Season 2010/11 Part 2
Losing their way
Leeds United's return to the Championship had seen them exceed expectations, despite heavy defeats at home to Preston and Cardiff and an embarrassing 5-2 reverse at Barnsley. The sheen of beating table-topping QPR on 18 December had been dulled by losing two-goal leads against Leicester and Portsmouth, but as 2011 opened, Leeds were fourth in the table, level on 40 points with Cardiff and Swansea, with Rangers seven points clear of that pack.
It was heady stuff after three years in the League One wilderness and supporters were hopeful of a real promotion push in the New Year.
The positive mood was enhanced by the announcement that Irish international centre-back Andy O'Brien, on loan from Bolton since 29 October, would make the move permanent.
O'Brien, who represented himself in contract talks, commented: 'The meeting with the chairman was something I will remember all my life. It was a bit like when I signed my first contract at Bradford with Geoffrey Richmond - that was entertaining as well. My Dad came in with me initially and he is a big bloke of around 20 stone. The chairman's first words were, "We'll sign the fat one instead." My Dad replied he had been on a diet for six weeks, to which the chairman said, "Well that isn't effing working, is it?" Dad is quite quick-witted and said back, "Well I don't know what your excuse is."
'I also had an offer to go to Cardiff and went down there to speak to Dave Jones … Cardiff came in with an offer and the first thing I did was ring Leeds and tell them exactly what the deal was. There was a bit of toing and froing and then I said, "If you offer me what Cardiff have offered then I will sign." That is what happened.'
O'Brien was a member of the United side that needed an injury-ime goal to earn a draw at home to Middlesbrough on New Year's Day, having fallen behind to David Wheater's 20th-minute header.
Luciano Becchio volleyed home in superb fashion in the 91st minute and there was sufficient time remaining for Ross McCormack to head narrowly wide when he could have secured an unlikely three points.
Seconds before Becchio's equaliser, Boro's Justin Hoyte had come close to wrapping up the points for the visitors, but United broke quickly and Becchio hammered his strike past Jason Steele after Neill Collins' flick had come back off the keeper.
United manager Simon Grayson: 'We've been on a decent run and, being honest, that was probably the least threatening we've been over the last 12 games. There was no real tempo about us, and that was disappointing. We didn't pass the ball like we can do and we didn't create the opportunities - yet we could still have won it right at the end when Ross McCormack had a decent chance.
'I have to praise the belief and character shown by the players - and the backing given by the fans - because they stuck at it and got something out of the game. It keeps us unbeaten, it's 12 games now, and it keeps the mind focused. If you can come through a game with a performance like that against a decent team and still get a result, it shows we are heading in the right direction.'
The side was now playing 4-2-3-1 with Jonny Howson pushing up behind lone striker Luciano Becchio; the formation suited them admirably, though Grayson had to shuffle his personnel with Neil Kilkenny now off playing for Australia in the Asia Cup for a month.
Initially, he opted to draft Ross McCormack into one of the deeper midfield roles, but eventually he settled for withdrawing Howson and bringing in Sanchez Watt, though United struggled until the return of Kilkenny.
The unbeaten run came to an end two days later at promotion rivals Cardiff. Robert Snodgrass brought United level on the hour mark with a long range stunner after Craig Bellamy had given Cardiff the lead, but Michael Chopra proved United's scourge again when he scored the winner 11 minutes from the end.
The defeat saw Leeds slip to fifth, but their minds were quickly on to other matters with a glamorous FA Cup third round tie on 8 January away to mighty Arsenal.
United had been outstanding in the Cup a year earlier against Manchester United and Tottenham, and lightning struck a third time when they took the lead at the Emirates from a spot kick by Robert Snodgrass; Arsenal were reprieved by a late Fabregas penalty.
Centre-back Alex Bruce, who gave a man of the match performance: 'The lads are making a habit of going to big grounds and big opponents and putting in a performance. I watched them last year and on Saturday I was proud to be part of the team that did really well. I think people expect us to go to places like this and put in a good shift.
'Last season there was a dip in the League after the Cup win, now we have to concentrate on the league because we want games like the one at Arsenal every week. The league is more important. I'm sure the club will make a bit from the Cup, but our main aim is to get into the Premier League.
'When you come to a place like the Emirates you know you have to defend well and have a bit of rub of the green. I think we had that, and we defended really well as a team.'
