AS DINNER dates go, Neil Warnock could probably have picked a better time to sit down with supporters of his new club Leeds United.
Tonight’s ‘Evening with’ event at Elland Road was poised to be a gentle introduction for the new Leeds manager with just about everyone in attendance likely to want to pat him on the back.
Now, thanks to Tuesday night’s 7-3 home defeat by Nottingham Forest, the after-dinner conversation might possess a tad more of an edge.
Even Warnock admits that he was ‘embarrassed’ by the scoreline. Never before had Leeds allowed a visiting team to score seven goals at Elland Road.
Had he still been alive, Brian Clough would have been celebrating his 77th birthday yesterday, no doubt delighting in Forest inflicting such pain on Leeds.
But the knives will not be out for the new Leeds manager tonight. Not a chance. They will just be utilised for a main dish of roast pork served stuffed with black pudding.
The majority of Leeds supporters are happy with Warnock’s appointment and have welcomed the former Sheffield United and Huddersfield Town manager to Elland Road with open arms.
In his first five games, Leeds conceded just two goals – against the top two clubs in the Championship – and played well enough to take maximum points every time.
The gap was closing on the top six and Warnock’s previous record as a promotion winner was fuelling talk of Leeds gatecrashing the play-off party.
After the battling display against West Ham United on Saturday, Leeds had been fully expected to beat Forest, who are still battling against the drop.
But football, as everyone knows, sometimes has a nasty habit of kicking you in the teeth.
And so it proved as Leeds suffered their first bad day at the office under Warnock and the supporters went home grumbling.
With only eight games left to play, it is now going to be tough for Leeds to make the top six.
They are 10th and five points off the pace having played a game more than most of their rivals.
The main priority is laying foundations for a promotion push next season – although no one will give up the chase this season until it is mathematically impossible.
Warnock has been typically frank in his assessment of Tuesday night’s game even comparing the defending to ‘Sunday league’ standards.
“I’m embarrassed about the result,” he said. “Going back to my Sunday league days, I’d have been disappointed then to concede two or three of those goals.
“I don’t think anyone could look in the mirror after the goals we’ve conceded,” he added.
“You’ve got to be stronger mentally in certain areas to avoid results like that.”
Warnock felt another factor in his side’s performance may have been the physical demands of another game so soon after West Ham.
“I didn’t feel it was appropriate to make changes because they were super on Saturday. On reflection I should have done,” he admitted.
“It was obviously a problem for one or two lads to do two games in four days. I didn’t think it would be. To be fair, some of them were shattered. I don’t think any of the lads could have given more physically but they were drained. Becchio and Clayton couldn’t move around the pitch having put so much into Saturday.”
Warnock’s honesty and wit should lighten the mood tonight and his answers might also help put the Forest result into perspective. At Queens Park Rangers, he also steadied the ship before charging to the title.
When he sits down to dinner, Warnock will have already decided whether to strengthen ahead of the 5pm emergency loan deadline. The scope of any activity will have depended on funds available.
His existing options are thin on the ground but defender Alex Bruce has an outside chance of returning from injury at Millwall this weekend.
“I don’t think you learn much about your players when you’re winning games,” he reflected. “I think you learn things when things go against you – who stands up and who you want in the trenches with you.
“It wasn’t a night for rollocking anyone and I don’t think the centre-backs played poorly. We fought back really well, re-grouped, and got to 3-3 but their fourth goal was terrible. After that, I just thought every shot was going to go in.”
Leeds captain Robert Snodgrass expressed sympathy for supporters after the Forest game.
“Defending the way we did as a team will get you nowhere near the play-offs,” he said. “It was a great chance for us to keep in touch with the pack. It was very frustrating as a footballer so I can’t imagine how the fans feel.”
Those paying £29.50 to attend tonight’s event will deliver an answer to that question – and also ask Warnock a few of their own.