Brian McDermott says a fresh look at tactics and work on the training ground paid dividends against Blackpool. Leon Wobschall reports.
GIVEN the league position where Leeds United found themselves back in mid-December, fifty would not have seemed much of a magic number.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
After a comfortable 3-0 victory over White Rose rivals Doncaster Rovers at the Keepmoat Stadium on December 14, Brian McDermott’s side were looking upwards and entitled to view sides entrenched towards the foot of the table with fair amount of disdain.
Back then, United were sixth in the Championship with a solid haul of 33 points from twenty matches. Lest we forget.
Just seven points behind the side occupying second place in Burnley and with a fair amount of wind in their sails coming up to the busy Christmas period, the second half of the campaign was one they could look forward to.
But this is Leeds United....And how that mid-December afternoon has felt like a world away in recent weeks.
In the 22 games since that outing at Rovers, Leeds have amassed just 17 points from a possible 66. Relegation form.
United were at least grateful for small mercies on Saturday when they secured just their fourth victory in 22 against another side whose star has seriously dimmed, even more spectacularly than their own this season, in Blackpool.
That 2-0 win, the first time Leeds have won a league game without Ross McCormack scoring since the 1-0 victory at Bolton on September 14, extinguished any flickering fears of relegation.
That some Leeds fans were seriously worried about that speaks for itself and fully illustrates the craziness of a season when many are waiting for the next quirk of madcap fate lurking around the corner.
Small wonder there was a bit of relief in the air at Elland Road, from Brian McDermott and his harassed players down to their support, who have had precious few Saturday’s to savour since that win in Doncaster four months ago.
Nothing much has been cast-iron at Leeds this new year, but with a relative degree of confidence, it can be safely said that Leeds have at least retained their Championship tenure after hitting the perceived safety mark of fifty points.
On whether Leeds’ points haul is enough to guarantee safety, McDermott, who has challenged his side to sign off a fitful campaign on a positive note, said: “I’d have thought so. I don’t think anyone is going to get us now, but you can’t think like that.
“With the Barnsley and (Nottingham) Forest matches, we have to try and win those games. We owe that to ourselves.
“We had a great response from the Watford game. It was a big win, we needed to win that game. I’m absolutely delighted.”
McDermott may have been in the dock with a growing number of United fans following a plethora of changes – both in terms of formation and personnel throughout the club’s wretched form in 2014, but he was able to take a bit of welcome credit on Saturday.
Chiefly through cajoling his marquee summer signing in Luke Murphy to take a gamble and be bolder with his surging runs forward to supplement the attack, worked on in the build-up to the Pool clash.
It worked a treat with McDermott’s senior brigade of Messrs Brown, Tonge and Warnock also doing their bit to help United over the line with a keynote win that allows everyone at the club to breathe just that little bit easier.
McDermott was eager to share out the bouquets after just the second victory he has presided over at Elland Road since December 4, revealing his delight for loan keeper Jack Butland, who claimed just his overdue second clean sheet in 12 appearances for the club and first since he made his debut in front of the cameras at Middlesbrough on February 22.
He said: “Sometimes you need to change things, whatever it is. Just to do something different, whatever works.
“I spoke to the dressing room about the senior players and their importance. You are a team and squad is only as good as your senior players. We managed the game well on Saturday and showed real nous and that pleased me. That is a good feeling.
“We went a different way and the players did what they had to do. Ross’ set-up for the first goal was a lovely pass.
“We worked in training on the way we played on Thursday. At Watford we never looked like scoring and that was really disappointing so we went back to basics and said ‘how do we score?’ I thought (Michael) Brown in midfield was excellent, Stephen Warnock too. The experienced players have come up for us.
“We also kept a clean sheet and I’m really pleased for Jack (Butland) too.”
The undoubted star of the show on Saturday was two-goal Murphy, who has suffered as much as anyone during Leeds’ alarming descent this year.
The former Crewe man, brought in for £1m amid considerable fanfare last summer, would be the first to admit he has flattered to deceive for spells this season and if anyone needed an injection of confidence, it was the midfielder after a tough first campaign at Elland Road.
Being the man whose goals rubber-stamped safety for Leeds was something he and the Whites supporters probably weren’t envisaging when he fired in his only previous strike for the club in front of 33,432 mostly ecstatic fans on the first day of the season, but needs must.
Murphy said: “It’s been a tough few weeks but we need to finish as high as we can now.
“It would have to be some slippery slope for us to go down from here so I think we need to go into every game confident and try to finish as high as we can.”