It was reported that United earned in excess of £500,000 from the tie - including £144,000 in broadcasting fees - and that the replay would generate £72,000 in television money alone after ITV decided to cover the game.
Chairman Ken Bates intimated the unbudgeted windfall would be used to allow Simon Grayson to reinforce his squad, but in the end there were no purchases in the January transfer window, though youngster Zac Thompson arrived on a free transfer from Everton, while Ramon Nunez extended his short term contract and George McCartney returned on another loan deal. Amdy Faye departed Elland Road after the club decided not to renew a short-term contract and Lubo Michalik, Liam Darville, Andy Hughes, Jason Crowe, Alan Martin, Tom Elliott and Neil Collins also left the club.
Fears of a Cup anti-climax were quickly dispelled when United hammered Scunthorpe 4-0 at Elland Road on 15 January.
Sanchez Watt opened the scoring after seventeen minutes with his first United goal, beating central defender Paul Reid and leaving Michael Raynes on his backside before lashing home from 18 yards.
Three minutes later, Watt won possession, allowing Robert Snodgrass to feed Max Gradel. The winger sold an audacious dummy to fool keeper Joe Murphy and defender Andrew Wright before shooting into the unguarded net for his sixth goal in 8 games.
United's wide men were also instrumental in the third. Snodgrass' dribble was halted on the edge of the box, but Gradel found Bradley Johnson, who drilled in from 22 yards.
Although Michael Collins and Jonathan Forte had chances for Scunthorpe, it was a surprise that the final margin was not greater, and it was not until the 88th minute that Davide Somma drilled in Gradel's pass to complete a comprehensive victory.
The one-sided victory sent United into the Cup replay with Arsenal in great heart. However, the Gunners were deserved 3-1 victors, though Bradley Johnson's wonder goal was the best of the night and gave United new hope when it brought the scores back to 2-1.
On 22 January, United twice came from behind to earn a draw at Portsmouth with goals from Becchio and Somma; local power cuts caused three floodlight failures.
Ten days later, they had to come from 2-0 down to secure another 2-2 draw, this time at Hull City with Snodgrass and Somma the scorers.
The talking point of the night was the injury to Hull's Liam Rosenior, following what Tigers' manager Nigel Pearson termed a 'coward's challenge' by Lloyd Sam. 'I didn't realise how bad it was at the time, but he's led with his arm.'
Simon Grayson: "I was disappointed with how we allowed them to get a few chances … but sometimes that's how it goes when you try and win games. They had a few good opportunities and Kasper had to work hard, but I thought we did well as well.
'We showed a lot of spirit to try and get back in the game - it was a great free kick from Snod - and that gave us a big lift at half time. We needed to do things better in the second half, in terms of getting tighter up in the pitch and put them under more pressure.
'I was delighted with the determination and spirit we showed. You can't fault the players for that and their desire not to get beat and any point you get in the Championship is deserved. You have to work hard for it. But equally, you can't give the opposition two goals start and win the game. We have attack minded players and that showed in the way we started. They are a young, enthusiastic bunch with good quality, but at times we are going to get punished. There's certainly a great spirit not to get beat.'
A 55th-minute Somma goal saw off Coventry at Elland Road on 5 February after a string of missed chances. The victory moved United up to fifth.
In the week following, Simon Grayson signed Aston Villa's American full-back Eric Lichaj on a month's loan. He went straight into the side in place of the injured Paul Connolly for the trip to Bristol City on 12 February.
Snodgrass put United ahead after 17 minutes with a brilliant goal after some glorious close control. The Scot also created the opening for the decisive second goal on 50 minutes, working his way in from the flank and seeing a shot blocked. Gradel collected to beat David James from a tight angle.
Snodgrass had made his Scotland debut a few days earlier and Grayson led the praise for him after the game: 'It has been a huge week for Robert, with his first game for Scotland and now this excellent performance. He is a lad who deserves everything that comes his way because he works so hard at his game. In the 92nd minute today he was still closing down Bristol City's full-back and playing his part for the team.'
After taking the lead at home to Norwich a week later through Becchio's 17th-minute header, United fell 2-1 behind and were dependent on a 75th-minute volley from substitute Davide Somma to share the points. Billy Paynter was denied a winner four minutes into injury time by a brilliant save from Canaries keeper John Ruddy.
United also had to be content with a home draw against Barnsley on 22 February, with the Tykes twice coming from behind to earn a 3-3 draw. Leeds finished with ten men following the dismissal of Bradley Johnson.
