Football Is Back – But Are We Ready?

In Leeds United by Fax Man

Endless unsubstantiated transfer rumours, an East Stand development costing more than the total transfer fees spent during Ken Bates’ six-and-a-half-year chairmanship, the sale of our No1 goalkeeper to a promotion rival, eye-watering season ticket and membership prices, the inevitable yet long-winded departures of Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny, a pre-season tour of Scotland, an overpriced and underworking online pay-per-view service, Davide Somma’s devastating injury, a Twitter ban, agents’ high wage demands, a restrictive wage limit, further ownership scrutiny, the absence of Robert Snodgrass and Andy O’Brien, Max Gradel’s contract situation, another potentially costly court case – this time against the police, underwhelming trialists, the balls-up with Luciano Becchio’s operation, the potential return of Alan Smith… Leeds United’s most underwhelming summer in recent memory seemed to drag on for ever.

It is over 12 weeks since Leeds United beat QPR in the final match of last season. Eighty-six days to be precise. But this Saturday, attention will focus on football once again. Simon Grayson will pick 11 players to face Southampton in the first game of the new season at St Mary’s. Who will they be? Are they ready for the new season? And, crucially, are they good enough to win the match?

GOALKEEPERS

With Kasper Schmeichel’s sudden exit to Leicester earlier in the summer, Grayson has been working on his replacement practically all pre-season. Unfortunately, the deal for Preston’s Andy Lonergan took longer than expected due to his wage demands and an eventually fruitless pursuit of Fulham’s David Stockdale. Lonergan finally arrived last Monday meaning that although he is fit for the big kick-off, he has only played once alongside the back four he will be expected to marshal next week on the south coast. He did get a chance to shake off the cobwebs at Bradford Park Avenue on Wednesday before the friendly against Newcastle on Sunday. Considering one of the main reasons Schmeichel was sold was his lack of control over those same incompetent defenders last season, it is a concern Lonergan hasn’t had the chance to form any sort of relationship with the rest of the squad. Of course, Paul Rachubka has done that since he became the first player to join this summer when he signed on a free transfer on June 23. And while he has performed competently throughout pre-season with young Alex Cairns acting as his understudy, he is widely expected to play second-fiddle to Lonergan – our only cash signing at £100,000.

Outs: Kasper Schmeichel, Shane Higgs. David Gonzalez (loan).

Ins: Andy Lonergan, Paul Rachubka.

DEFENCE

Given the amount of goals conceded last season, the defence was an area most fans would have expected the biggest overhaul this summer. However, that has proven not to be the case. Club captain Richard Naylor wasn’t offered a new contract and George McCartney was never going to return after his loan spell ended in him being on the receiving end of the chairman’s ill-considered tongue-lashing. There has been positive news of sorts with Patrick Kisnorbo signing a new two-year contract. Fitness depending, his return is expected to add the desire, determination and leadership that the defence lacked last season. Whether he can recapture the form he showed in League One when he was named Player of the Year remains to be seen. The afore-mentioned O’Brien has only played in pre-season against Newcastle due to an injury and his lack of playing time so far means he may miss out on a starting spot against Southampton. That appears to suggest a starting spot, at least initially, for Leigh Bromby who has been favoured over Alex Bruce in recent weeks. The pair, however, don’t exactly inspire confidence after last season’s showings but with Kisnorbo alongside either, they will hopefully improve. Youngster Tom Lees has shown promise in pre-season but his inexperience could count against him in Grayson’s selection thoughts. At right-back, there is only one option in Paul Connolly. A return to the level he was at before Christmas last year would be welcome but Eric Lichaj’s arrival and subsequent performances in his absence will prove a tough act to follow. Lichaj has been linked with another loan move and that would be a boost to both competition for places and strength in depth. On the opposite side, there are three left-backs for Grayson to choose from but most fans would agree that none of them should be first choice. Ben Parker’s injury problems continued when he limped out of the match with Sheffield Wednesday, although he did play against Newcastle. Fede Bessone was transfer listed at the start of the summer but was named in the squad for the tour of Scotland, only to withdraw through injury. He hasn’t been seen in a Leeds shirt since and the likelihood of that happening again seems slim. That leaves Aidy White as the only other option. Questions remain over his ability to finish 90 minutes due to an issue with cramp and whether he is actually capable of playing in defence when he is more naturally suited to the left wing. His last trip to Southampton ended in misery as he was hauled off at half time after a roasting from Jason Puncheon (not helped by Gary McSheffrey’s refusal to track back). That was a harsh lesson for White and he will have learned from the experience, as well as his loan spell at Oldham last season, but whether Grayson is confident enough to field him at left-back is debatable.

