There was a time, not so long ago, when many a neutral would have carried a torch for Leeds United's enterprising young team in tonight's television coverage of their Uefa Cup tie against PSV Eindhoven. Not any more. As David O'Leary, the Leeds manager, said yesterday evening: "One boozy night has changed everything."
It has also, eventually, affected Leeds' form. After astonishing most observers with the way they held themselves together during the court cases involving Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, Leeds are now coming apart just as it seemed the worst was over. Since crashing out of the FA Cup at Cardiff they have taken two points from 15 in the League.
O'Leary's ill-advised book and continuing disciplinary problems among his players are a factor. There also appears to have been a reaction to the trial akin to the delayed shock people suffer when the adrenalin subsides after a train wreck.
Tonight O'Leary hopes Leeds will begin to rebuild their reputation and their form. That he is likely to recall three of the game's current hate figures, Bowyer, Alan Smith and Danny Mills, from domestic suspension, suggest the latter is more important. But Smith, in particular, has plenty of talent to admire and an admirable off-pitch persona. Add the panache of Harry Kewell and Leeds still have much to offer.
Whether they have the confidence to produce it is another matter. "There has been a culmination of things. Injuries to good players and suspensions – some of them our own fault – have hit us," said O'Leary. "But there has also been a reaction to the stresses.
"I knew this would be a difficult season. I would not want to go through a season like this again. To emerge from a season like this with something would be an marvellous achievement."
The normally relaxed O'Leary seemed under pressure last night. But that is hardly surprising. This has been a traumatic season and while he has made mistakes, nothing he has done has warranted some of the reaction. Referring to the death threats his wife received he said: "My wife has never been to a match, never met the players, but what she has had to go through makes the football seem like Mickey Mouse."
And now, it seems, he does not feel he has the full backing of the board. He added: "A lot of people forget, including a few in our club, that it has been a dramatic time recently."
PSV include Mark van Bommel, possibly bound for Arsenal, and Kevin Hofland, similarly linked with Manchester United. Dennis Rommendahl also needs watching, as does a man who, if not the biggest name in football, certainly has the longest. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink would keep a shirt stenciller busy for a week. Tonight he will happy be if he keeps Rio Ferdinand occupied for 90 minutes.
PSV Eindhoven (4-4-2, probable): Lodewijks; Bogeland, Ooijer, Hofland, Bouma; Van Bommel, Vogel, Bruggink, Rommendahl; Gakhokidze, Vennegoor of Hesselink.
Leeds United (4-4-2, probable): Martyn; Mills, Ferdinand, Matteo, Harte; Bowyer, Dacort, Batty, Kewell; Viduka, Smith.
Referee: S Braschi (Italy).Reuse content