Robert Snodgrass committed a Freudian slip last weekend when he acknowledged what he thought was the first example of successive clean sheets recorded by Leeds United this season. In fact it has happened once before, just too long ago for many to remember.
The Scottish winger dominated the agenda at Elland Road between victories over Coventry City and Bristol City, excelling in both matches and making his Scotland debut in between, but nothing struck him as more significant than the sudden solidity within United’s defence. “They’ve been magnificent,” he said. “People talk about Robert Snodgrass scoring goals but the defence have been superb.”
It may be modesty on the 23-year-old’s part but Snodgrass is of the opinion that Leeds’ promotion to the Premier League will rest on performances as rigid as that seen at Ashton Gate on Saturday. Prolific though the club might be, he argued that United are at their most dangerous when their defence clicks as it did in the west country.
Leeds pushed their luck during the final 30 minutes against Bristol City but the clean sheet registered in a 2-0 win was as much to do with a flawless first hour when goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel had no saves to make. The result followed a 1-0 win over Coventry City and yielded back-to-back clean sheets for the first time since September. Snodgrass was not alone in needing the record books to see when that achievement last occurred.
Simon Grayson’s defence have suffered their share of criticism this season, not least because of the consistency shown by Leeds at the opposite end of the field. It has often been said that United possess an attack capable of promotion and a backline more likely to invite relegation but, amid favourable attention on his own performances, Snodgrass did not allow the contribution of others to go unmentioned in the aftermath of two valuable wins.
“The defence have been first class,” he said. “These results are a credit to them. They’ve defended for their lives.
“They haven’t had as much attention as some other players here but if we’re going to get to the Premier League then this is the way it needs to be. If we keep clean sheets then we’re in business because we’re a team who score a lot of goals.”
The win at Ashton Gate completed what Snodgrass said was a “good week for Leeds United.” It was a better one for him personally. His debut for Scotland three days earlier realised a long-held ambition, though one which Snodgrass was careful never to flaunt too openly. As driven as he was by representing his country, he was wary of allowing that aim to override the priority of earning his salary at Elland Road.
His call-up by Scotland coach Craig Levein was not before time in the eyes of the general public but Snodgrass refused to see it as such. Scotland’s 3-0 victory over Northern Ireland last Wednesday – a match in which he played for half an hour – made it clear to him that the country are not at all short of capable footballers. Several of those selected by Levein were drawn from English Premier League clubs.
“Playing for your country is something you dream of as a little boy, and to make that step in my career is massive for me,” he said. “I’ve always taken the attitude that if I give 100 per cent for Leeds United then the chance might come. But I don’t think it was overdue.
Not at all. The manager makes his decisions and I’ve got to respect his decisions.
“The performance against Northern Ireland was excellent and that tells you how much talent there is in the squad. Quite a few of the Scotland players are playing in the Premier League regularly. They’re young and hungry and they’ll give Scotland a bright future.
“But for me, it’s only right to focus on Leeds United. If you focus on playing for the national team more than you focus on playing for your club then you’re doing something very wrong. International calls only comes if you’re doing well for your club anyway but you’ve got a contract there and you have to respect that – you have to respect the fans who come week in, week out and pay their money to see you play. If you’re not giving 100 per cent in every game then you’re cheating them. That’s not on.”
Leeds have rarely been guilty of short-changing their crowd this season. Saturday’s defeat of Bristol City moved United onto 52 points, a total which in Grayson’s mind put the club beyond the reach of relegation. Even he might not have expected a squad promoted from League One last season to reach that position with 15 games to spare.
The Championship table was fluid on Saturday afternoon, swinging initially in United’s favour before late winning goals for Norwich City, Cardiff City and Swansea City pressed Grayson’s team back into sixth place. On account of Nottingham Forest’s draw at QPR, however, Leeds are two points short of second place with critical games against Norwich and Swansea to come before the end of the month.
“You don’t look at the table too much,” Snodgrass said, “But you do have little glances. I’d be lying if I said that you don’t.
“You need to have some awareness of where you are and what’s going on around you but the main time to focus on the table is when you come to the last couple of the games. That’s when you know what you really need and where you can finish.
“Right now, there are still so many points to play for. We all know that. The only thing you can think about is getting back on the training ground and getting ready again for a tough game against Norwich. But we’re up there on merit, not by luck, and if it wasn’t for us conceding a few silly goals then we could have been touching on (Championship leaders) QPR.
“We’re going in the right direction.”