THERE’S no doubt that back in August Leeds United supporters would have settled for a seventh place finish in their first season back in the Npower Championship,
When the Whites lost back to back home games against Leicester and Cardiff in the middle of October soon after letting in six goals against Preston and five against Barnsley such a final position seemed a long way off.
Yet somehow despite all the brave words in recent weeks it feels like a failure that United have not extended their season into the play-offs. There was even talk of an automatic promotion place at one point before too many home draws and a sudden loss of form away from home made it a scramble for a top six place that was ultimately unravelled by failing to score in the two games over Easter.
A lack of goals was certainly not the problem for most of the season as Leeds managed to bang in 81 in their 46 league games to be the second highest scorers in the Championship.
But the other end of the pitch remained a source of great frustration right through to the last four games when ironically with the pressure really on just two goals were conceded. But over the season only the bottom four let in more than the Whites and they could never find a settled back four.
Andy O’Brien and Alex Bruce were brought in while Neill Collins came and went. Richard Naylor started and ended the campaign at centre-half, but was nowhere to be seen for much of it after injuries and loss of form and last year’s best player, Patrick Kisnorbo, managed only the last 10 minutes at QPR last Saturday after injury completely wrecked his season. Leigh Bromby also had a go after making only the briefest of substitute appearances before January. But none of the players made themselves indispensable at the heart of the defence.
There were equal problems at full-back where summer signing Paul Connolly could not get his place back on the right after injury with Eric Lichaj brought in on loan from Aston Villa. The left-back position was never satisfactorily filled with another new recruit, Federico Bessone, a big flop before he was sent out on loan, Ben Parker continuing to struggle with injuries and youngster Aidan White frozen out. Loan man George McCartney came in from Sunderland, but failed to impress.
There were some undoubted success stories when it came to the attacking side of United’s game, however.
Jermaine Beckford was not missed as much as anticipated after his departure to Everton as Luciano Becchio stepped up to the plate with his first 20-goal haul in English football. Davide Somma was a real bonus after spending the latter part of the previous season on loan at Lincoln, scoring 12 goals before they dried up towards the end of the campaign.
Max Gradel also weighed in heavily in the goals department, coming in from his mostly wing position to bag 18 and win most of the player of the year awards.
Another winger, Robert Snodgrass, was a big candidate for player of the year after his blistering form in the middle of the season, but he suffered a back injury late on and lost a bit of form.
For sheer consistency throughout the campaign Morley lad Jonny Howson was the pick, whether in his traditional midfield role or in a new attacking midfield role in which he excelled. The fact he started every game and was captain for many of them said how highly he is rated by his manager and his goal haul of 11 was also a big improvement.
Howson’s hat-trick with left foot, right foot and head at Scunthorpe was one of the highlights to look back on, along with the fantastic draw at the Emirates Stadium against Arsenal in the FA Cup and Bradley Johnson’s spectacular goal in the replay.
There were some cracking games at Elland Road where unpredictability was the name of the game and United could look back with some pride at having beaten the champions, QPR, twice, as well as beating third-placed Swansea and sixth-placed Nottingham Forest at home.
They were unlucky in drawing against two more top six sides, Norwich and Reading, but could also look back with regret at losing to two of the bottom three, Preston and Sheffield United – defeats that you could say ultimately cost them a play-off place as they finished three points behind Nottingham Forest.
Manager Simon Grayson feels his side should be praised for their overall performance in 2010-11.
He said: “The players can be proud of this season.
“Obviously we are disappointed not to make the play-offs. But we have beaten the champions twice this season, which is a testament to my players.
“We’ve got to learn from this experience and be better next season hopefully.
“We have proved we can compete with some big teams and we wanted to finish the season on a high so we could carry the momentum into the next Championship campaign.
“We have been working hard over the last few weeks on pin-pointing the players we would like to recruit, so there will be players coming in and leaving this summer because we have to keep improving every year. We probably need a few more players to take us to the next level.
“I know in my own mind what I will be doing, but it is only right that I speak to the players first.
“We will sit down with individuals and talk to them about their future, either with or away from the club.
“We don’t have to sell, and some players will realise they can fulfil their ambitions here.”
Grayson confirmed he would not object to Jonny Howson playing in this summer’s European Under 21 Championships if selected. The 22-year-old from Morley has been included in Stuart Pearce’s initial 40-man squad, which is set to be whittled down to 23 next week.