Why Grayson’s sacking is hard to countenance

“The third year is fatal” said Bela Guttmann, with regards to managers, cited often enough that it is has fallen into the football manager’s psyche. The dressing room loses respect for the manager. The manager gains an affinity for certain players above others, form or class aside. Opposition figure out how to deal with any tactics or innovations the manager initially brought to the table. Pep Guardiola, arguably the crafter behind one of the greatest teams of all time, is constantly on the verge of quitting the Barcelona job every summer. Last year, after winning the Liga BBVA and the Champions League once again, most in the media were gearing up for his departure. It therefore comes as little surprise that a mere month after his three month anniversary at the club, Simon Grayson, now ex-manager of Leeds United, has left Elland Road.

Last night (31st January 2012), Leeds United capitulated at home to Birmingham, losing 4-1 almost single-handedly to a striker who has only scored 8 goals this season. This despite the fact that reports from the ground suggested that the first half performance was one of the best Leeds have had for a long while. This is the truth of the latter part of Simon Grayson’s reign. This season, and during the back-end of last season, Elland Road has not been a particularly wonderful place to watch football.

There was a moment a week and a half ago, as Leeds played Ipswich, that one felt Grayson had lost anything that he may once have had. The day was windy, and any manager with slight tactical nous would have recommended the ball remain on the floor. Any ball sent upfield by goalkeeper or defender would get caught in the wind. Yet Leeds came out of the tunnel and, like most performances this year, the strikers found themselves confined to challenging defenders in the air. Admittedly, Leeds managed to win the match 3-1, but this was exclusively due to the capitulation of the Ipswich back line, and the granting of a red card to his former team by usually sturdy goalkeeper Alex McCarthy. Fans driving away from the ground last night would be caught up in a temporary surge of optimism, but by the time the radio phone-in had begun, it was clear that the fans’ discontent had not been assuaged by the result. There were clear faults with Grayson’s approach in their eyes.

This is the man, however, that lead Leeds United to Old Trafford as a League One side, and won. This is the man, however, that lead Leeds United to White Hart Lane as a League One side, and managed to take a draw. This is the man, however, that lead Leeds United out of said League One. A manager who achieves these results is clearly not bad at his job. Managing players of the quality at his disposal to a victory against Man Utd takes an incredible amount of tactical and motivational awareness. This is why it becomes hard to countenance his sacking. Clearly the ability is there, and somewhere along the way he has lost it.

Rumours have emanated from Elland Road for the past year or so that Grayson has lost the dressing room. The manner in which he freezes out players after a single bad performance, leading to them rotting in the reserves, and never getting an appearance in the first team no matter how much they are suited for the job necessary, is clearly not conducive to a harmonious club. Word that Grayson’s affair, reported in the red-top media, led to him losing favour with Ken Bates and Bates’ wife was rife. The manner in which Grayson dealt with Andy O’Brien, chastising him and saying he would never play for him again, yet back-tracking when depression turned out to be at fault for his refusal to play again for the side, revealed plenty about how Grayson worked with his players.

This might be where Grayson, the man who did so well for Leeds a mere two years prior, fell down. As Guttmann said, the third year is fatal, and particularly key to Grayson may be the thoughts the dressing room had about him towards the end. Leigh Bromby’s wife posted on Facebook immediately after the sacking that it was “karma”, and simply said “good riddance”. Bromby clearly brought work back home with him.

The ability was, therefore, there at one point, but it has since been lost. This is why Leeds fans have hung onto positivity towards Grayson, despite the falls. It must be said that Grayson could probably sustain success for longer under a Chairman that does not treat the playing side of the club with such contempt. Grayson, however, in the end, is to blame, possibly for not leaving earlier. His replacement, awash with innovation, will probably get more out of a team of players coveted by Premier League sides. The real shame to Leeds fans that remember the football played in the early days, is that Grayson simply did not learn the lessons of Guttmann.

