It was time to ready Leeds for the 27/28 season. I was resigned to losing Santos, who had been such a star for my side in my time with the club so far. Liverpool had come in with a £66 million offer, which was hard to resist. In anticipation of losing Santos, I poached Rhian Brewster from my old club Crystal Palace. It seemed fair…
Brewster was not Santos in terms of quality, but I held out the hope that he could deliver the goals. I was making other signings too – Thiago Almada and Mazinho, for the midfield and defence respectively. I also signed Muchanga, a wonderkid from Portuguese side SLB.
Something else new happened. As Leeds would be my first ever European adventure, it felt right to open up the game to European leagues. If I so desired, the Dutch, German, French, Italian and Spanish leagues were now available to me.
For Leeds, the first friendly would be against American minnows Orange County Academy, as part of a pre-season training camp. Seven goals in either half secured a very easy win, and not a lot could be learned from the game, but it was nonetheless a pleasing performance, with an early chance for the new signings to blend into the team. The next couple of friendlies were unlikely to deliver any key information for they were also against minnows, but at this stage of the season it was about building fitness and familiarity.
Leeds’ European adventure meant the competitive season would start earlier for me. The club would face a qualifying game in order to progress to the group stages – I could only hope we wouldn’t blow it! Meanwhile, friendly number two was against Sporting Kansas City (yes, there is a club called Sporting Kansas City. An 8-0 win was a fair reflection of the yawning chasm between the two sides.
The final friendly of my American tour would be against Colorado. A somewhat less fluid performance meant we only won 3-1, and then it was on to a more challenging friendly completely. Spanish supremoes Real Madrid were paying Leeds a visit.
Real Madrid are the most successful club in Champions League history, having been champions of Europe on 13 occasions, including winning the first five European Cups ever contested. A further spell of success at the turn of the century was followed up by a spell of utter dominance throughout the latter 2010s. Legendary players are too numerous to count, so I’ll name a few – Ferenc Puskas, Raul, both Ronaldos, Zinedine Zidane, Roberto Carlos… all names associated with the incredible success and legacy of this famous club.
Though this was only a friendly, it would be a major test of the squad, and that was the point. The only way the team could learn was by playing the very best. What did the lads take from the experience of hosting Real Madrid? Well, a second-half performance of incredible quality meant they took a 4-0 win! Off the pitch the club pulled off an amazing coup, convincing talented wonderkid Graeme Erwin of Celtic to sign for us, over the likes of Inter Milan. I now felt we had the necessary strength in depth to have a good season across multiple fronts.
I had one more friendly – a trip across the English Channel to play French side Nantes. A 3-1 win (featuring a fantastic strike from range by Erwin) put us in what I hoped would be a good place as the season opener against Wolves drew nearer. The overall performances in pre-season had been very good, but competitive game are always a very difference prospect.
In the end I had no cause for pre-match nerves. Leeds were rampant, ruthless and every bit the side I knew they could be in a 5-0 win against newly-promoted Wolves. Muchanga scored twice on his debut and the whole team gave a really strong account of themselves, and for a brief moment, Leeds at top of the Premier League, albeit exclusively due to goal difference.
Our Europa League qualifier was finally announced – Sturm Graz, of Austria, would be my opponents, with the first leg being away from home. They’d be sandwiched between a trip to Arsenal and a home game against Liverpool – so I could definitely rest players then… that was sarcasm, by the way.
For the Arsenal game I decided to be a gung-ho and go with the attacking gegenpress philosophy. It was risky, especially away to Arsenal, but I felt like taking risks. It paid off with a 1-0 win, and we played well enough to earn the points too. Muchanga once again showed how it was done with a nice turn and hammer of a shot on the edge of the area. For the first time in a long time I’d beaten Patrick Vieira.
So, to Europe, and a trip to Austria. I don’t know a lot about Sturm Graz, but Leeds were predicted to defeat them reasonably comfortably over the course of two legs. We fell behind but recovered to win 3-1, and guess what? Muchanga scored yet again. The away goals and the scale of the win put Leeds in a commanding position to take their place in the group stage.
Liverpool, who had won both the Premier League and Champions League the previous season, were coming to town. They been sublime over the course of the last few seasons, winning many a trophy, and at this point were probably the most formidable team to face. My former forward Santos would have the potential to be a thorn in my side – former Liverpool striker (albeit never a regular) Brewster had the potential to be a thorn in theirs.
