x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

FA Cup: Small cups of cheers will do at Leeds United for now

Leeds United go to Manchester City today with the future of manager Neil Warnock in doubt and questions whether their new owners will sell up.

Manager Neil Warnock, left, is in the last year of his contract at Leeds. Nick Potts / PA
Manager Neil Warnock, left, is in the last year of his contract at Leeds. Nick Potts / PA

It is the song that will probably reverberate around the Etihad Stadium today, delivered with the defiance of a proud.

Marching On Together has been the constant in a turbulent time in Leeds United's history. Its sentiments are admirable. They are also incorrect.

Marching on? There seems a marked lack of direction at Leeds. Beyond the realisation that they are mired in the Championship for another year, few are quite sure where they are going.

Together? Their suffix, United, has often been inaccurate. This is one of those times.

Tuesday's 1-0 defeat to Middlesbrough was notable for chants of "[Neil] Warnock, time to go," directed at the manager. Others hope the owners GFH Capital, a venture capitalist company from Bahrain who only completed their takeover in December, will sell up.

Former Leeds commercial director and Hull City chairman Adam Pearson is interested in leading a consortium to buy them out. He represents the known quantity for many, while GFH's motives remain more of a mystery. They say they are seeking "strategic investors".

Some think they are looking to make a quick profit; others are lamenting their lack of expenditure in the transfer window.

There is only one element that all factions can agree upon.

"Everybody in Leeds needs that club back in the Premier League," Pearson said. "A city of this size should have a Premier League club."

Instead a 10th year outside the top flight appears inevitable for a club who reached the Uefa Champions League semi-final in 2001. Warnock has won seven promotions with previous clubs but it is almost certain there will not be an eighth this time around.

Yet the paradox in Leeds' season is that while they have rarely looked like they are going to the Premier League, they have troubled top teams.

They have defeated two sides with aspirations of Champions League football next season, led against a third and now, in City, face a fourth.

Theirs has been a season of cup runs. Everton and Southampton were knocked out of the Capital One Cup and while Chelsea eventually won 5-1 at Elland Road, they trailed at half time.

So Leeds' biggest scalp is Tottenham Hotspur, beaten 2-1 in the FA Cup to set up today's tie.

One of English football's grandest clubs have reinvented themselves as dangerous underdogs, snapping at the heels of their superiors. The prerequisite for any Leeds player is to compete; so, too, for any Warnock player.

Michael Brown, the veteran scrapper who started his career at City and first played for Warnock 14 years ago, is in and out of their Championship team but a certain starter against Premier League sides, an ageing agent provocateur who specialises at getting under the skin of more garlanded talents. Against Tottenham, another of his many former clubs, he was terrific.

For midfielder and manager alike, this is a farewell tour. Brown is 36 and a player whose presence in the team often bemuses supporters. Warnock turns 65 later this year and, like Brown, out of contract in the summer.

His long-postponed retirement could finally arrive, an ever controversial character leaving the stage for the quiet life of driving his tractor around his home in Cornwall.

If so, Leeds' league campaign would provide an anti-climactic ending. Warnock lost his top scorer, Luciano Becchio, to Norwich City in January and has bemoaned his players' inability to take chances.

They are mid-table, but, aware of the Yorkshire mindset, Warnock recently said: "In Leeds, the glass is always half empty."

The cups have overflowed, however, with triumphs of team spirit and work ethic, the qualities Warnock has always valued most highly. And so, for perhaps the final time in a managerial career that began at Gainsborough Trinity 33 years ago, he is preparing for a final outing on the major stage, sending out a side to scrap with the fancied favourites.

And after that, Leeds will be shrouded in uncertainty again.


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