The Yorkshire team have had injuries and have also suffered with players who have had little rest after World Cup campaigns. In addition, the club has also had to deal with difficult, off the field, problems which led to a change of management.
Terry Venables is an experienced football man, who will be aware but not worried about some of the arrows being aimed in his direction. To attain European standard is one thing, but to maintain this area of competition is the trick. Leeds have obviously budgeted for achieving and when it doesn’t succeed policy rethink is inevitable.
Last weekend, in a sports bar in Prague where we had just witnessed England win a wonderful rugby match, we settled down to watch Spurs ‘live’ at Arsenal.
Unfortunately, we could have left the bar after 20 minutes or so when Mike Riley made such a poor judgement. Not for one minute do I suggest that his decision might have changed the shape of the game, but it does highlight the unfairness of the disciplinary system. Whatever punishment a player gets, and even if a subsequent appeal is successful, the side suffers there and then for the rest of the game. So there is no suitable penalty and the punishment can never fit the crime.
The sentence was the remaining 70 minutes of the game, not whether the incident was belatedly accepted or rescinded by the referee.
My mind strayed to a final game at Sheffield Wednesday against Liverpool, in a season when we needed three points to get into the top six and Europe. We were leading one nil with not much time remaining when our goalkeeper Matt Clarke handled the ball inside his area but Mr Elleray, on the advice of his assistant, decided that he was outside the 18 yard box.
A younger Jamie Redknapp despatched the free-kick, Clarke had been sent off and the equalising goal meant that Wednesday had massively failed the Board’s expectations to get into the top six and Europe. By co-incidence, Liverpool also, with a Roy Evans a magnanimous manager, failed to get into the Champions League by not winning the game.
It was a most cruel result, particularly for our club. Very soon after the incident David Elleray rescinded the sending off and apologised. It made no difference. We had lost European qualification and consequently the achievement of seventh place meant little. After 13 games of the following season, we said our goodbyes. On such decisions a manager and a club’s whole future can sometimes hinge.
Compared to elsewhere, our English referees are without doubt very alert and understanding. But there are some who still do not realise that they are merely the referee and it is the players that the crowd comes to see.
Suffice to say there are times when you have to concede defeat and none of our fair-minded supporters can fail to accept that currently Arsenal are possibly the most vibrant side in the league. It is not for us to put our heads down and sulk, but merely to forge ahead, to encourage and maintain our spirit with the promise of improved performances over the next few weeks.
On the positive side, it was more pleasing to see Ledley King back in action. With Steve Carr back, Christian Ziege and Mauricio Taricco training, only Ben Thatcher, Neil Sullivan and Anthony Gardner are sidelined from our defensive squad.
While in the Czech Republic last week, I broke my personal record for watching games in one day. On the Sunday I watched Slavia Prague’s youth teams play at U18 and U16 levels in the morning and then watched their senior team win 1-0 to go two points behind Sparta Prague, their wealthier local rivals who then lost 1-0 later that evening. The national team there is improving and there is tremendous dedication and thoroughness in their youth arrangements.
Returning, having seen some good young technical players, I was disappointed to read that the National School’s current budget may be under threat and that could curtail building work at the proposed centre at Burton on Trent. With the Wembley funding seemingly in doubt, and the football club chairmen now crying "wolf" because of the problems within their own clubs, it seems that we are at a critical stage.
More importantly, I find it very upsetting that the Academy arrangements, initiated four years ago and progressing steadily so that we produce players of better quality with more qualifications and more thorough tuition, is being questioned by some club chairmen who are impatient for players to come through the system. Players cannot emerge if their senior squads are full of highly paid players, many from abroad.
Youth needs opportunity and we should not for one second be looking to sacrifice the vital ingredients that have made the Academies such a good strategy. At the Premier League meeting I attended two weeks ago, the club chairmen in effect voted that in the year 2004-05 the ages of the youth teams in the Academy should be changed from U17 and U19 to U16 and U18. This in effect means that the U16 team will be a group of fifth year schoolboys and less boys will be invited into the Academy as only one team, an U18 side, will be available to them, a "development team" in effect. Reserve football controlled by the senior manager will obviously continue, but I wonder whether organised reserve team football, unlike in Germany and other European countries is a necessity any more. The whole point of the Academy system was that rules were put into place with the idea of having flexibility. Now Howard Wilkinson has left there is a void, and I am beginning to worry whether there is the understanding of what development of youth really means.
A boy cannot develop in isolation. He needs to be involved in a group where, once he has learnt the technical aspects of the game and is more proficient, he needs to have an understanding of team play, team tactics and formations. It is only this round of education that will bring a fully prepared player to first team level and that is why this strategy was initiated in the first place.
It is a matter of serious concern. The clubs are now paying for their wild ambitions with their senior players and it should not be the youth of the clubs that suffer as a result.
Let us hope that today’s game is a sporting one and we will not return home listening to any muddled rants taking up time on our sporting radio programmes.
Leeds come here today during an interesting period for their Club.