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Demba Cisse shaking hands with Alan Pardew

Pragmatic Newcastle United show that January need not be a time to fear for clubs outside the ‘big 6’

31st January 2011. After a relatively successful 30 days of the January transfer window, which had seen no departures and the signing on a permanent basis of the mercurial Hatem Ben Arfa, as well as the loan signing of the unpredictable, though undeniably talented Steven Ireland, all seems well. Fast-forward 24 hours to the morning of 1st February, and a feeling of shock, anger and above all fear pervades the atmosphere at St. James’ Park. Terrace favourite Andy Carroll, wearer of the iconic number 9, focal point of the attack and top goal scorer had been sold to Liverpool – no one had come in to replace him. Newcastle, it seemed, had fallen victim to a peril of the January window that will be all too familiar to supporters of teams outside the ‘big 6’ – bigger clubs sniffing around and snatching up your team’s best players, leaving the squad significantly weaker and demoralised.

As it transpired, a strike force consisting of Best, Lovenkrands, Ameobi and the far from marquee signing Shefki Kuqi was enough to keep the team in the division comfortably – though this is thanks mainly to the goals of Kevin Nolan, and the close-knit team spirit fostered under his captaincy. However, in the immediate aftermath of the Carroll sale this did not seem a likely occurrence. It may seem bizarre in hindsight, with Newcastle flying high in 6th place in the Premier League at the time of writing, but there was at the time a genuine feeling amongst many supporters that relegation was a genuine possibility, and that £35 million for Andy Carroll did not represent a good deal if there were not enough goals scored to keep the team in the league. As more than one observer pointed out, “you can’t play a £35 million cheque up front”.

It turned out, however, that Liverpool struggled to play a £35 million player up front, as

Andy Carroll looking miserable
The former Geordie number 9 has found life difficult at Liverpool so far

Carroll found it hard to regain fitness and form in the second half of the season, making only 7 appearances in the league for his new club, scoring only 2 goals. He has continued this poor form into the current season, making 20 appearances but scoring just 2 goals in the league, and the fee paid on the much hyped ‘DEADLINE DAY’ looks ever more ridiculous with each passing game. Contrast this with Newcastle, who, far from being weakened by his departure, have in fact strengthened their squad, investing the money in the summer on shrewd buys such as Demba Ba (free), Yohan Cabaye (£5 million) and Davide Santon (£5.3 million). Ba in particular shows the folly of Liverpool’s spending, a free transfer who has scored 15 goals in 19 league games, including a memorable volley in the 3-0 thumping of champions Manchester United.

Going into this season’s January window, however, it seemed the same story – prolific Newcastle striker leaving for a bigger club – would be the outcome, with Spurs manager Harry Redknapp first revealing a mysterious ‘release clause’ in Ba’s contract, then doing his best ‘Brucie’ impersonation in a bizarre press conference in which he encouraged journalists to go higher or lower in guessing how much Ba could be bought for. It is Newcastle, though, who have played their cards right so far. Having decided against taking a £7 million gamble on the fitness of Modibo Maiga, Alan Pardew and Chief Scout Graham Carr secured the signing of long term striking target Papiss Demba Cisse for £10 million. Of course, there is no guarantee that he will prove to be an instant success, but given the way in which Carr’s other signings have taken to the Premier League, there is no reason why the prolific Senegalese can’t maintain the form he has shown in a struggling Freiburg side so far this season, scoring 9 goals in 17 games for a team languishing in 17th place in the Bundesliga.

Demba Cisse shaking hands with Alan Pardew
The signing of Cisse shows that for teams outside of the 'big 6', January need not just be about outgoing transfers

His 22 goals in 32 games last season suggest this is a player who can make all the difference in a side ambitious to continually improve and push on in the second half of the season. “We don’t just want to be happy with where we are – we want to keep improving”, said Danny Simpson in an interview with the Journal, and signings such as Cisse give Newcastle the ability to do just that. If Demba Ba can maintain his pre-African Cup of Nations form and gel with his fellow compatriot then there seems no reason why the club can’t grab a Europa League place come the end of the season. In addition to the signing of the number 9, much needed defensive cover is seemingly on the way as well, with Pardew adopting the sensible tactic of dipping into the championship for an affordable squad player – gone may be the days of seeing 5 ft 10 James Perch toiling at centre half against 6 ft 4 strikers, as was the case against Norwich earlier this season.

