Only at Leeds United could football so infectious be consumed so quickly by the politics around it. Elland Road on Saturday was brilliant theatre as last hurrahs go but this is the time of year when the club too often fluff their lines.
The play-offs are gone and the wait begins to see what or who else follows them out of Leeds. A ground which could have been empty at half-time had hundreds left in it as Garry Monk lapped the pitch to warm applause at the end of a ludicrous draw with Norwich City, a game which showed in detail why his squad sat in the Championship’s top six for half of the season before dipping out at the death.
There is understandable clamour for Monk to keep his job but Leeds have been here many times before, incommunicado or thereabouts with a head coach whose contract needs attention. “There are really solid foundations here now,” said a tired-looking Monk, but the question of what those foundations would count for if the 38-year-old moves on hangs in the air.
Kyle Bartley, a loanee from Swansea City who knows Monk inside out and who Leeds should be as intent on retaining, confronted it head on, warning United that they “could be in trouble” if they dither over extending a deal which ties Monk down for one more game, the last of this season. Sol Bamba used to speak like that, the source of home truths from Leeds’ dressing room, and Bartley was talking his mind from a position of greater strength.
The past month will lead to an inquest of sorts as Leeds consider why a play-off place which was there for the taking slipped away in four horrible weeks but the club might recall the blank canvas they threw at Monk in June, with no players signed and no pre-season friendlies in the calendar. Seventh place in the Championship is in spite of Leeds’ league position at the end of March but also in spite of a wage bill of £13m, an economically-built squad and a difficult, standing start. “The objectives we were set have been achieved and even then, probably surpassed,” Monk said. Neither Massimo Cellino nor Andrea Radrizzani can dispute that.
In the end, even Monk admitted that his players had not been ready for the strain they came under as a year of toying with promotion came down to the matter of closing it out. There was sense of pressure seeping in long before Norwich, in a game Leeds had to win, surged 3-0 ahead in the first half on Saturday, to the bewilderment of everyone. Steven Naismith buried a lethal shot from long range in the 28th minute, Nelson Oliveira scored a second goal on the volley six minutes later and then curled in a third from 20 yards after Jonny Howson, the ghost of Elland Road past, countered a laboured United attack in the last minute of the half. In that instant, the game looked dead. The scoreline flattered Leeds.
“It probably typifies the period we’ve been in, these last seven games,” Monk said. “It’s difficult to be critical of the group because of how much they’ve given the club and how far they’ve improved but the reality is that the majority aren’t quite ready for this situation right now.
“At this moment in time, maybe the group aren’t quite ready to deal with this or face it. That’s not a criticism of them. It’s just a fact, I think. A lot of the young players here have never been in this situation
“It’s just one step too far – handling high pressure and fighting for something so big at a massive club with huge expectations.
“That’s natural. They’ve done their best with it but it’s a bit too soon.
“In the future, with the things they’ve improved on, it’ll allow the club to fight again.”
Leeds, for months, were adept at shading percentages but since the end of the last international break and a compelling 2-0 win over Brighton, the reliable aspects of Monk’s team have deserted him: one clean sheet in seven games and that by virtue of Preston North End failing to bury three sitters. Two goals in that same period from Chris Wood, who will reach 30 for the season with another at Wigan on Sunday but could not keep tipping the balance alone. Five points from those seven fixtures, at a time when Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday have hit the highway. And when it came to it, no means of adapting or revising plan A.
Wood created an improbable, sensational spectacle on Saturday in the midst of Leeds’ implosion by scoring his 29th in first-half injury-time, tapping home a cross from Stuart Dallas with United’s only shot on target at that stage. Norwich’s caretaker boss, Alan Irvine, was furious. “I describe it as unprofessional,” he said, having seen a thoroughly dominant half end with Leeds 3-1 down and in the game. “We had players out of position from the kick-off (after Oliveira’s second goal). That’s not acceptable to me.”
The consequences were remarkable. Bartley scrambled in the loose ball from a Pablo Hernandez corner four minutes into the second half and Hernandez curled a perfect free-kick inside John Ruddy’s left-hand post with 12 minutes to go. Norwich were caught in the audible mayhem which brought Bristol Rovers down in 2010 and between those goals, Ruddy parried Roofe’s back-heeled volley on his goalline and Rob Green pulled off two exceptional saves to deny Oliveira a hat-trick.
With Fulham drawing with Brentford at Craven Cottage and still within reach, the game rampaged through eight minutes of injury-time but Norwich held out, despite Naismith receiving a straight red card for a crude foul on Ronaldo Vieira. A 15th yellow card for Pontus Jansson, finally landing him a three-match ban after a rash foul on the excellent Alex Pritchard, felt almost immaterial. The first half explained why the play-offs had slipped away. The second reminded everyone of why they were on offer in the first place. At full-time, Howson took the time to applaud all sides of the stadium, consoling a crowd whose sufferance he understands better than most.
“In this crucial period you have to be able to play like we did in the second half – under pressure but from the start of a game, rather than in adversity or when you’re losing,” said Monk. “That will be the lesson to be learned and that’s the way it is.
“But (the fightback) typified this group. It’s something we’re all proud of and it’s something we had to address here, where mentally players could deal with being at a big club.
“Our only objective was to improve football matters and improve what we felt was a fragmented relationship between the club, the fans and the players. We’ve done that. We could have had an empty stadium a half-time, which I wouldn’t have blamed them for, but you could see on the lap of honour how many stayed and supported us.”
There were more than 34,000 at Elland Road for United’s final home game, an attendance which Monk has almost become accustomed to. That, combined with a season which broke the mould by leaving some memories behind, is a reason for Leeds to think that with Monk as head coach they are onto something. In previous years Brian McDermott was met with silence at this point. So too Neil Redfearn and Steve Evans; men who twiddled their thumbs until the absence of any contact gave them a decision on their futures by default. The conclusion aside, Monk’s year has been too competent and progressive to allow him to drift away. “If Garry does stay, the club will be in better hands than if he doesn’t,” Bartley said.
“He’s the cornerstone of this club.”