It’s a complex set of emotions being a Leeds fan. By this point of the season we are normally resigned to mid-table mediocrity, cursing another false-start and wincing at the Mad Hatter’s tea party that constitutes our off-season. Players come and go in great number, we change head coach and we try to delude ourselves that “this will be our year”. Until the inevitable press conference in January where the head coach resides himself to “building for next season”, in the vein hope that he will still be gainfully employed. But, as you are abundantly aware, we’re in uncharted territory this year.
Leeds have entered March 4th in the table and close enough to the automatic spots that they’re still being discussed as a mathematical option. Consistency and good fortune should see Leeds retain this place and find themselves 3 games from the Premier League, though we exist with a cautious eye on sides like Fulham who are topping the form table and eager to claw their way into the playoffs. It’s a weird sensation, for Spring to be rearing its head and being a brutal combination of excited and nervous for every game.
I say to my other half ahead of every game “this is one of the biggest games this season”. “You said that last week” she’ll reply. And she’s right, every single game now is of crucial importance. She’s not used to this, by the time we’re done with Christmas and New Year I’m normally lamenting Leeds fixtures, cursing Cellino and Googling whether one can euthanise a football club out of mercy. This year I’m anxious and excited ahead of every single game and – importantly – thinking we could win every time we play.
So with promotion looking less far-fetched by the week, my concern has been shifted from the more familiar threat of relegation to the daunting question of whether Leeds United 2017 have the foundations of what could be a Premiership side?
A common problem with promoted teams is whether they suddenly strengthen to cope with the enormous leap in quality, but in doing so you lose all chemistry and unity from the squad that earned that promotion. You can’t add 6+ players to a first team seamlessly. Conversely, a side that performs “okay” in the Championship simply won’t be good enough for the Premiership. It’s different for teams that absolutely dominate the Championship, but if we do somehow get promoted, no one could accuse us of dominating, but more taking our chances.
But you have to consider, if Leeds got promoted, do we have the quality in the squad to stay up? It’s more likely that we’d approach things like Burnley and try to retain the core unit that got you promoted and augment it with occasional investment. But with the squad being fairly shallow in quality (and extensive investment a far-fetched dream), you’ve got to imagine that a number of key positions would need to be strengthened should we get promoted.
The likes of Hadi Sacko and Stuart Dallas are not suited to a higher level of football. Doukara, too, is not intended for the top flight. Vieira, Phillips, Bridcutt and O’Kane all have their place, but you’d have to imagine that a Delph-tier player would be needed to bolster those options too. Kemar Roofe, on current performance, wouldn’t be a player who you’d instantly recognise as being suited to higher levels of football (though does have the potential). Marcus Antonsson, too, doesn’t look long for this world should we get promoted having struggled to impress Monk and play regular football at this level.
This isn’t a fully considered audit of the squad as it currently exists, but more an idle pondering of whether promotion could be too soon for Leeds, in that we don’t necessarily have the solid footing we’d need to attempt to survive. Equally, there’s a part of me that thinks this season could just be “the perfect storm” of things, with Monk, Pep, Beattie and the players they’ve assembled. If we resigned ourselves to another year of building, I doubt we could repeat the same feat we’ve done here. Or at least, you couldn’t rely on it.
Football isn’t about rationality and sensible planning as much as it is about emotion, excitement and dreams. Dreams are made of Leeds winning in the playoff final at Wembley, at returning to grounds like Old Trafford and Anfield, huge numbers of white shirts making more noise than those sides have encountered from their away ends in a decade. And if we got promoted I feel it wouldn’t matter anymore.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from supporting Leeds for the last 24 years (from the age of 8) it’s that you can’t truly predict what is going to happen next. We’ll continue playing games, we’ll hopefully continue winning points and if/when the playoffs happen, we’ll hopefully win those games too. Is promotion a poisoned chalice? For many other clubs it is, but for us you simply never know.