Santos didn’t score but neither did Brewster, who didn’t play especially well. Muchanga got his name in lights again, but this time for being sent off late on. Also, the random goal glitch struck again, very late on. However, all these permutations added up to the unlikely scenario of a 2-1 win for Leeds! Hauge scored both goals to give us an important win and maintain our 100% start to the season.
For the return leg of the Europa League tie against Sturm Graz I made some changes to the starting line-up, aiming to give some peripheral players a chance to gain some match fitness and experience. It proved worthwhile – a 2-1 win and a goal for Brewster (his first for Leeds) got us where we needed to go. Brewster reacted rather poorly to my efforts to praise him for scoring – something to keep an eye on maybe?
My aim for the trip to Fulham would be to restore rested players to my line-up. My hope would be that the chance to rest would do them good and result in a good performance. We played ok but a 2-2 draw thanks to the game’s ugly gifting glitch denied us all three points – truthfully, I felt we should have put the game to bed a long time ago.
10 points from the first four games of the season was not a bad return at all, especially considering we’d already beaten Arsenal away and Liverpool at home. Another break now ensued, thanks to international fixtures, which tends to annoy me as it breaks up any steam we’ve built up.
Despite his red card against Liverpool, Muchanga won Player of the Month for August, after an inspired start to his Leeds career.
A single goal from Brewster gave us a win over Aston Villa at Elland Road, though we created so many chances and fluffed up so many of them that I feared we’d inevitably concede and drop points. Nonetheless a win was a win and four wins out of five Premier League games was a good, solid start to the season. It was now time to see if that form could carry over into the first Europa League group stage match, at home to Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow.
A 3-0 win and a goal on his return from domestic suspension for Muchanga was quite satisfying, especially as the opposition didn’t even muster a shot on target. I expected a more difficult challenge from Leicester, even if they making the trip up north. A 2-2 draw was greatly annoying, for we were completely outplayed for the first 30 minutes but after that created a host of chances and should have crushed them.
Now for a change of pace, the Carabao Cup, a competition that the board wasn’t interested in, but I was. I saw this as a big opportunity to grab some silverware. That being said, it was also a chance to rest some key players and blood some youngsters. My youthful squad won on penalties, despite losing a two goal lead.
Now for a grudge match. Brighton had twice beaten my Leeds side despite my Leeds side taking two goal leads. As Palace manager they’d delivered some heavy defeats. This time we won 1-0, a neat and tidy performance that helped us maintain our excellent start to the campaign. The game did however bring about a fresh problem. One of my key central defenders, Stergiou, was being tempted by Liverpool, who had already lured away Santos. I wasn’t keen on losing yet another one of my important players.
The Europa League was up next, with Leeds hosting Linfield of the Northern Irish Premier. A confident display of attacking football dispatched them 6-1, and then it was on to hosting Sheffield United in the Premier League. I stoked the fires a bit beforehand, wanting to wind up their manager Chris Wilder, with whom I had a bit of previous. Up until the game we had the best defensive record but shipped two goals to Sheffield – though we scored four, so it was another win and another three points!
After a spell of a number of matches in rapid succession, the international break was actually quite welcome. The team now had the chance to recuperate for a bit, ahead of the next sequence of games. However we ended up giving a very poor account of ourselves, losing at home to West Brom, and I was not pleased. Our run of 17 league games unbeaten was now over, so now it was time to do it again, but first, we had a trip to Maccabi Haifa. The team responded to the weak showing against West Brom by winning 6-0 and playing extremely well.
The problem was that we had a very difficult challenge next – a trip away to Manchester City. We lost 2-1 but fought bravely, there was no dishonour in our performance.
Things didn’t look too great fixture-wise. We would host Crystal Palace in the Carabao Cup then travel to Spurs in the Premier League. A young team lost 3-2 to Palace, and then it was on to Spurs on the back of two consecutive league defeats plus going out of the Cup. We took the lead against Spurs but a lack of decisive firepower consigned us to a 2-1 defeat.
