The 2010/11 npower Championship campaign heralds a return to the second tier of English football for Leeds United after a three year absence. After a season of two contrasting halves the Whites scraped into the 2nd promotion spot behind runaway leaders Norwich City on the final day of the season.
At the turn of 2010, a title winning season looked a near on certainty for Simon Grayson’s men as they topped the table by nine points. A tremendous victory over rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup highlighted the quality in the Leeds squad.
However, United’s form stuttered severely following the historic victory at Old Trafford, but for a late resurgent all their hard work would have been wasted. The culmination to a rollercoaster of a season arose on the final day, with want-away striker and captain for the day Jermaine Beckford firing the promotion-winning goal to defeat Bristol Rovers 2-1.
The Leeds squad celebrate clinching promotion to the Championship
Simon Grayson was quick to strengthen his squad for the assault on the Championship, with the astute capture of highly-rated goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. The inevitable departure of the out-of-contract Beckford to Premier League side Everton left the squad light in the forward department. Grayson was quick to install Billy Paynter from Swindon, a striker who hit 29 goals last season as an attempt to fill the void left by the potent Beckford.
Defensive reinforcements were high on Grayson’s list also and the full-back pair of Federico Bessone from Swansea City and Paul Connolly from Derby County were quickly drafted in. With key centre-back Patrick Kisnorbo still nursing his recovery from a serious Achilles heel injury, central defence needed urgent strengthening. Former loan man Neill Collins made a permanent switch from Preston North End, soon followed by Ipswich Town defender, Alex Bruce.
Lloyd Sam, a quick, skilful winger from Charlton Athletic joined on a free transfer and most recently, the club signed their eighth player of the summer, Arsenal youngster Sanchez Watt returning to Elland Road for a season-long loan spell following his six appearances on loan at the end of last season.
New signing Lloyd Sam can be a big hit at Elland Road this season
The defensive reinforcements, along with the injection of a pacy, attacking winger have formed a balanced and capable squad. One must stress however, a vital piece of the jigsaw appears to be missing, a tough tackling ball winner; an old fashioned No. 4 player is what is really sought after. Add to that another striker to cover the loss of Beckford and a strong, in-depth squad exhibits a ray of optimism heading into the new season.
Pre-season performances have on the whole been promising, with the clear exception of the 4-0 reverse away at League Two Bury. Admittedly pre-season friendlies are just that, and nothing more, but no team likes to get beat that convincingly at any point. Credit must go to Grayson and his players though, as an immediate reaction to the poor showing at Bury saw a 5-goal demolition of Hartlepool United. An impressive victory over SK Brann of Norway followed, with pre-season finishing with an Elland Road defeat of Premier League outfit Wolves.
Grayson has employed a 4-5-1 come 4-3-3 formation in the matches post Bury, and the players have looked accomplished and comfortable playing in this way. Lone forward Luciano Becchio has had an efficient pre-season, netting four goals and wide men Robert Snodgrass, Lloyd Sam and Max Gradel have all impressed. The team’s ability to change formation and avoid predictability will be vital come the season’s kick-off and Grayson has intelligently utilised different formations and personnel during pre-season.
Amidst the air of positivity surrounding the club’s return to the Championship lays a grey cloud, depicted by a large bill of ill health. Long term absentees Patrick Kisnorbo and Ben Parker remain unavailable for around three months, whilst a mysterious shin injury to new signing Billy Paynter looks like ruling him out of the opening fixtures. A further key absentee for the opening weeks of the campaign is midfielder Robert Snodgrass, after he was on the receiving end of a horrendous challenge during the friendly against SK Brann. The knee injury picked up looks set to keep the Scot out until September.
Patrick Kisnorbo is one of several key players missing the start of the season
Club captain Richard Naylor has been slowly recovering from a hamstring injury which forced him to miss the dramatic final day win over Bristol Rovers. However, he limped off after an hour last Saturday against Wolves with a dead leg, and may be doubtful for the Derby game.
For the first time in four seasons, Leeds do not head into a new season as the league’s big spenders or as the squad with the highest wage bill, and this may play into their hands. Expectations are always high, with a season fighting against relegation ultimately cast as a disappointment. However, competing with big spenders Middlesbrough, parachute-payment induced Burnley and Hull City, as well as strong outfits in Nottingham Forest, Leicester City, Reading and QPR a season of mid-table mediocrity will be met with great appreciation in most quarters.
Leeds have built a squad bursting with promise and in Simon Grayson, they have one of the best young managers in the game, who is capable of exposing their underlying talents. Backed by a fantastic support home and away, anything is possible for Leeds United this season.