With the 2011/2012 season starting today, here's what I think of the Leeds squad and my thoughts about our prospects for the season.
1 - Andy Lonergan - A solid if unspectacular 'keeper. Better than Schmeichel? Remains to be seen, but he was certainly a lot cheaper and that's the key factor for this club.
2 - Paul Connolly - Again solid is the word, which is really all you can hope for from a full-back at this level. Works hard and gets forward well.
3 - Patrick Kisnorbo - Could be the key. If he stays fit and gets back to his old form he could be the difference maker that sees us get promotion. However his injury record is pretty terrible and it seems the club are gambling a lot on him staying fit. If he gets injured we're left with the same disastrous defence as last season. We're taking a big gamble here, the failure to invest in a quality centre-back is staggering.
4 - Alex Bruce - Decent back up at best and quite versatile. Too inconsistent to be a regular starter.
5 - Andy O'Brien - An interesting case. We needed him to be a leader last season and he's not a leader. He looked very good in the last couple of games alongside Naylor who was a leader, so there's genuine reason to be optimistic about a potentially very good partnership between him and Kisnorbo, who is also a leader.
7 - Max Gradel - I'm counting the minutes until the transfer window closes. As long as we have Gradel and Snodgrass we have a chance. It would be unbelievable if it wasn't Leeds United that we have let him get down to one year left on his contract. Have we even offered him a new one? Of course not. I'll be stunned if he's still here at the start of September.
8 - Michael Brown - If he's anything like the player he once was he'll be exactly what we were missing in the midfield last season - a nasty player who can tackle and break up opposition attacks. But he's old and hasn't played since Christmas. Time will tell.
9 - Billy Paynter - Much maligned, some of it justified. Will never be a goalscorer at this level. Becchio's out. Somma's out. Come in number 9 your time is now. As long as he does his basic job - wins headers and holds the ball up - we have the players in Gradel, Snodgrass, McCormack, Nunez, Sam and Howson to score the goals until Becchio is back.
10 - Luciano Becchio - Somebody made a balls up by not getting him the surgery he needed at the end of last season. Now we have to start the season without our top scorer. Great worker and a key player. Here's hoping he's back sooner rather than later. The old chestnut "weeks rather than months" has been trotted out but we've heard that so many times before it's hard not to be cynical. No doubt the same would have been said of Somma if he hadn't tweeted the truth himself. Why does the club do this? Well if the supporters know our key players are going to be out for a long time then we might expect some replacements to be signed. Bates couldn't have that, could he?
11 - Lloyd Sam - Hopefully he can stay fit this time because I really like this lad. Quick, skillful and has an eye for goal. Should be a threat from the bench as well as allowing us to keep Snodgrass and Gradel fresh.
12 - Paul Rachubka - Should be decent back-up.
13 - Mike Grella - Clearly has no future here. Suspect attitude and too many players ahead of him. Has potential but if he hasn't fulfilled by now he probably never will. He can count himself a little unlucky that there have always been good strikers ahead of him since the moment he arrived at the club and thus he never really got a decent run in the team.
14 - Jonny Howson - Full-time captain now so he's a guaranteed starter. He always has been under Grayson anyway. I'm torn on him. It looks like we'll be going 4-5-1 again which suits him down to the ground as he's made for the role in behind the stiker. In a 4-4-2 he struggles, although alongside a player that can actually tackle, and hopefully that player is Brown; perhaps he can finally flourish in that role also. Our system last season was built around him and looks set to be so again. Is he a player so good that you build a team around him? I'm not so sure...
15 - Adam Clayton - Looks set to step up into the first team this season. He and Brown look like the replacements for Johnson and Kilkenny. Both can tackle and if they can add the defensive cover we lacked with their predecessors then we could end up a whole lot better off this season.
19 - Ben Parker - Seems to be much maligned among Leeds supporters and I don't understand it. He was starting to really progress the last time he had a run in the Leeds team. Unfortunately that was two years ago. If he stays fit in my opinion he's worth a chance at left-back. Obviously I'm disappointed we didn't bring in a left-back but I'd be happy to see Parker or White given a chance.
20 - Ramon Nunez - Looks like an unearthed gem. He did well on loan at Scunthorpe last season, and hopefully like Beckford and Somma before him, he can come back and make a big impact. He's had a good pre-seaon, he looks skillful and a genuine goal threat, so there's reason to be optimistic.
21 - Fede Bessone - Has apparantly been injured all summer but its hard to judge whether he'll be given another chance or we just can't offload him. He was shipped out on loan without being given much of a chance last season. Admittedly he was poor but so was George McCartney who was probably just as bad. Personally I'd rather see Parker or White given a chance.
