AN uninspired start to the season, a creative vacuum waiting to be filled in midfield – so there is no pressure at all on Mark Davies as he prepares to make a long-awaited return at Leeds United tomorrow.
If ever there was a case of absence making the heart grow fonder, then Davies, missing since March from Wanderers’ starting line-up, is definitively a strong contender.
His importance to the team in the last five years seems to have increased with each long and frustrating spell on the sidelines, each injury reinforcing his legend.
But as he mounts another comeback after a fractured toe at Elland Road, there can have been few other occasions when his club needed him more than they do right now.
In his absence since the close of last season Wanderers have proved themselves to be honest, hard-working and gritty – but alas they have lacked any great entertainment value.
Since the turn of the current campaign, the description “hard to beat” has not necessarily applied, leaving Dougie Freedman looking frantically for some inspiration.
Fitting, then, that the man they call “Sparky” should come to the fore at a ground where he made his most impressive contribution in recent memory.
Back in March, Wanderers tore Leeds to shreds in front of their own fans with Davies supplying an inspired turn in midfield.
A 5-1 win was arguably the high-point of Freedman’s reign and certainly the classiest performance that Davies had put in for the Whites since he burst on to the scene in the Premier League days following his move from boyhood club Wolves.
Back then he was described as a raw talent – courting praise from managers such as Harry Redknapp and Glenn Hoddle and tips for an England call-up from those closer to home such as Gary Megson and Owen Coyle.
A catalogue of injuries down the years mean the midfielder, now 26, has never quite reached those heights, even if he has plenty of time left to do so.
Linked consistently with moves elsewhere, whether fit or not, Wanderers have almost always seemed to be on borrowed time with the fleet-footed Midlander, who so rarely speaks publically to clarify his situation.
Burnley are the latest club said to be monitoring his form, and those close to the Clarets suggest a player of his mobility and creativity would knit well in the Clarets midfield. With the transfer window days from closing, however, it would be a surprise to see Sean Dyche’s side act now, regardless of how well he plays against Leeds.
For now, Wanderers’ need appears greater. In pre-season, Davies returned from a thigh problem to renew an exciting partnership with Chung-Yong Lee – perhaps the only other player on his technical level in the squad – despite playing with painkilling injections in his toe.
Used in a deeper-lying midfield role, with the Korean playing further forward in the middle, the two brought an “extra 10 per cent” out of each other, according to manager Freedman.
If Wanderers, and their beleaguered boss are to get fans back onside before the international break the percentage of improvement needed might be significantly greater than that – but just to have Davies back on the teamsheet will inevitably create a buzz that has been sorely missing since the summer.
Quite aside from his direct running, a Mark Davies on form brings goals, something that has also been absent from the Wanderers midfield of late.
Darren Pratley weighed in with his first goal in 12 months at Crewe on Tuesday, while Neil Danns also found the target twice against Bury in the previous round. In the league, the midfield has been found lacking in an attacking aspect.
Leeds have employed the same narrow four-man midfield as Wanderers have in the last few weeks so space is likely to be tight.
Liam Feeney – another to impress against Crewe - or another returning player, Dean Moxey, could help in stretch the game and give Davies some space to exploit.
Such is Freedman’s unwillingness to risk serious injury to his playmaker that we perhaps shouldn’t start getting excited about his return until his name is read out on the sound system at Elland Road. And judging by Davies’s fitness issues, even then proceed with caution.
But seeing him back at his free-flowing best – as he was in his last visit to West Yorkshire – would indeed be a sight for sore eyes.