of last season. Now we have to start the season without our top scorer. Great worker and a key player. Here's hoping he's back sooner rather than later. The old chestnut "weeks rather than months" has been trotted out but we've heard that so many times before it's hard not to be cynical. No doubt the same would have been said of Somma if he hadn't tweeted the truth himself. Why does the club do this? Well if the supporters know our key players are going to be out for a long time then we might expect some replacements to be signed. Bates couldn't have that, could he?
11 - Lloyd Sam - Hopefully he can stay fit this time because I really like this lad. Quick, skillful and has an eye for goal. Should be a threat from the bench as well as allowing us to keep Snodgrass and Gradel fresh.
12 - Paul Rachubka - Should be decent back-up.
13 - Mike Grella - Clearly has no future here. Suspect attitude and too many players ahead of him. Has potential but if he hasn't fulfilled by now he probably never will. He can count himself a little unlucky that there have always been good strikers ahead of him since the moment he arrived at the club and thus he never really got a decent run in the team.
14 - Jonny Howson - Full-time captain now so he's a guaranteed starter. He always has been under Grayson anyway. I'm torn on him. It looks like we'll be going 4-5-1 again which suits him down to the ground as he's made for the role in behind the stiker. In a 4-4-2 he struggles, although alongside a player that can actually tackle, and hopefully that player is Brown; perhaps he can finally flourish in that role also. Our system last season was built around him and looks set to be so again. Is he a player so good that you build a team around him? I'm not so sure...
15 - Adam Clayton - Looks set to step up into the first team this season. He and Brown look like the replacements for Johnson and Kilkenny. Both can tackle and if they can add the defensive cover we lacked with their predecessors then we could end up a whole lot better off this season.
19 - Ben Parker - Seems to be much maligned among Leeds supporters and I don't understand it. He was starting to really progress the last time he had a run in the Leeds team. Unfortunately that was two years ago. If he stays fit in my opinion he's worth a chance at left-back. Obviously I'm disappointed we didn't bring in a left-back but I'd be happy to see Parker or White given a chance.
20 - Ramon Nunez - Looks like an unearthed gem. He did well on loan at Scunthorpe last season, and hopefully like Beckford and Somma before him, he can come back and make a big impact. He's had a good pre-seaon, he looks skillful and a genuine goal threat, so there's reason to be optimistic.
21 - Fede Bessone - Has apparantly been injured all summer but its hard to judge whether he'll be given another chance or we just can't offload him. He was shipped out on loan without being given much of a chance last season. Admittedly he was poor but so was George McCartney who was probably just as bad. Personally I'd rather see Parker or White given a chance.
22 - Tom Lees - Has flourished out on loan for two seasons and this season could be his chance. He seems highly rated, his only drawback being he's maybe a bit small for a centre-back. Looking at our defensive record last season he's never going to get a better chance to stake his claim for a place.
23 - Robert Snodgrass - Fantastic player. He and Gradel give us the edge and I pray both are still here come September. He's not the fittest though and unfortunately hasn't had much of a pre-season so he'll be playing catch-up. We need to use Sam and Nunez effectively to keep Snodgrass fit as he tends to burn out towards the end of the season.
26 - Leigh Bromby - Good experienced back-up at this level. He and Bruce are our back-up at centre-half and honestly I'd say one probably has to go. I'd take Bromby over Bruce every time.
27 - Davide Somma - Pretty much ruled out for the season which is a great shame. He's a natural predator and a prolific goalscorer, especially from the bench when we need a goal most. Will be a big miss.
28 - Aidan White - Hopefully his loan spell last season has built up his stamina. He's always looked good when he's played either at left-back or left wing but he's never been given a run in the side under Grayson. I suspect Grayson doesn't really rate him.
30 - Alex Cairns - Young 'keeper, third choice.
44 - Ross McCormack - Saved his Leeds career in the last two matches of last season by grabbing a couple of goals. Has undoubted quality and can score at this level, but he has again struggled for goals in pre-season (missing two penalties) and one has to wonder about his confidence. With Becchio and Somma injured this could be his big chance and he has to take it.
48 - Darren O'Dea - Don't know much about him except for conflicted views from Ipswich and Celtic fans. Some rate him, others don't. By all accounts he's more of a centre-back than a left-back and I hope he hasn't been brought in to fill the left-back role. Square pegs in round holes is never a good idea, and if the the best left-back we can sign is actually a centre-back, then there is something very wrong with our transfer policy.