It was another disappointment for Simon Grayson and a 3-0 defeat at Swansea four days later had the manager admitting, 'I thought we were poor from start to finish. Swansea were very good, they passed the ball around, closed us down well and we didn't impose our own game. We were lacklustre and we gave away possession very cheaply.
'But, in saying that, I thought we created some half decent chances. At 1-0, we hit the bar and then had a blatant penalty turned down. It wasn't given and it was a massive turning point in the game.
'No matter how poorly we played, if we scored the penalty, at 1-1 then we are right back in the game. It could have been the spark and lifeline we needed and how the officials missed it I do not know. But, overall we probably got what we deserved out of the game and that was a defeat.'
United reacted well to the reverse, beating Doncaster Rovers 5-2 with braces from Max Gradel and Jonny Howson and a fifth goal from Luciano Becchio.
By the time they faced Preston at Deepdale on 8 March, the squad included Aston Villa's Scottish international midfielder Barry Bannan, signed on loan until the end of the season.
Bannan was on the bench for the game, and Paynter was recalled in place of Becchio, rested after sustaining a head injury against Doncaster.
Midfielder Neil Kilkenny scored a rare goal from 20 yards after half an hour as United were starting to come to terms with struggling North End, but it was Paynter who got the plaudits from the travelling supporters. In the 57th minute, he picked up a long ball over the Preston defence and fired home clinically. The goal came in front of a stand packed with Leeds fans, who showed their appreciation for a whole hearted display by the striker. It was his first goal for United and you could see the delight as he milked the applause.
Iain Hume pulled a goal back six minutes later, but then Paynter was unlucky when another effort came back off the inside of Andy Lonergan's post. Ricardo Gardner's attempted chest back to Lonergan fell short and Paynter nipped in to get a touch, but couldn't find the net.
Bannan was given his debut with seven minutes remaining when he replaced Kilkenny and Leeds held on comfortably for a 2-1 victory that took them past Nottingham Forest and back into fifth place in the table.
Billy Paynter: 'It was class just to see it hit the back of the net and then to see 5,000 Leeds fans going mental, I'm really chuffed to bits.
'Was it worth the wait? To see a reaction like that, definitely! Yet just when you think your luck has changed I stretched for another one and it hit the post.
'The gaffer's been tremendous with me. I got a run out against Doncaster on Saturday and the reaction of the fans was superb then. I'm just really chuffed to bits. They have taken to me and it's nice to repay them as well.
'Every time I go on the pitch I try and give my all and I like to think they have noticed that, and it was great to score a goal for them. It's out of the way now and hopefully there's more to come.
'Preston were fighting for their lives, but we're pushing for the Play-Offs and hopefully second place so it was a big result.'
United failed to build on the victory and were held to a goalless draw by Ipswich at Elland Road on 12 March when poor finishing cost them victory.
Simon Grayson was particularly unhappy with referee Darren Deadman's decision not to give Leeds a penalty when Andy O'Brien's shot appeared to be handled. 'He told me he felt his decisions were right and that I was wrong,' said Grayson. 'Referees frustrate you at times. We had a really strong penalty claim. One of their lads had his hands down by his side but when Andy O'Brien had a shot the lad's arms came up to prevent the ball being goalbound.'
Grayson was even more disappointed a week later when United slipped to a dismal 2-0 defeat at Sheffield United, with Billy Paynter dismissed in the closing seconds for an alleged head butt.
The manager accused his players of a lack of desire after a tepid display: 'We got out of the game what we deserved - nothing. To lose in that manner at such an important part of the season, and in a local derby, was hugely frustrating and very annoying. We didn't get going from the first kick.
'I have to accept the result and take it on the chin. We've been beaten by a team who, over the course of the game, probably showed that they wanted it more than us. That's disappointing when you've got the number of games left we have.
'All of the players can be hugely disappointed with how they played. Too many of them played as individuals rather than a team.'
During the international break that followed, Grayson increased his midfield options with the loan signing of Tottenham's Jake Livermore, added to the bench for the Elland Road meeting with Nottingham Forest on 2 April.
The game was a vital test with Forest breathing down United's necks, just a point behind but with a superior goal difference; both clubs had eight games remaining.