With 4 days still to go until the end of the window, there is, of course, still time for one of the bigger clubs in the league to swoop for one of Newcastle’s best players, but what the club has demonstrated is that when approached pragmatically, this month which is usually approached with dread by teams outside the top 6, can in fact be a time of excitement for fans, and an opportunity to genuinely strengthen the squad.

Robert Snodgrass, Adam Clayton and Aidan White

Three Leeds fans would be loath to lose

Robert Snodgrass, Adam Clayton and Aidan White
Adam Clayton, Aidan White, and Robert Snodgrass (Clockwise)

The transfer window is generally a disappointing time for Leeds fans. The summer brought rumours of Smith, Bowyer and Woodgate, and finished with Rachubka, Brown and O’Dea. Whilst two of these three have turned out to be serviceable players, the departure of several others rendered that particular window in a negative light. Already club captain Jonny Howson has departed in January, and rumours still abound about the loss of several other players. For fans, however, there are three key players, linked with other clubs, that for various reasons they’d be particularly distraught about losing. Here I explore these, and why.

Robert Snodgrass

In discussions about Leeds, there have been accusations at various points this season that Leeds have been rendered a one-man side. Analyst and Leeds United legend Eddie Gray has often said at the end of games that he’s whenever Snodgrass doesn’t play, whether this is due to injury or he doesn’t ‘play’, having a poor game, he’s convinced Leeds are unable to get a result. Snodgrass is undoubtedly Leeds’s best player, and he has shown himself to be a wonderful example of a modern inside winger. Playing on the wrong foot, Snodgrass finds himself in a right-wing role. With enough tricks to fool even the most competent of full-backs, Snodgrass will often find himself cutting inside to provide provision balls, or put the ball in the back of the net himself. Leeds fans already knew of his ability as a provider, but this season he has already scored 4 more goals in the league, having played 15 games fewer. As both a goalscorer and a provider, he is therefore key to the manner in which Leeds play. With rumours throughout the window that he is departing, and concrete offers for him having taken place in the summer, there is a constant fear that Snodgrass will depart.

Adam Clayton

Last season, when Adam Clayton made his debut against Derby County whilst on loan from Manchester City, it looked as though the young midfielder would be completely unable to control a bag of cement, never mind a football. Therefore, when Leeds found themselves in the position of naming him a first-choice central midfielder after the departures of Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny, fans were rightly concerned. For those who tracked him through the reserves and two loan spells last season, however, they will have been aware of the great change that occurred. No longer a weak-looking young central midfielder, Clayton has often been responsible for the bite in the Leeds midfield. For a significant part of the early season, Clayton was Leeds’s best player, and looked a class above the rest of the team. Whilst his form has dipped somewhat, he clearly has the potential to play in a better league, and with Leeds particularly weak through the middle, the 23-year old Clayton would be an incredible loss. Already linked to Bolton, those in charge at other clubs have clearly taken notice of this young upstart.

Aiden White

There is an odd occurrence that takes place on a nearly bi-weekly basis at Elland Road. The right winger of the opposition, known throughout the league as a speed-based player, will knock the ball past the Leeds left-back. The away fans will rise, cheering their man on as he seems set to beat the young player to the byline. Suddenly, however, a dawning realisation will occur. Their man cannot beat Aiden White. White will easily beat him to the ball and deal with the danger. A prospect who came through the academy, White has spent years on the fringes of the Leeds set-up, finally becoming a first-team player this year. Blessed with bags of pace, White has shown himself to be an immensely talented left-back. The problem, however, is that his contract will run out in the summer, and there has been little word as to the potential for renewing this. White could possibly be the sort of left-back Premier League clubs covet, and given his pace, he could easily be crafted into a player in the mould of Gareth Bale by the right top-flight manager. Given the contract situation, Leeds fans are therefore concerned the club will either cash in on the academy product, or simply allow his contract to wind down.

Honorable mentions: Ross McCormack, Tom Lees, Luciano Becchio.

Follow Amitai Winehouse on Twitter @awinehouse1