I think this is our strongest starting eleven:
Lonergan Connolly O'Brien Kisnorbo Parker Clayton Brown Snodgrass Howson Gradel
With the exception of Becchio we are able to start that team against Southampton on the opening day. I'd take that team over most in this division. Without doubt it has been a disappointing pre-season on the transfer front. It is painfully obvious Ken Bates has no intention of spending money. We've lost Schmeichel, Naylor, Kilkenny, Higgs, Johnson, Livermore, Watt, Lichaj, Gonzalez, McCartney and Bannan since the end of last season and brought in only Lonergan, Rachubka, Brown and O'Dea. It's sickening that a club that finished 7th last season is showing zero ambition while teams like Leicester and Ipswich are showing bucket loads. There's a few players that can be classed as being "like a new signing" - Kisnorbo, Sam, Parker, Nunez, Clayton, White and even McCormack - but this doesn't disguise the fact that there has been zero investment and ambition by our owner to build on what we achieved last season.
Some fans are slating Grayson but I think their frustration is misguided. Does anyone think Grayson doesn't want money to spend? Do you think he feels his squad is complete? He'd be the only manager in history to think that if he did. His hands are tied. Maybe he lacks the bottle to stand up to Bates but if he did he'd surely lose his job. Maybe he believes in his own ability to get us up on the cheap and is willing to stick it out until Bates eventually leaves. Whatever the case there is no doubt Grayson will be axed if the fans start getting restless this season and that will be a huge shame. Who are we going to get that can better what he has done with no money? Changing the manager will never be the answer as long as Bates has a stranglehold on the club.
Whilst it's been a frustrating summer there is reason to be optimistic. Our attacking record spoke for itself last year and all we needed to do was address the defence. There's every possibility that Kisnorbo and Brown will be the answer to our problems. If we cut out even a third of the goals we leaked last year we'll be right in contention. As long as we have Gradel and Snodgrass (and I pray they both stay) we will be a threat to anyone. The problem lies in our strength in depth, or rather our lack of it. If Kisnorbo and Brown get injured we're no better off than we were last season. Clayton, Nunez, White, Parker and Lees are unproven at this level.
The league looks tougher this year - West Ham and Leicester are already looking nailed on for the top six at least, and I'd throw Nottingham Forest and Ipswich in there too. Hull, Middlesbrough, Cardiff, Derby, Blackpool, Birmingham, Brighton and Southampton will all feel they can have their say too. I'm forever an optimist though and I fancy us to knick 6th place. It's a shame because we really should have been building a squad to compete for automatic promotion but we just haven't invested enough. Our only hope of ever reaching the Premier League under Bates is sneaking in the back door like Blackpool did in 2010. For a club of Leeds stature that is a disgrace, and the day that our club is free of Bates can't come soon enough.
Here's how I think the players that have worn the white shirt have done this season and my thoughts on their future prospects at the club.
1 - Kasper Schmeichel - A fine shot stopper and a top 'keeper at this level, but he does live off his name somewhat. He's prone to the odd clanger and one has to wonder about his ability to organise a defence given our woeful defensive record this season. He also needs to work on the timing of his kicking. He has great distribution and it could be such a wonderful counterattacking outlet, but too often he rushes his kick and gifts possession to the opposition. He might fetch a decent fee and providing we get a suitable replacement (Kieren Westwood is available on a free) I wouldn't be adverse to seeing him go.
2 - Paul Connolly - Surprisely decent signing of the season. Formed a fine partnership on the right side with Snodgrass, gets forward well and is solid enough at the back. Nothing spectacular but a solid performer at this level.
3 - Patrick Kisnorbo - Incredibly sorely missed. I'd go as far as to say that if he'd been fit all season we'd have gone up automatically. There's no way half of the terrible capitulations we suffered would have happened with a fully fit Paddy in the heart of the defence. It was heart warming to see him make a cameo against Q.P.R. and it looks like the club want to keep him. If he can get back to his best (and that's a big if), he'll be like a fantastic new signing next season. 4 - Alex Bruce - Had some great games - Doncaster and Arsenal spring to mind - but on the whole his season was punctuated with horrible mistakes and shakey performances. Lost his place in the last few months and I don't think anyone would be too disappointed to see him go, otherwise he's decent back-up at this level.