Forest's canny midfield play, with Lewis McGugan at its heart, saw them control the first half hour of the game, but then Chris Cohen was given a straight red card for a lunging challenge on George McCartney as he sought to come away. Undoubtedly, the fury of the home bench was a contributory factor in the decision of referee Mark Halsey, and Forest angrily disputed the dismissal.
Forest's assistant manager David Kelly refused to shake hands with Simon Grayson after the match. Grayson: 'He thought I had got Cohen sent off, but I don't make the decisions on the pitch. The referee has done that and it is down to him (Kelly) what problems he has got with it.
'If it had been the other way round and a tackle by my player on his then I am sure he would have jumped up and down. I have seen instances this season where their bench has been up and down so I am sure he would have backed his player.
'Mark Halsey is a Premier League referee who knows what the game is all about. He hasn't gone and sent him off because I have backed my player. I will always back my players and if that means things happen on the touchline then so be it.
'I was worried when the tackle went in. The lad has jumped in on him and George went down holding his leg. He could quite easily have broken it.
'Fortunately, [Cohen] didn't catch him too much but on another day he could quite easily have done. It could have been worse than it was. You can't leave the ground in this day and age. In the 1970s when Leeds played Forest, that was a normal tackle. But you can't do that now.'
It proved a telling moment, seriously diminishing Forest, and there was little surprise when Jonny Howson gave United the lead after 51 minutes. Eric Lichaj manufactured the opening, taking a great chip from Robert Snodgrass and providing the cross. Howson nudged the ball away from Wes Morgan before firing home from ten yards on the angle.
Seven minutes later Becchio made it two, heading home from close range after Leigh Bromby headed a corner against the post.
Forest were back in the game after 65 minutes, however, when Garath McCleary scored with a remarkable curling effort from the corner of the United box.
United refused to panic and quickly restored the two-goal advantage. When Forest failed to clear their lines properly from a Bannan free kick, Johnson nodded the ball into Gradel's path and the winger volleyed in from the edge of the area.
In the 76th minute, Simon Grayson gave Livermore his debut as substitute for Bannan, and the youngster set up the decisive fourth goal with a smart turn and shot in the box. When Forest keeper Lee Camp could only parry it, Gradel pounced to score his second goal and wrap up the 4-1 victory.
Grayson: 'All it has done has given us one of the eight victories that I have asked the players to try and achieve. We will see how many we can win. But the win was important because we have responded to the disappointment and the performance at Sheffield United.
'To beat one of the teams around us in the manner we did should give the players a lot of confidence and belief. Forest have got a lot of quality and are a big strong team but our players stood up to them.
'I said at the start of the week that it's all about getting results. Whether you win 1-0, 4-1, grind a result out or play flair football - it is all about results at this stage. I think we deserved a victory on the basis of how we ground it out.'
Just as United seemed to be cementing their Play-Off place, they stumbled badly, going down 3-2 at Millwall on 9 April after never really recovering from being two-down at the half hour. Luciano Becchio pulled a goal back six minutes into the second half, but Steve Morison restored the Londoners' two-goal advantage before Andy O'Brien provided a consolation goal in the fifth minute of injury-time.
Three days later, Max Gradel gave United a 58th-minute lead at Derby, but the Rams scored twice in the following four minutes to take a 2-1 lead they never looked like losing, as United's Tuesday night curse continued. The victory at Preston on 8 March was the only one in the nine played up to and including the Derby reverse, a run that threatened to unhinge their Play Off chances.
Simon Grayson criticised his team for their naivety, saying, 'It was hugely disappointing, it was a game there for us to win because they are down on confidence and hadn't been winning - and we should have done because it was there for the taking.
'We were in control in the first half without being overly impressive. Defensively we were sound, we limited them, and at half time we said let's go for them by the throat. We got the goal and then we were just too naïve.
'We were passing it pretty instead of showing the nous to kill them off by getting them turned straight from the kick off. We gave it away four or five times in the midfield area. That's know how and seeing stages through. The crowd would have turned on them and got frustrated, but we gave them encouragement.
'The goal lifted them, we switched off for the second one and it's driving me mad. It epitomised both our games against Derby. We were trying to play through teams, you have to mix it up, go long, squeeze them. It's about being ruthless. If we'd done that we would have scored a couple more.'
More points were dropped on Good Friday, 16 April, when Watford secured a 2-2 draw at Elland Road and a goalless draw at home to Reading six days later allowed Nottingham Forest to overtake United on goal difference.
