RF: When we faced each other back in August I was fairly impressed with Leeds and thought you were one of the better sides we faced during Simon Grayson’s short tenure. Your form plummeted though, with only two wins in 2018, leading to the sacking of Thomas Christiansen. What went wrong?
JM: I wouldn’t say things went wrong so much as things stopped going so right. It’s easy to forget that basically every variable that could change for Leeds changed over the summer period: we got a new manager, a new owner, a new director of football, the majority of a new squad, we bought our stadium back. That is a lot of change for a club to go through.
When we went through our purple patch at the beginning of the season, I was always nervous - I knew we would regress to the mean and I knew where that mean was. Between 2012 and 2016 we finished between 13th and 15th every season. Last year was clearly an outlier. Where are we now? 12th heading for between 13th and 15th. That’s tongue in cheek, of course but, for me, this season has not been about under-performing but over-performing for the early part.
RF: Following Christiansen’s departure, Paul Heckingbottom arrived to take charge. Results have been mixed at best, so what are your early impressions of the new boss?
JM: I suspect many of the Leeds fans like Paul Heckingbottom based purely on the fact his surname is Heckingbottom: he sounds like a West Yorkshire suburban village where many of us could plausibly live.
As for me, when he arrived from a Barnsley side in the relegation zone, I wasn’t exactly over enamoured of him, no. But what do you do? One of the hardest things about being a Leeds fan is that you support a club that is essentially in stasis. If you want to know what the Premier League was like in the 90’s, go to Elland Road. That’s what it is. But with that, there comes all of the baggage of expectations. How do you get excited about the prospect of a manager coming in from a lower-table Championship side? We deserve it, of course. But it’s hardly what we expect.
In terms of his game management, he seems solid, nothing special. Tactically, the same. Is he the man to carry us back to the Premier League? I’m not so sure.
RF: When we talked about Simon Grayson back in August you seemed fairly positive that he would steady the ship for us. Admittedly so did we after a decent start! Are you surprised it went wrong for him, given he did well for Leeds when you were in a similar situation?
JM: The more I read about Sunderland, the less surprised I am about anything that happens at the Stadium of Light.
Simon Grayson is a steady manager: nothing more, nothing less. If anyone was going to steady the ship at Sunderland, it was going to be someone like him. Football management is an unforgiving place at the best of times, not least in this hyper-capitalised world of football we live in.
Could anyone have saved Sunderland the season? Only an Allardyce can save you now. Jokes aside, Sunderland was a special case. Whether or not Grayson struggled to manage players recently ejected from the Premier League, you’d be better placed to answer from me. For a Leeds United side wallowing in League One, he was just what we needed.
RF: As for the game, who’s in good form for you at the minute? Anyone in the Leeds side we should be keeping an eye on?
JM: Pablo Hernandez. One of the few silver linings in this dark cloud that has enveloped a once great football club has been the pleasure of being able to watch Hernandez over the last few seasons.
The Spanish virtuoso is punching wildly below his weight in the Championship but that does not mean he gets to run away with it. The league is tough and, for a luxury player like Hernandez, he always find himself on the cusp of brilliance or a career-ending injury. The result is breath-taking, though. Even if there is nothing to enjoy in a game, Pablo Hernandez can often offer something.
RF: How about the Sunderland team? Do you think we have anyone who could cause some bother at Elland Road?
JM: What a question! I cannot pretend I’ve spent much time watching Sunderland this season but I’ve been chatting with a couple of friends who are big Sunderland fans and one said “No!” is the correct answer and the other said “Lee Camp!” - I think he was trying to be funny (at least I hope so).
When pushed, their responses were Paddy McNair and George Honeyman but both suggested they were the best of a bad bunch. The important thing to remember, though, is that anyone could cause some bother at Elland Road, not least the Leeds United players themselves.
RF: What approach do you expect Heckingbottom to take and what do you think his starting line up will be?
JM: Until last weekend, Heckingbottom had almost exclusively gone with a 4-2-3-1 which had hardly rewarded him, only giving him 5 points from a possible 21. Against Bristol Rovers and, more recently, Bolton Wanderers, the former Barnsley man went 4-4-2 getting a draw and a win in the process.
The question is: will he stick with this formation against Sunderland? I suspect he will and so will line up as: Peacock-Farrell; Berardi, Pennington, Jansson, Dallas; Alioski, O’Kane, Vieira, Hernandez; Ekuban, Lasogga.
RF: Finally, can we have a prediction please?
JM: Leeds to win 2-1. There, I said it!