5 - Neill Collins - Always inadequate. We were warned by Preston supporters how bad he could be and this was highlighted no where more so than in the infamous horror show against his former club when he was bullied and humiliated by Jon Parkin. Sheffield United's plight stands as evidence that Grayson was right to get rid in January. Unfortunately he was wrong to sign him in the first place. 6 - Richard Naylor - A strange case. Looked every bit a League One defender out of his depth in the early months of the season - he was personally responsible for the concession of several goals. Suffered (another) long-term injury a couple of months into the season and that looked to be that for his Leeds career. However, desperate times require desperate measures, and when he regained fitness with a few games remaining, and Leeds still leaking goals like we were guaranteed to score ten a game; Naylor was drafted back in. Amazingly he looked more like the Naylor we first signed - strong and a real leader at the back. If only he'd came back a month earlier. It was for this reason I was surprised he wasn't offered an extra year. Hopefully he will be well replaced. 7 - Max Gradel - What a player he has become. He has channeled his reckless temper in to winning determination. Had Leeds not gone up last season, he would have been lambasted as public enemy number one amongst the supporters for his stupid sending off against Bristol Rovers on the last day. He owed us and he has repaid us with 18 goals from the wing and numerous man of the match performances. Player of the year for sure, and if we are serious about challenging for promotion then he is the man we must hold onto above all others. 8 - Neil Kilkenny - Has been treated harshly I feel. The stats say we win an awful lot more games with Kilkenny in the team than we do without him. He was sorely missed in January and should have been an automatic choice when he came back. For some reason he saw his place in the side taken by inferior loanees. Along with Bradley Johnson he's probably likely to leave for free in the summer and the club should be ashamed, and a lot more concerned than they seemingly are, that two fine Championship players coming into their prime are going to walk away and need replacing. 9 - Billy Paynter - Not good enough. He tries hard and he's had his injury problems and not played an awful lot, but he has played enough that he should have scored more than one goal in a team that scores for fun. Bafflingly he seems to be our second choice striker but few would be disappointed to see him moved on this summer. 10 - Luciano Becchio - Incredible season. Had Beckford stayed we'd have hoped for 20 goals from him and he was a 30+ a season goalscorer in League One. For Becchio to better his tally from each of the previous two seasons, and do it at a higher level, is a fantastic achievement. He's a selfless, hardworking player, and although he signed a new three year contract during the season, he's one we'll be sweating about keeping in the summer. 11 - Lloyd Sam - The incredible disappearing man. Started the season fantastically well but since September has hardly been seen. Injured? Out of favour? Snodgrass and Gradel came in and made the wing places their own but surely Sam could have still contributed, especially when Snodgrass became knackered as is now tradition in the last quarter of the season. I know he did pick up a couple of injuries but I never heard word of anything really serious so it definitely is a strange case. Like Kisnorbo, will be like a new signing. 12 - Shane Higgs - Predominanty sub and as good a back-up 'keeper as you're really likely to get at this level so it's a little strange that he hasn't been offered a new one year contract. I guess maybe he wants to drop down a level and play every week and who could blame him? 13 - Mike Grella - Doesn't look like he's going to make it here. There's talent there, that much is obvious, and by all accounts he did okay in loan spells at Carlisle and Swindon (before his questionable attitude brought the latter to an abrupt end), but he's not ruthless enough to be a regular goalscorer and he has too many players ahead of him at Leeds. I'd expect to see him go this summer. 14 - Jonny Howson - How do you solve a problem like Howson? No doubt Jonny is a talented boy but he only flourishes in an attacking role behind a lone striker in 4-5-1 formation. In a 4-4-2 he is anonymous. With the likes of Somma and McCormack being underutilized, I'd love to see Leeds go 4-4-2 next season, but if we do that then Jonny must be left out or else we will be carrying a passenger. Undoubtedly the "crown jewels" these days are Howson, Becchio, Gradel and Snodgrass, and as much as I hope we keep all of them, if one must go; Howson is at the top of the list for me. 15 - Adam Clayton - Brought in as one for the future but I think we could have done worse than play him instead of bringing in loanees and sending him out. He's flourished at League One level by all accounts and it will be interesting to see how he's used next season. 