The Easter Monday clash with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park now assumed the status of 'must win'.
When Neil Danns gave Palace a second-minute lead with a deflected effort from the edge of the box, it continued the dismal run and United could find no response, going down 1-0. Forest's 3-2 victory at Bristol City, Millwall's 2-1 defeat of Scunthorpe and the home point picked up by Burnley against Portsmouth saw all three teams move ahead of Leeds, who were now three points off the Play Off places with just two games remaining.
Simon Grayson refused to give up the chase, saying defiantly, 'Until it's impossible, we'll keep going. But whatever happens, we can look back on a good season and if we don't make the Play Offs we'll use this season as experience for next year.
'The result against Palace is obviously disappointing. In the second half we held them in their half for long periods but we didn't have our usual quality in the last third. There wasn't enough care in that area. Our crossing was poor.
'We know it's out of our hands now. We are relying on other results going our way. There is pressure playing for this football club but it is a proper pressure… I am not sure the pressure has got to the players - it is just things have gone against us. When you look back, we have been a little bit naive at times this year - but it has been a fantastic experience for the players.'
With Becchio still unavailable through the knee injury he sustained against Watford, Grayson recalled Ross McCormack to face Burnley at Elland Road on 30 April.
Just when it seemed United's chances were over, they came back to form. With McCormack, in only his fifth Championship start of the campaign, offering a creative spark up front, they played their best football for some time. The Scottish international got on to Bradley Johnson's through ball to beat Burnley keeper Brian Jensen with a clinical first half finish to inflict the Clarets' first defeat in five matches.
Unfortunately, Forest hammered relegated Scunthorpe 5-1 later in the day to reduce United's chances of a Play-Off place to a mathematical long shot, requiring Forest to lose at Palace, Leeds to win at champions QPR and a six-goal swing in the goal difference stakes, a long shot indeed.
Simon Grayson was nevertheless delighted with the professionalism of his players, saying, 'The last thing we told the players was 'believe and have no regrets coming off the pitch'. We were dominant and we played well, with the ball and without it. On another day we could have won the game easily and we did what we needed to do. It was then down to other people to see what they could do.
'The players had something to prove and they wanted to send our home fans away with smiles on their faces. You've seen 30,000 here and there won't be many bigger crowds anywhere in the country. Whether it's our last home performance or not, we've sent them home in a positive manner.'
The goal was McCormack's first for United after an unproductive season, but some vindication for the confidence shown in him by Grayson, who commented: 'When I bought him, we looked like we were going to play 4-4-2 and he was going to be one of the strikers. Through injuries and a change of system, his opportunities have been few. He'll have found it hard and frustrating but it's a squad game. Whatever happens, we start again in pre-season and he'll be fighting for an opportunity.'
The final game of the season saw a visit to Queens Park Rangers, determined to celebrate their championship victory in style. Before then, though, there was more controversy to deal with regarding the ownership of United; the club responded with indecent haste to media speculation that any chances of playing in the Premier League would be ended by the continued uncertainty of exactly who owned the club.
On 3 May, it was announced that chairman Ken Bates had bought out the 72.85% stakeholding of Forward Sports Fund for an undisclosed sum, through his Outro company.
Forward Sports was owned by three discretionary trusts of unknown ownership, though United claimed that no individual owned more than 10 per cent of any of them, which meant they did not have to provide further details to the Football League and FA under their ownership disclosure rules. But the apparent anonymity of Leeds' ownership had become an increasing bone of contention and MPs running an inquiry into football governance questioned how the situation could be allowed to continue.
Damien Collins, a Tory MP on the culture, media and sport committee carrying out the inquiry, said: 'The fans of the club have a right to know and I don't see how the Football Association or the Premier League can enforce their regulations on ownership without knowing who the investors in Leeds are … The fact that Leeds have moved to resolve the matter means we were right to be asking those questions. If our inquiry has had something to do with the new clarity of who owns Leeds then I am very pleased. I could not see how the FA could ensure there were no conflicts of interests or issues of dual ownership if they did not know who the principle investors were.'
United's official statement said: 'There has been much speculation in the media over the ownership structure of Leeds United and its compliance with the relevant regulations of the Football League and Football Association. The speculation has been further fuelled by the coverage of the Football Governance inquiry and the political obsession with the ownership of Leeds United.