22 - Tom Lees - Has flourished out on loan for two seasons and this season could be his chance. He seems highly rated, his only drawback being he's maybe a bit small for a centre-back. Looking at our defensive record last season he's never going to get a better chance to stake his claim for a place.
23 - Robert Snodgrass - Fantastic player. He and Gradel give us the edge and I pray both are still here come September. He's not the fittest though and unfortunately hasn't had much of a pre-season so he'll be playing catch-up. We need to use Sam and Nunez effectively to keep Snodgrass fit as he tends to burn out towards the end of the season.
26 - Leigh Bromby - Good experienced back-up at this level. He and Bruce are our back-up at centre-half and honestly I'd say one probably has to go. I'd take Bromby over Bruce every time.
27 - Davide Somma - Pretty much ruled out for the season which is a great shame. He's a natural predator and a prolific goalscorer, especially from the bench when we need a goal most. Will be a big miss.
28 - Aidan White - Hopefully his loan spell last season has built up his stamina. He's always looked good when he's played either at left-back or left wing but he's never been given a run in the side under Grayson. I suspect Grayson doesn't really rate him.
30 - Alex Cairns - Young 'keeper, third choice.
44 - Ross McCormack - Saved his Leeds career in the last two matches of last season by grabbing a couple of goals. Has undoubted quality and can score at this level, but he has again struggled for goals in pre-season (missing two penalties) and one has to wonder about his confidence. With Becchio and Somma injured this could be his big chance and he has to take it.
48 - Darren O'Dea - Don't know much about him except for conflicted views from Ipswich and Celtic fans. Some rate him, others don't. By all accounts he's more of a centre-back than a left-back and I hope he hasn't been brought in to fill the left-back role. Square pegs in round holes is never a good idea, and if the the best left-back we can sign is actually a centre-back, then there is something very wrong with our transfer policy.
I think this is our strongest starting eleven:
Connolly O'Brien Kisnorbo Parker
Snodgrass Howson Gradel
With the exception of Becchio we are able to start that team against Southampton on the opening day. I'd take that team over most in this division. Without doubt it has been a disappointing pre-season on the transfer front. It is painfully obvious Ken Bates has no intention of spending money. We've lost Schmeichel, Naylor, Kilkenny, Higgs, Johnson, Livermore, Watt, Lichaj, Gonzalez, McCartney and Bannan since the end of last season and brought in only Lonergan, Rachubka, Brown and O'Dea. It's sickening that a club that finished 7th last season is showing zero ambition while teams like Leicester and Ipswich are showing bucket loads. There's a few players that can be classed as being "like a new signing" - Kisnorbo, Sam, Parker, Nunez, Clayton, White and even McCormack - but this doesn't disguise the fact that there has been zero investment and ambition by our owner to build on what we achieved last season.
Some fans are slating Grayson but I think their frustration is misguided. Does anyone think Grayson doesn't want money to spend? Do you think he feels his squad is complete? He'd be the only manager in history to think that if he did. His hands are tied. Maybe he lacks the bottle to stand up to Bates but if he did he'd surely lose his job. Maybe he believes in his own ability to get us up on the cheap and is willing to stick it out until Bates eventually leaves. Whatever the case there is no doubt Grayson will be axed if the fans start getting restless this season and that will be a huge shame. Who are we going to get that can better what he has done with no money? Changing the manager will never be the answer as long as Bates has a stranglehold on the club.
Whilst it's been a frustrating summer there is reason to be optimistic. Our attacking record spoke for itself last year and all we needed to do was address the defence. There's every possibility that Kisnorbo and Brown will be the answer to our problems. If we cut out even a third of the goals we leaked last year we'll be right in contention. As long as we have Gradel and Snodgrass (and I pray they both stay) we will be a threat to anyone. The problem lies in our strength in depth, or rather our lack of it. If Kisnorbo and Brown get injured we're no better off than we were last season. Clayton, Nunez, White, Parker and Lees are unproven at this level.
The league looks tougher this year - West Ham and Leicester are already looking nailed on for the top six at least, and I'd throw Nottingham Forest and Ipswich in there too. Hull, Middlesbrough, Cardiff, Derby, Blackpool, Birmingham, Brighton and Southampton will all feel they can have their say too. I'm forever an optimist though and I fancy us to knick 6th place. It's a shame because we really should have been building a squad to compete for automatic promotion but we just haven't invested enough. Our only hope of ever reaching the Premier League under Bates is sneaking in the back door like Blackpool did in 2010. For a club of Leeds stature that is a disgrace, and the day that our club is free of Bates can't come soon enough.