16 - Bradley Johnson - The great opinion divider. Many think he's poor, and he does have more than his fair share of dodgy moments. However, I think he's generally pretty solid, can play several positions, and chips in with his fair share of goals. His contract is up and it looks like he'll be off, no doubt to the Premier League. I don't know how much he wants, maybe he's being greedy, but the fact we lost as valuable an asset as Jermaine Beckford for nothing, Kilkenny is in the same situation and Gradel has been allowed to get down to one remaining year on his contract, suggests poor management and forethought by the club. Why is it always crap like Andy Robinson that we get lumbered with on long-term contracts? Two very good, young Championship midfielders look set to walk away from Elland Road on a free and that is a disgrace... 17 - Amdy Faye - Did a job as a stop-gap, but we went all season without the defensive midfielder we've been crying out for. 17 - Jake Livermore - Started brightly against Forest but then proved to be a major disappointment. Reckless challenges and silly mistakes littered his game as the likes of Kilkenny must have thought they couldn't get away from Elland Road quick enough. An unnecessary signing. 18 - Sanchez Watt - Potentially great but too often injured. His early season performance against Millwall was a joy to behold, but coupled with his constant niggling injuries and the form of Snodgrass and Gradel keeping him out of the side, this must go down as a disappointing season for the Arsenal youngster. It's hard to see him making the break through at the Emirates, and at the right price would be a decent acquisition provided he stays fit. 19 - Ben Parker - Must have run over Grayson's cat. Returned from long-term injury against Arsenal, and after doing okay for a couple of games, found himself dropped for the returning George McCartney. No matter how badly McCartney played (and often he was woeful) Parker never got a sniff, and one has to wonder about his future at Elland Road under Grayson... 20 - Eric Lihaj - Seemed an unnecessary signing with Connolly doing pretty well but turned out to be a really good signing. Solid at the back but his real talent is getting forward and even at left-back he was better than McCartney. If he's available snap him up, but if money is at a premium (and let's face it we're talking about Ken Bates here) then other areas require addressing more urgently.
21 - Fede Bessone - Poor from the get go, but was he any worse than McCartney? No, not really, and his wages were a lot less. Expect to see him moved on in the summer if we can get rid of him. Our good young players leave on frees, it's dross like this that we tie into long deals and can't get rid of... 22 - Andy Hughes - I was a bit surprised when he left. He could fill several positions adequately and always gave 100%, so it seemed a strange one to let him go. Well liked but no great loss. 23 - Robert Snodgrass - Looked set to be the player of the season before he burned out in the final few weeks. An absolute cut above at this level, I would say he's the best player Leeds have had since our Premier League days. In him and Gradel we have the best set of wingers in the league and it is imperative we hold onto both. If we do, then we will have a real chance of going up, provided we address our weaknesses in the close season. The only question mark is his fitness which seems to become an issue towards the end of every season. Whether this is his fault or Grayson needs to rest him more often I'm not sure. Certainly giving him regular breaks couldn't hurt, and in Lloyd Sam we have a player capable enough to step in. 25 - Barry Bannan - Seemed a good signing at the time but ultimately proved pointless. A similar player to Kilkenny but less effective. When we were crying out for a hard man in the midfield we brought in the kind of player we already had - a powder puff who needs a hard man beside him to flourish.
26 - Leigh Bromby - Frozen out for most of the season, he eventually came back in and did well initially before becoming part of the much of a muchness which seemed to be our defence this season - terrible no matter the personnel. Certainly as good as Bruce and a decent squad player at this level. 27 - Davide Somma - A man who can feel hard done by. Made the step up from League Two like no one could have predicted, looking like he was going to end up with more goals than appearances to his name. He seemed to be far more effective from the bench, however when he started it was usually in the Becchio lone-striker role and he's not cut out to be a target man. A man of his goal scoring ability needs to be utilized more and frankly the idea of 4-4-2 with a proper midfield and two of Somma, McCormack and Becchio up front excites me greatly. 29 - George McCartney - On paper looked like a good signing. On grass was pretty much awful. Given that the club made such a fuss about how the Arsenal games had given us the money to get him in until the end of season, one has to feel the money could have been much better spent. There is no way Parker could have done worse. In fact we'd probably have been no worse off sticking with Bessone, or even Hughes. Did this guy really command a £6 million fee a couple of years ago? Staggering. 30 - Jason Brown - Decent 'keeper. Did a job when we needed him.