'The scaremongering arising out of the football governance inquiry has not been helpful and, whilst the board were always confident that there were no issues, we recognise the concern the unknown outcome of any Premier League questions may have on our members.
'To address this issue and in the hope that this brings an end to the speculation, the chairman, Ken Bates, has completed the purchase of FSF Limited for an undisclosed sum. FSF Limited is now owned by Outro Limited which is wholly owned by Ken Bates. This change in ownership structure makes Ken Bates the controlling shareholder of Leeds United and delivers the transparency sought.'
During evidence to the inquiry in March, chief executive Shaun Harvey told MPs the owners of the trusts behind Forward Sports were unknown but that they had appointed two men, Patrick Murrin and Peter Boatman, to run the club who in turn asked Bates to be chairman. Harvey said neither he, nor to his knowledge Bates, knew who the shareholders of the trusts were.
Bates insisted he had no problem with the Premier League's requirements and the club did not anticipate having any problem meeting them. It was unclear whether Bates had already decided to bring the ownership issue to an end at that point.
David Conn in The Guardian: 'Will Leeds supporters, the wider football public and the parliamentary select committee ever be told who those owners were? Why, after buying Leeds back after administration in 2007, seeing the club up from League One and to the brink of the Play Offs for Premier League promotion, did those owners decide to sell now? Leeds' statement said the reason was to satisfy the Premier League whose chief executive, Richard Scudamore, told the select committee inquiry last month that if Leeds were promoted he would seek more details about the owners than the Football League had required.
'That, though, seems a strange reason for the offshore owners to sell. Their investment would have been worth a fortune, at last, if Leeds did win promotion, so why would they not have happily furnished Scudamore with any information he wanted?
'And when they decided to sell, whatever their reasoning, why to Bates? Leeds is widely regarded as one of the last remaining good prospects as a football club to buy - in a one-club city, with a huge support which has stayed solidly loyal, paying eye watering ticket prices in League One and the Championship. As Bates and the chief executive, Shaun Harvey, have proudly said, the club's financial position is healthy as the £35m debt was wiped out when Bates and his fellow directors put Leeds into administration.
'So did the investors, having waited through the rebuilding from League One under Simon Grayson's inspirational management, market the club far and wide, to Gulf state sheikhs and US sports-franchise owners, but find Ken Bates, with his offshore company, the one person offering the best deal?
'Bates told the High Court, in a libel action brought against him by the former Leeds director Melvyn Levi in 2009, which Bates lost, that he had never put money into Leeds. Bates said he did not have cash; his wealth is mostly tied up in assets. So is this a good deal for Leeds fans who might think, with a bit of investment, their club could be in the Premier League?
'Leeds believe they have put a lid on all the questioning. Those never-named beneficial owners, who had no connection to Bates, for whom Astor wrote off millions so it and Bates could remain charge, have now sold to Bates for an undisclosed sum. Why it did, why now, why to Bates, and how much he paid, nobody is to be told.
'Yet Leeds are confident neither the Football League nor Premier League rules require any more information to be given.'
Leading Leeds-based sports lawyer Richard Cramer claimed the deal was worth a fortune, commenting, 'I'd estimate the value of that sort of stake to be in the region of tens of millions of pounds. The club are very close to a big pay day in the Premier League and they got rid of a lot of toxic debt when they came out of administration. They've got a hard core of 20,000 supporters and they can rely on crowds of 30,000 for the bigger games. In the Premier League, I'd expect them to sell out every week. It's also true that the squad is worth considerably more than it was two or three years ago. At the moment you're buying a franchise in the Football League but you could end up with a franchise in the Premier League. The investment is about potential but there's an awful lot of it.
'My assessment of this is that there must have been a certain degree of pressure brought to bear on the club. This deal can't have happened overnight and I'd guess that Leeds have been working on it ever since the parliamentary hearing began asking questions and raising doubts. But this has clarified matters and what it seems to have done is shut the door on any future inquiries or penalties.'
Unabashed by the speculation, Bates promptly launched a withering attack on loanee full-back George McCartney, who had angered him with comments in the Evening Post about some of the players 'being out on their feet after playing so much this season'.
Bates snapped back: 'I see he's rather unwisely been giving an interview in which he says the players are tired, a sense of jadedness among certain players has proved telling. Well, I don't quite understand what he means by that because when we play QPR we'll have played 50 games, but everybody at the club will have played at least 48, 46 league games and two cup matches.