Haifa came around again – this time travelling to Elland Road. A straight-forward 5-0 win gave me something to smile about, though losing Muchanga to injury… that was less enjoyable. My hope was that the mild squad rotation would serve me well against Everton at Elland Road. I wanted to reverse some of the damage caused by three league losses on the bounce. We won 2-1 but I wasn’t generally happy – we needed to be sharper and better, especially since up next was a trip to Chelsea.
It was a clash of 4th (them) against 5th (us), and intriguingly, after 12 games, we were only five points off the league leaders Man City. A brave rear-guard action at Stamford Bridge saw Hauge score a great long-range effort and Diaz net a late, late goal to give us the unlikeliest of 2-1 wins and keep our season moving in the right direction, and then it was time for a trip to Russia, to face Lokomotiv Moscow.
Time for a reality check. It turns out Leeds weren’t competing in the Europa League but in the Europa League 2, a ‘third tier’ European competition. I confess to being lost, for this isn’t a competition I was aware of. Well, beggars can’t be choosers, it was a prize up for grabs and I had no reason not to go for it. The game against Loko Moscow would be a chance to try out a new tactic – it was a dead rubber game and therefore the best fixture for such an adventure.
It took a while, but four goals in the last six minutes of the first half ensured a dominant victory, with Bogusz completing a hat-trick in the dying minutes in a 5-1 win. Ultimately I couldn’t take too much away about the new tactic from this, given the quality of the opposition and the snowy conditions upon which we played, but it’s always nice to watch a good performance and plenty of goals.
It was back to the Premier League next, and a visit from Norwich City. I decided against experimenting too much here, switching back to the style of play that had brought Leeds to 4th place in the standings. Norwich were on a poor run of form, but a wounded animal is always dangerous, as I have learned on too many occasions on Football Manager. We led 2-0 at half-time and threw it away to draw. I was livid – it seemed to be a recurring habit of this Leeds team to fail to kill games off. In the wake of this failure, I decided once again to experiment, this time during the trip to Bournemouth, which was only a couple of days later.
A 3-1 win marked what felt like the first time in ages we’d scored more than twice in a Premier League game, though the manner in which we ended the game saw Bournemouth putting us under far too much pressure for my liking. A quick turnaround saw us travel to Selhurst Park to face my former club Crystal Palace.
It’s fair to say this kind of game can be nerve-wracking. I am all too familiar with Palace and the potential match-winners in their ranks, like Barry, who I rate highly. However, in a display as good as any we’d produced so far, my Leeds side showed more of a cutting edge, scoring four goals without reply. Not only had we finished the game off but we’d kept a clean sheet as well, for the first time in virtually forever. Incredibly, 16 games into the season we were still in the conversation around Champions League football.
The press kept asking me what I thought of the team’s season so far, and what my aims were. I kept giving the same answer – we were taking things one game at a time. It’s a well-worn cliché, but it was what I felt to be the most appropriate answer. In my head I was entertaining loftier notions, which gave me cause to wonder – do real managers ever believe themselves when they utter the phrase ‘one game at a time’?
There was one final game in the Europa League 2 group stage. Leeds would cross the Irish Sea to face Linfield. Time to experiment again.
A 3-0 win despite fielding a weakened team was a hint as to the potency of this latest experiment, but hardly definitive. For the next game, at home to Newcastle United in the league, it was business as usual. A 3-2 win was nice, but we yet again let slip a 2 goal advantage, an annoyingly regular occurrence by this point. Following a pause for international football, battle resumed with a home game against bottom club Burnley. I could not help but cast an eye to the game immediately following Burnley, but more on that in a moment. Burnley were our Boxing Day game – would they give us a satisfying Christmas present?
Yes and no. A 2-1 win was yet another nervy, scrappy win where we should have crushed the opposition. Still, the win lifted us to third in the table, just ahead of our next opponents – Manchester United, at Old Trafford.
I had to expect that this wouldn’t go well. Man Utd are formidable in any context, least of all against my Leeds side, that seemed determined to make life very different on themselves. A 3-3 draw due to the ghost goal thing gifting Man Utd in the dying moments was sort of annoying, especially as we’d been 3-1 at one stage, but we had also at one stage desperately clung on and we were in many ways lucky to emerge from Old Trafford with a point.
We’d reached the halfway point of the 27/28 season and incredibly we were third in the standings. How far could we go?