32 - Aidan White - Had a good season out on loan at Oldham and hopefully it will have helped sort out his problem of suffering cramp late on in games. He can possibly feel a bit aggrieved for not getting more of a run in the Leeds team at left-back given that he did well against Doncaster and he couldn't have done worse than McCartney. Here's hoping he really makes the breakthrough into Grayson's plans next season.
33 - Ramon Nunez - I think Grayson has done the right thing with him. He shone in the reserves but it's a hard standard to base a real opinion on. He went to Scunthorpe and proved he can flourish at this level, so like Beckford and Somma before him, here's hoping he comes back from his loan spell and becomes a key player next season.
40 - Andy O'Brien - Improved our defence at first but since Christmas he has been inconsistent at best. A decent reader of the game, he's not a leader at the back, but he improved when Naylor came back into the side and I think alongside a strong leader he would be a decent centre-back at this level. I think he could form a decent partnership with Kisnorbo but in truth I'd like us to sign a better centre-back.
44 - Ross McCormack - Criminally underused. Got injured straight away and then failed to force his way into the team, mostly because we were performing better in a 4-5-1 formation. It almost seemed like he was being punished for that terrible miss against Middlesbrough, because from the turn of the year he was pretty much the forgotten man, usually not even making the bench. It was all the more baffling considering he's a proven goalscorer at this level, is a good age, and was Grayson's only real money signing in the summer. However, with promotion all but out the window, and little left to play for, Grayson finally went 4-4-2 and started McCormack in the final two games of the season. Impressive performances were capped with the winning goals in both games and it looks like he's rescued his Leeds career. If we go 4-4-2 next season, McCormack, Becchio and Somma are three of the best strikers in the league to have vying for the front spots. Playing a lone striker means one, if not two, are going to be wasted.
It's hard to know how to feel about this season. I think in the summer, and certainly during the period of 2-5 to Barnsley, 4-6 to Preston and 0-4 to Cardiff, we'd have taken seventh place and snapped your hand off for it. But considering how long we spent in the top six, gunning for second, it's impossible not to be disappointed. I'm loathe to be too critical of Grayson - on the face of it he's done a fine job - but questions need to be asked.
For the second season in a row we have capitulated post-Christmas, and while we managed to scrape promotion last season by the skin of our teeth, in truth we should have won the league comfortably. It was thanks to our form pre-Christmas that we went up. This season, our 4-1 win over Nottingham Forest should have pushed them back as the team the chasing pack were shooting for, but in typical Leeds fashion we became the team to be shot at and ultimately Forest pipped us to sixth place. Looking at what Norwich achieved also makes seventh place a bitter pill to swallow.
Grayson's dealings in the transfer market have also been questionable. In fact, this season they have been nothing short of appalling. Collins and Bessone were both so bad they were moved on in the next transfer window. His inexplicable treatment of McCormack is contrasted by his favouring of Paynter who is clearly not good enough for this level. Of course, no one knows how much money he has to spend but clearly it isn't very much so he should be spending it on players he has specific plans for in his first team. He seems to lose faith in players so quickly, even (if not especially) the ones he has signed, and when he has a decent sized squad available he needs to learn how to rotate. I don't mean wholesale changes on a regular basis, but some players (Snodgrass being the prime example) would have benefitted greatly from a rest here and there.
We went into January very much in the automatic promotion mix but instead of strengthening the squad we weakened it. The players we let go were no great loss but the failure to get the tough tackling midfielder we were craving ultimately cost us promotion in my opinion. I'm loathe to say it but Alan Smith would have been ideal. Other teams, like Norwich, took the gamble and strengthened in January and it paid off. If Ken Bates really thinks he can get into the Premier League on the cheap he's living in a fantasy world. It took us three years to get out of League One. By no means does he need to break the bank but real quality costs money and it takes real quality to make the difference in this league where so many teams are of a similar standard. There will be more than a dozen teams fancying there chances of at least bagging a play-off spot next season.
Grayson's use of the loan system was poor this year. The club made a big fuss about the Arsenal games funding McCartney's loan until the end of the season but in truth he was the worst of the lot. Bannan and Livermore were needless signings - midfielders the likes of which we already had. In truth Lichaj was the only successful loan signing (and I say that because Watt was injured so often), but really even he wasn't a necessary signing because Connolly was doing pretty well.
