If a club’s selling 18,000-plus season tickets in the Championship then that club – Leeds United – has to compete for promotion either outright or via the play-offs reckons Eddie Gray. Phil Hay reports.
If supporters vote with their feet then the take-up of over 18,000 season tickets – a record for Leeds United in their post-Premiership days – tells a story about the way in which the wind is blowing around Elland Road. The city expects, or expects enough for sales to climb as high as they have.
Eddie Gray, the club’s former player and manager, takes the view that Leeds should never tolerate anything less than qualification for the play-offs in the Championship but on this occasion the benchmark is set: seventh place last season and more season tickets sold than in any year since 2004.
“People talk about the expectation levels every season but top six has got to be the aim this time,” Gray said. “I always think a club like Leeds should be challenging in the Championship no matter what. The club should always be there or thereabouts but in some seasons you’ve had the feeling at the start that the club weren’t set up to challenge properly.
“This summer you can feel a lot of optimism around the place. The owner (Andrea Radrizzani) has bought Elland Road back and he’s spent money on players. The supporters have taken up 18,000 season tickets which means we’ll be looking at crowds of 30,000 at Elland Road if the team are going well. If you’re selling 18,000 season tickets you have to be up there and you have to compete. That’s the way I see it.”
United’s new head coach, Thomas Christiansen, said as much himself when he reflected on Leeds’ seventh-placed finish last term, admitting that he would “not be happy” with a repeat of that position. Gray described the 2016-17 season as “good up to a point” but insisted a better start would be needed to help Christiansen and his clutch of signings settle into the league.
Garry Monk, who Christiansen replaced as head coach in June, appeared to be on the verge of the sack after six games last season with Leeds 22nd in the table and holding only four points. United’s recovery and ascent to the play-offs places, where they remained for fully four months, was a turnaround which few saw coming as Monk laboured through a demoralising first month.
“Everyone looks for a good start but I think it’s particularly important for us,” Gray said. “None of us know a huge amount about the manager (Christiansen) or some of the signings and you want to see in those early weeks that the plan they’ve got is coming together.
“A lot of teams in the division this season will have exactly the same ideas and ambitions as us. You could pick out plenty of sides who’ll think they’ve got a chance and the difference this year is that most of them probably have. If 12 other clubs expect to be up there then Leeds should look to be up there too. The biggest achievement in the Championship last season was Huddersfield Town winning the play-offs and if they’re good enough to do it, other clubs like ours should be good enough.”
Leeds start their season at Bolton Wanderers on Sunday with a small amount of work left to do in the transfer market. Matthew Pennington’s arrival on loan from Everton eased a clear shortage of centre-backs but Pontus Jansson’s two-match ban – ruling him out until United’s first home league fixture against Preston North End – leaves only Pennington and Liam Cooper available for the trip to the Macron Stadium.
Pennington was signed amid fierce competition from Hull City but Leeds want a fourth centre-back and are trying to ensure that their defence is as strong as it was when Jansson and Kyle Bartley were in the thick of it last season.
Bartley is back at Swansea City after a highly impressive loan at Elland Road and captained the Premier League club during a friendly against Birmingham City on Saturday.
Gray described Bartley as “a loss” and admitted he is keen to see United replace Charlie Taylor after the left-back’s departure to Burnley.
“(Gaetano) Berardi’s a good player, a good defender who can get forward, but ideally you’d want a left-footed player at left-back,” Gray said. “Charlie Taylor was the best crosser of the ball last season and being left-footed gives the team more width on that side.
“For me, there are still a couple of positions which need looking at but you can’t deny that the owner’s put money into the team. The way we’ll find out if these players are good enough is when the competitive football starts. At the moment I can’t say 100 per cent if I think it’ll work because we haven’t seen enough of some of the signings in this league to be sure. That’s the test.”
One of Leeds’ new signings, Vurnon Anita, has prior experience of the Championship. Jansson and Hadi Sacko, who completed loans at Elland Road last season, also have games in the division behind them. Six others, including Pennington, will look for their first taste at Bolton, though Christiansen’s line-up in Leeds’ final pre-season against Oxford United was largely filled with players used during Monk’s year in charge.
“That’s a good thing,” Gray said. “The squad needed improvement but it helps to have players in the team who were here last season and are already used to the club.
“When you come in fresh you have to realise quickly the expectation levels around you. The new players need to realise that and so does the manager. Everyone will expect them to challenge.”