Leeds’ rollercoaster season - time to spend?

After a campaign of ups and downs Ross McCormack tells Simon Hart he is hoping for club’s new owners to spend heavily this summer so they can push on next term

Anybody seeking an image to sum up Leeds United’s 2013-14 season should have been at Flamingo Land this week, where the sight of Brian McDermott’s squad on a rollercoaster during their annual end-of-term visit offered a perfect visual metaphor for a turbulent campaign.

A queasy stomach from the North Yorkshire roads meant Ross McCormack stayed off the rides. But it seems fair to say he has had quite enough ups and downs already in a season in which his 29 goals in all competitions earned him a place in the PFA’s Championship team of the season yet his side’s on-field fortunes have been damaged by seemingly constant turmoil behind the scenes.

For better or worse, McCormack describes it as “an experience I will never forget” as he sits down to reflect on events at Elland Road in the theme park’s Mansion House tea rooms.

One particularly unforgettable day came on 31 January. This was the day after the collapse of ex-managing director David Haigh’s proposed takeover, when instead Massimo Cellino, a convicted fraudster, agreed to buy a 75 per cent stake in the club from previous owners Gulf Finance House (GFH), sparking the dismissal and subsequent reinstatement of manager McDermott.

“There was a lot going on that night; it was surreal, to be honest,” McCormack recalls. “Surreal” is probably an understatement when you factor in his own situation at the time, with five different teams trying to lure him away, including his old club Cardiff City, who had a bid rejected, and West Ham United.

He insists that his evening visit to Elland Road – where he says he tried but failed to speak to Cellino – was not made to engineer a deadline-day escape from the madhouse. “It would have been easy for me to do that, but no. There were a lot of things going on. A lot of people think someone made a bid for me and the club turned it down and I wanted to go. That is not what happened. In the lead-up to the 31st, things were happening. I think certain people at the club were trying to sell me behind my back as well. They are things people don’t know.”

McCormack actually issued a statement stressing his commitment to staying and “playing at the club under Brian McDermott”. Hours later, after McDermott’s sacking, he tweeted: “Most pointless statement I’ve ever given!” The next day he hit a hat-trick as Leeds beat Huddersfield  5-1. “You could look at it as everyone making a statement but we weren’t trying any more than we’ve tried every other game,” he says. It certainly looked like a statement, and McDermott ended the day back in the job.

The saga went on, with Cellino’s takeover blocked by the Football League before the Italian’s successful appeal last month. Amid the chaos a Leeds side who had sat fifth in the Championship on Christmas Day won just three of their next 20 league games. “I could sit here and say we are footballers and have just got to do our job but there was so much uncertainty and no one knew a thing,” McCormack says. “We didn’t know if we were going to get paid, we didn’t know if the takeover was going to happen. If it didn’t happen, were we going to go into administration? If we went into administration and lost points, we could have been relegated. You’ve got all these different things in your head and it is hard to put them to the side and play football, whether people think that’s what you should be doing or not. It was a hard time.”

Ross McCormack enjoys the sights during the Leeds players’ day out at Flamingo Land Ross McCormack enjoys the sights during the Leeds players’ day out at Flamingo Land (Asadour Guzelian)
The one saving grace has been McCormack’s goals, without which 15th-placed Leeds would have been relegated. Only once before, with Cardiff in 2008-09, had the Glaswegian reached 20 league goals in a season yet he has thrived on the extra responsibility given him by McDermott – “the best manager I’ve worked under” – who has made him Leeds captain. McCormack had a strained relationship with the previous manager, Neil Warnock, but his successor, McDermott, has built his attack around the Rangers youth product, a player blessed with excellent awareness and anticipation, if not lightning pace.

“The manager took me into his office and said he wanted me to play up front and just be the go-to guy. Straight away I started scoring. Managers [used to] play me in different positions but under this manager he said, ‘Forget that, you’re a striker and that’s it.’ That enables you to bring out things: when you’re in the box you’re constantly getting into areas where you think the ball has a chance of landing and when it’s there [you] have the sharpness of mind to get there before defenders.”

The Championship’s leading scorer, McCormack goes into today’s final fixture at home to Derby County two goals shy of becoming the first Leeds player since John Charles in 1956-57 to hit 30 league goals in a campaign. “It seems to be everywhere I turn – everyone is asking, ‘Are you going to get the 30 goals?’” Alas, it is not the only question on fans’ lips, given the doubts still lingering over both McDermott’s and his own future at Leeds.

“It has not been nice,” says McCormack of the treatment McDermott has endured, though he suggests there is plenty of steel beneath that affable demeanour. “Everyone just thinks he’s this nice guy but there’s a lot more to him than that.”

McCormack turns 28 in August and is hungry for Premier League football. Yet he maintains he would like to get there with Leeds, with whom he signed a four-year deal last August. “I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t want to play in the Premier League, but I want it to be with Leeds and to get there as club captain would be something special. If I get a phone call saying ‘we’ve accepted an offer for you’ then it’s something I would have to consider, but at the minute I am mega-happy to be here and desperate to play in the Premier League with Leeds.”

And does Cellino share his ambition? “I’ve not had any conversations with him in terms of that, but I’m hoping he starts throwing his money about and buying all these players that are worth millions and then we go to the Premier League. That’s the ideal scenario.”

After a season like this, Leeds’ long-suffering supporters will believe it when they see it.

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