I also have to wonder about Grayson's use of young players. In the time he has been here he hasn't given a debut to one single youth team player. Obviously it's very possible, likely even; that none have been good enough but if that is the case then it's a disgrace. Over the last 15-20 years Leeds has been amongst the best clubs in the country at bringing through Premier League quality players. In fact, players that didn't make it usually ended up being released to clubs at the level we've been playing at for the last few seasons. The last player to make the break through at Leeds was Aidan White in 2008. Hopefully White will be given more of a chance next season; and Tom Lees seems to have done very well at League Two level in the last couple of seasons so it will be interesting to see what happens with him.
I honestly believe we're not too far away from having a squad good enough to go up automatically. If Kilkenny and Johnson leave then we have virtually no central mdifield and this is obviously the area we need to strengthen most. Some would say it's the defence, but I honestly feel that with the right midfield in front of them we have the personnel to assemble a decent defence. I've heard mutterings about Lee Bowyer but I think that's a pipe dream. Shaun Derry would also be a great player to bring back if he's deemed surplus to requirements at Loftus Road. Attacking wise we don't need anything else, we just need to hold onto the players we have.
Ideally this is the team I'd like to see next season:
If we fail to strengthen or lose our best players, or worse - a combination of both; we will be in real trouble next year. There is a clutch of clubs that finished behind us that will fancy their chances next season - Burnley, Hull, Leicester, Ipswich, Portsmouth, Millwall, Middlesbrough - allied to the play-off losers, those coming down and even Brighton and Southampton. We paid the price for standing still in January, it's imperative we don't make the same mistake in this transfer window. We went into last season not really knowing what to expect, next season there can be no question - promotion back to the Premier League. Anything else must be considered failure.
A video I made showcasing some of Gordon Strachan's best moments in a Leeds shirt...
Footage courtesy of Sky, ITV, Leeds United - The Second Coming - 1989/90 Champions DVD & Leeds United Season Review VHS tapes (1989-90, 1990-91, 1991-92, 1992-93 & 1993-94 seasons); made using Apple iMovie '11.
A video I made showcasing some of Rod Wallace's best moments in a Leeds shirt...
Footage courtesy of Sky, ITV & Leeds United Season Review VHS tapes (1991-92, 1992-93, 1993-94, 1994-95, 1995-96, 1996-97 & 1997-98 seasons); made using Apple iMovie '11. Rod Wallace Tribute from Simon Cranston on Vimeo.
It seems to me that Manchester United supporters are unable to accept that when they haven’t won the league it’s because they weren’t the best team. According to them Manchester United threw the title away in 1992, despite Leeds winning it by four clear points and with a game to spare; and Eric Cantona won it for Leeds single handedly, despite only featuring in 15 league games and scoring 3 goals (none of them match winners). Of course they never say that Newcastle threw the title away in 1996.
Recently, following Kenny Dalglish’s return to football management with Liverpool I’ve heard some trot out the old “he only won the title with Blackburn because he bought it” line. This was a prominent opinion at the time and since then everyone seems to accept this as fact - as if the Manchester United team was somehow more virtuous and robbed of the title. Leaving aside the the fact that there's nothing actually morally wrong with a club using their money to buy the best players they can (isn’t that the goal of all clubs?), we all know Alex Ferguson has never spent big money on players. Just ask Juan Sebastian Veron, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Andy Cole, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Gary Pallister, Dimitar Berbatov, Anderson, Nani, Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick.
Anyway I’m sick of this claim going unchallenged and the smug, glory-hunting bastards being allowed to bask in their self-satisfaction; so I decided to actually check if the claim was true. Did Blackburn Rovers buy the title in 1995?
