‘I feel the stress’: Javi Gracia goes deep as he plots Leeds survival mission

Almost two months have passed since Javi Gracia pulled on a Leeds tracksuit for the first time, but he remains very much a stranger in his adopted city.

“I don’t have time for anything away from football,” says the interim manager tasked with saving Leeds from relegation. “I spend 12 hours a day at the training ground and, apart from speaking to my family on the phone and watching football on television, the rest is dinner and sleep at the hotel. I don’t relax. I live stressed; I feel the stress inside.”

It all explains why Roy Hodgson would seem a much better qualified West Yorkshire guide than Gracia. As the Spaniard devoted last Sunday morning to honing his latest gameplan, Crystal Palace’s own interim manager was pictured filling the hours before kick-off at Elland Road by exploring Leeds city centre.

Shortly after 4pm Hodgson celebrated Palace’s brilliantly choreographed 5-1 win with typical modesty. “All we coaches are is orchestra leaders,” said the 75-year-old. “We know the music, we know all the notes, but the players have to play the tune.”

Unfortunately for Gracia, a damaging second half when Leeds conceded four goals involved them resembling the occupants of an orchestra pit experiencing a collective freeze. No amount of burning the midnight oil on the 52-year-old’s part could have prevented an apparent psychological collapse. “We looked like a boxer who had received a punch,” said the former Watford, Valencia and Al Sadd manager. “It was hard to manage.”

With eight league games remaining – the first against Liverpool at Elland Road on Monday night – and Leeds deep in relegation trouble, Jesse Marsch’s successor knows he occupies fragile territory.

Before Palace’s disruptive visit Leeds had taken 10 points from the six games since Gracia joined and with Marsch’s ultra-aggressive pressing tactics having undergone sensible modification there was a sense that a measure of understated on-pitch control had superseded some ill-camouflaged chaos.

Although Leeds beat Nottingham Forest 2-1 at home on 4 April, things began going awry three days earlier during a 4-1 defeat at Arsenal. It appears no coincidence that Leeds have conceded 10 goals in the three games since their Austria defender Max Wöber sustained a hamstring injury.

Max Wöber playing against Manchester United
Max Wöber’s presence has tightened Leeds’s defence and he could return against Liverpool after injury. Photograph: Malcolm Bryce/ProSports/Shutterstock

The £10m January acquisition from RB Salzburg has turned into an extremely welcome farewell gift from Marsch, who pushed hard to recruit the 25-year-old. When fit, Wöber’s reassuring presence on the left of central defence has tightened Leeds’s rearguard appreciably and the news he may be sufficiently recovered to be on the substitutes’ bench against Liverpool has brightened Gracia’s horizon.

Leeds are, however, likely to be without the USA central midfielder Tyler Adams, who is arguably even more influential, until the summer after his recent hamstring surgery. Much may hinge on whether Adam Forshaw, the intelligent but injury prone midfielder, can stay fit long enough to remind everyone why he was once on the verge of Gareth Southgate’s England squad. “Adam’s coming back to full fitness from a long time injured,” says Gracia. “We don’t have many central midfield options so that’s good news.”

With trips to Fulham, Bournemouth, Manchester City and West Ham and visits from Leicester, Newcastle and Tottenham coming down the track, Leeds’s fixture list looks somewhat less sunny. “We believe we can stay up,” maintains Gracia. “But Liverpool’s a crucial game; we have to give everything. Liverpool are very dangerous but it’s important to be strong in this difficult moment.”

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The attendant need to project confidence explains why a manager sacked by Al Sadd last June despite winning the Qatari League internalises his stress. “Javi’s very calm and matter of fact,” says Wöber. “He and Jesse are different personalities. Jesse was very emotional, very close to the team.

“Javi’s more business-like but, out on the pitch, a relegation battle is a matter of life and death. I’d never been in one before but you learn a lot about football – and yourself.”

Throughout it all the San Francisco-based 49ers Enterprises is edging closer to the point when it will finally decide whether to complete a long-mooted, and potentially transformative, takeover of Leeds. That buyout could facilitate the start of currently delayed but desperately needed reconstruction work on the increasingly dated Elland Road, but there are genuine fears that relegation might preface an unwanted sliding doors moment, with 49ers Enterprises walking away.

In contrast, survival would enable them to maximise the record £189m turnover revealed in Leeds’s latest accounts, which thanks to the sterling commercial work of the chief executive, Angus Kinnear, already eclipses those commanded by most rivals outside the Premier League’s top six.

As the club approach a major crossroads that threatens to prove infinitely more perilous than the web of complicated motorway intersections surrounding Elland Road it seems small wonder that Gracia is still to become properly acquainted with his new habitat.

source: theguardian.com