'I don't understand what he means by players being 'out on their feet' after playing so much this season. It certainly doesn't apply to him. As far as I can see, looking at the fixture list, as far as I know, he has only played twice in the last six games. So I don't think fatigue can contribute to his contribution, which I haven't been particularly impressed with.
'As I understand it, he has been fined more than once for turning up late in training. So perhaps if he turned up on time and showed a bit more commitment then he wouldn't feel quite so tired. I think it's a rubbish excuse for him and anybody else who wants to swing that one.'
McCartney never again appeared in a United shirt.
A few days later, United ended their campaign at champions QPR. Less than an hour before kick off it was announced that the Londoners would not face any sanction after an FA hearing into the signing of midfielder Alejandro Faurlin.
Rangers were found guilty of two of the seven charges facing them regarding the alleged third-party ownership of the Argentinian midfielder, but fears of a potential 15-point penalty proved groundless.
It was in a jubilant Loftus Road, therefore, that Rangers cut open the United defence within 27 seconds of the start, Akos Buzsaky bursting forward and playing in Tommy Smith. Kasper Schmeichel saved Smith's shot only for Heidar Helguson to slip home the rebound to open the scoring.
It might have been anticipated that it would have been plain sailing for QPR thereafter, but United fought their way back into the game. They were denied a goalscoring opportunity around the half hour mark when Billy Paynter was fouled on the edge of the area, but referee Mark Clattenburg waved away the appeals.
Undeterred, United equalised after 38 minutes, Max Gradel beating goalkeeper Radek Cerny to a hopeful long ball and flicking it over him into the net.
Midway through the second period, Ross McCormack scored an unlikely winner. He showed good control on the edge of the box and got in a shot which deflected off Kaspars Gorkss and left Cerny wrongfooted as it floated into the net.
With twelve minutes of the game remaining, Simon Grayson brought Paddy Kisnorbo off the bench for his first taste of first team action since March 2010. The Australian defender was given a huge ovation by travelling United supporters.
Nottingham Forest's 3-0 victory at Crystal Palace confirmed that they rather than United would figure in the Play-Offs, but Simon Grayson was nevertheless upbeat after the game: 'We wanted to finish the season on a real high. Not just for this season but in terms of the manner of next season, as we want to be out there celebrating in the manner that QPR were.
'You don't like to come to a football ground and see another team celebrate. You want to be celebrating on your ground and hopefully this time next year we might be the team doing that. It's got to be a motivation.
'As the game went on, we got better and it was a good performance in the end. We came here to get a result and we've beaten the champions twice this season and that's a great testament to the players.
'The players have given their all for the football club and the shirt. We could have won a few more games in the last six or seven but all credit to the players, we've had a really good season and achieved a lot of positives and we can learn from the experience.
'We can't be down too much as we'd have settled for our position at the start of the season.
'I'm pleased at how we've progressed. As a manager you always want your team and the football club to move forward every year - and we've done that ever since I've been here. But obviously there's a tinge of disappointment that we were so close to making the Play Offs but just fell away at the wrong time of the season.
'Looking at the overall picture from the start of the season, then obviously we're chuffed to bits that we finished in the top ten - never mind seventh! It's a great achievement for a new group coming to the Championship.
'You have to have people who can handle pressure situations who, when things are maybe not going right, can stick together. We are a young group and it wasn't for the want of trying that we weren't able to find that person - someone like a Gordon Strachan, or a Billy Bremner-type - to come in and really dig in and take the responsibility on their shoulders and drive other players on.
'We set out to entertain and we did that, we scored the goals! We were naïve at times, and you do look at it and think, "Should we shut up shop here and just be boring? Grind a result out?" Well, yes and no. I've still got a duty to entertain people … The one big disappointment was that I never got the player last summer I really needed to hold it all together. I've known we really need a defensive midfield player - right from last season. We never really replaced Michael Doyle, ultimately, because there really wasn't anybody out there we could get. It wasn't even as if we went in for a player in that mould but lost him to another club. There just wasn't anyone who fitted exactly. Some could have been the captain type, but been absolutely useless on the ball! We needed to get a special type of player to do that role.
'I think it's no coincidence when you see what QPR have done, they had Shaun Derry. He's exactly that type of player who allowed the likes of Taarabt, Routledge and others to go and do what they needed to.
'So we do need that type of player in our team because we have so much talent in our squad - we just lack that experienced head in certain areas of the pitch.'