Outs: Richard Naylor. Eric Lichaj (loan), George McCartney (loan).

Ins: None

MIDFIELD

Since the end of last season, four central midfielders have left the club. Johnson and Kilkenny failed to agree new contracts while Jake Livermore and Barry Bannan’s loan spells ended. Adam Clayton returned from his short stint at MK Dons while Michael Brown is the only outfield player to have signed. Brown’s arrival on a free transfer from Portsmouth is the most significant because his addition should finally address the biggest complaint of recent seasons – the role of the ‘defensive’ midfielder. While Brown does not fill this role in the traditional sense as he does like to wander more than a holding man, he will add much-needed experience as well as a dirty side which Johnson and Kilkenny lacked. Jonny Howson, who has been named captain for the new season, proved last year he is more suited to an attack-minded No10 role, playing just off a striker. However, with only Brown and Clayton as options in deeper central midfield roles, it may fall to Howson to play alongside one of the two in a more restrictive position. The lack of competition for places was evident last year with Johnson, Kilkenny and Howson as the only permanent options before Bannan and Livermore arrived later in the season. We will go into the Southampton match with a similar situation. It is a problem that Grayson has been keen to address though with reported moves for Torsten Frings, Alan Smith, Lee Bowyer, Keith Andrews and Jonathan Spector falling through due to our inability to match their wage demands. With no new names on the horizon though, it seems Brown, Clayton and Howson will have to step up immediately at St Mary’s. Any sort of injuries, however minor, before then could leave us worryingly short. One thing about Johnson in particular that will be missed from last season will be his flexibility to play in wide-left areas as well as central midfield. Having a utility player like him, with Andy Hughes also being able to cover the full-backs, has proven vital during Grayson’s tenure for when we’ve picked up injuries during matches or for when the manager wanted to tweak the side tactically to a more defensive 442, with Johnson on the left. The current wingers, while being our most potent attacking threat, don’t currently offer that option to Grayson should he want it. Gradel and Snodgrass last season proved themselves to be two of the best performers in the entire Championship and their efforts have deservedly attracted interested from both the Premier League and abroad. So far, the club have managed to fend off bids for the pair and keeping hold of them will be vital to how we perform this season. The situation with Gradel is the most concerning of the pair because his contract runs out next summer and his agent is clearly angling for higher wages elsewhere, far beyond the club’s limit. On the pitch, Gradel has been his usual self, working hard and scoring goals. Snodgrass on the other hand has only played an hour since the first pre-season match at Falkirk due to injury. He may take a while before he is up to full speed but that should not be of great concern because while other areas of the team are lacking strength in depth, the attacking wide areas are not. Lloyd Sam’s return from persistent injuries and the continual improvement of Ramon Nunez have given Grayson a wealth of options. Nunez especially has been a stand-out performer in pre-season and will be unlucky if he misses out on a starting spot at Southampton. And while there is a lack of versatility in central midfield and defence, Nunez can give that in attacking positions with him able to cover both wingers, the striker and No10 role.

Outs: Bradley Johnson, Neil Kilkenny. Barry Bannan (loan), Jake Livermore (loan), Sanchez Watt (loan).

Ins: Michael Brown

STRIKERS

Sticking the ball in the net was the least of our worries last season. Becchio hit the 20-goal mark while Gradel was just behind with 19. There were also strong contributions from Somma, who got 12, and Howson with 11. Snodgrass and Johnson also chipped in with seven and six respectively. Ross McCormack’s positive displays against Burnley and QPR in the final two games also offered a glimpse of what he is capable of when playing through the middle. So this summer was never likely to see us make any big moves in the transfer market for a striker. However, Somma’s crushing anterior cruciate ligament injury may have changed that. The South African, who was so impressive in his first full season, will be out for six-to-nine months. That news wasn’t helped by the club’s physios deciding not to send Becchio for an operation on his hamstring in pre-season when he needed it, in the hope his problem would recover. It didn’t, and our Argentine talisman has since been sent for the original operation meaning he will miss the start of the season. When he returns, he will need a full pre-season training to get to full fitness, so it could be a number of weeks before we see him. That leaves us with McCormack, who has looked lively in pre-season despite missing two penalties and failing to score. He has often been chosen ahead of the much-maligned Billy Paynter, indicating Grayson could pick him in the lone role up front with Howson just off him against Southampton. If Grayson chooses to switch to 442, Clayton will most likely miss out in midfield with Howson dropping deeper alongside Brown and Paynter partnering McCormack. The form of Nunez and Gradel could also give Grayson food for thought with both of them able to play alongside either Paynter or McCormack.

Outs: None

Ins: None

Fax ManFootball Is Back – But Are We Ready?