LEEDS United are sweating on the fitness of key player Rodolph Austin ahead of their return to action after the international break at Hillsborough tonight, writes Tony Harber.
While most of the players have been able to recharge their batteries ahead of the trip to play Sheffield Wednesday, there has been no such preparation for Austin as he played in two World Cup qualifying games for Jamaica and was only due to arrive back in England little more than 24 hours before the game against the Owls.
United manager Neil Warnock has expressed his concern about the long travel faced by his midfielder and the fact that he featured in both of his country’s matches at the weekend and on Tuesday despite picking up an ankle knock in his last game for Leeds.
After missing training sessions Austin was a second half substitute as Jamaica lost 2-1 to Guatemala, but he returned to the starting line-up for the game against Antigua in Kingston when he played a major part in a 4-1 win that ensured Jamaican progress into the next stage of World Cup qualifying.
Warnock will now want to see for himself whether the player will be capable of playing against the Owls, but he will pick him if he thinks he is worth the risk as Austin has played almost every minute of every game this season since his arrival at Leeds in the summer, quickly making himself a firm favourite with supporters and his manager alike with all-action displays in the centre of midfield.
With three goals in his 13 matches and some powerful shooting from range to accompany some hard tackling, he has been the stand-out performer along with El Hadji Diouf in the revamped United side and already looks a bargain buy.
Warnock at least has options should Austin have to sit this one out with David Norris and Paul Green both pushing for starting spots after recovering from injury. He could also push impressive youngster Sam Byram back into a wide midfield role and bring back Adam Drury at left-back, a move more likely if Michael Tonge is not passed fit following the shoulder injury he picked up in the last match against Barnsley.
United may also have a new player in their ranks if their loan deal for Southend winger Ryan Hall is finalised in time, although they will be without forward Dominic Poleon and utility player Zac Thompson after both joined Bury on loan this week and played in their 1-1 draw with Carlisle.
The Leeds boss, meanwhile, will be bracing himself for the stick he is bound to get from Wednesday fans, but surprisingly admitted that he liked to go to Hillsborough.
Warnock said: “It’s a proper old ground and the crowd is always vociferous, especially when I’m there it seems.
“I always get the same reception whenever I go back. It hasn’t changed in who knows how long. I am sure they will be chanting my name from kick-off on Friday. And not in a nice way, either.
“But I am used to it now. I’ve had stick at quite a few grounds down the years. Elland Road always used to be one of the worst, to be fair. I got dog’s abuse there. But, again, it never bothered me.
“Anyway, nowadays I just wave back when the opposition fans start. I’ll be the same this weekend, though with there being a few Sheffield United links, lads such as Michael Tonge and Michael Brown, then maybe the abuse will be shared around.”
Home side Wednesday have had a tough time of late after a good start to the season and now stand third from bottom after a run of seven defeats and a draw in their last eight games.
Defensive problems have hampered their progress after promotion, but they carry a goal threat having netted 14 times in league games, and look like being roared on by their biggest crowd of the season. Despite the game being televised on Sky, tickets sales are high with Leeds already selling out their full allocation for the first competitive meeting between the two Yorkshire rivals for six years.