Main starting eleven (the eleven players that made the most league starts):
Position - Player - League Appearances in 1994-95 season - Price (transfer record and future transfer)
GK - Tim Flowers - 39 - £2.4 million (most expensive goalkeeper in Britain, sold for £1.1 million)
RB - Ian Pearce - 22 - £300,000 (sold for £3.5 million)
CB - Colin Hendry - 38 - £700,000 (sold for £4 million)
CB - Henning Berg - 40 - £400,000 (sold to Manchester United for £5 million)
LB - Graeme Le Saux - 39 - £700,000 (sold for £5 million)
RM - Stuart Ripley - £1.3 million (club record, sold for £1.5 million)
CM - Mark Atkins - 30 - £45,000 (sold for £1 million)
CM - Tim Sherwood - 38 - £325,000 (sold for £3 million)
LM - Jason Wilcox - 27 - Youth System (sold for £4 million)
CF - Alan Shearer - 42 - £3.3 million (British transfer record, sold for £15 million, world transfer record)
CF - Chris Sutton - 40 - £5 million (British transfer record, sold for £10 million)
Other players that played in 5 or more league games:
Tony Gale - 15 - Free Transfer (left on a free transfer)
Mike Newell - 12 - £1.1 million (sold for £775,000)
Robbie Slater - 18 - £300,000 (sold for £600,000)
Paul Warhurst - 27 - £2.7 million (sold for £1.3 million)
Alan Wright - 5 - £500,000 (sold for £1,000,000)
Jeff Kenna - 9 - £1.5 million (left on a free transfer)
David Batty - 5 - £2.75 million (sold for £4.4 million)
Total price paid for main starting eleven - £14.47 million
Total price paid for all players playing in 5 or more league games - £23.32 million
Main starting eleven:
GK - Peter Schmeichel - 32 - £530,000 (left on a free transfer)
RB - Denis Irwin - 40 - £625,000 (left on a free transfer)
CB - Steve Bruce - 35 - £825,000 (left on a free transfer)
CB - Gary Pallister - 42 - £2.3 million (most expensive defender in Britain, second highest British transfer record, record transfer between two British clubs, sold for £2.5 million)
LB - Lee Sharpe - 28 - £200,000 (record for a YTS player, sold for £4.5 million)
RM - Andrei Kanchelskis - 30 - £650,000 (sold for £5 million)
CM - Roy Keane - 25 - £3.75 million (British transfer record, left on a free transfer)
CM - Paul Ince - 36 - £1 million (sold for £7.5 million)
LM - Ryan Giggs - 29 - Youth System
CF - Brain McClair - 40 - £850,000 (left on a free transfer)
CF - Mark Hughes - 34 - £1.8 million (club record, sold for £1.5 million)
Other players that played in 5 or more league games:
Eric Cantona - 21 - £1.2 million (retired)
David May - 19 - £1.2 million (left on a free transfer)
Gary Walsh - 10 - Youth System (sold for £600,000)
Andy Cole - 18 - £7 million (British transfer record (set that season), sold for £8 million)
Simon Davies - 5 - Youth System (sold for £150,000)
Nicky Butt - 22 - Youth System (sold for £2.5 million)
Paul Scholes - 17 - Youth System
Gary Neville - 18 - Youth System
Keith Gillespie - 9 - Youth System (sold for £1 million)
Total price paid for main starting eleven - £12.53 million
Total price paid for all players playing in 5 or more league games - £21.93 million
Difference in spending between the two clubs - £1.39 million more spent by Blackburn
Difference between spending on starting eleven - £1.94 million more spent by Blackburn
I would have thought that Eric Cantona and Andy Cole would have been the first choice strikers ahead of Bryan McClair and Mark Hughes but they weren’t due to the formers thuggery and Cole signing mid-season (for a British transfer record by the way). Had they been, their main starting eleven would have cost £18.08 million meaning Manchester United’s first eleven would have cost £3.61 million more than Blackburn’s.
If I wanted to be picky I could include Paul Parker who only featured in two league games for Manchester United that season but cost £2 million (in fact I’ve left him out but included David Batty in the Blackburn squad and he only played five games and cost £2.75 million). The fact is the cost of both squads is basically the same.
One could maybe try and argue that Blackburn spent a lot of money in a short space of time with no investment for the future. Let’s see.
Profit On Squad:
The total Blackburn later sold the above players for is £61.175 million, leaving a total profit of £37.855 million.
Manchester United later sold their players for a total of £26.05 million, leaving a total profit of £4.12 million. A few (Giggs, Scholes and Gary Neville) are still at the club but I don't think they'll be raking in millions by selling them in the future. I suppose they made a £3.5 million profit on Phil Neville who played twice that season and that would bring the total to £29.55 million with a profit of £7.62 million.
So Blackburn made a significant profit on the 1994-1995 squad making the “they bought the title” argument null and void.
But maybe Blackburn spent a lot more than Manchester United that season? Let's see.