Case for the defence: Leeds United encounter the Championship’s top four scorers in a pivotal period before the end of the year. Phil Hay reports.
Leeds United’s season began without any talk of specific targets. Each of the club’s three head coaches was asked by Massimo Cellino to “make progress” but never once told that promotion should be part of the remit at Elland Road.
David Hockaday avoided that subject completely and Darko Milanic had no time to consider it during four short weeks in charge. But Neil Redfearn changed tack yesterday, saying a “settled” Leeds side who “get things going” might take an interest in the play-offs during the second half of the term.
United and Redfearn are not in a position to think about that scenario yet – four points clear of 21st place and eight behind Brentford in sixth – but the Championship is so changeable.
Nottingham Forest were top and unbeaten at the end of September but have gone backwards rapidly since then. Fulham took nine games to find a win but are creeping up the table ominously.
Leeds play both teams next month, Forest away and Fulham at home, and Redfearn’s vision of a season in which his players hassle the top six will depend on their resilience during seven games scheduled before the end of December. What appeared to be the most difficult spell of the club’s campaign is likely to decide the type of season Leeds are embroiled in after the turn of the year.
A pivotal sequence of matches starts at Blackburn on Saturday, a fixture which is attracting interest as readily as last season’s visit to Ewood Park did. Leeds took the Championship’s biggest away crowd to Rovers, the third largest away attendance in the whole of the Football League, and the following should be close to the 6,716 this weekend.
Blackburn rode that support a year ago and picked United off with a goal from Tommy Spurr, winning at a time when Rovers’ form was patchy and Leeds had taken 12 points from five games. On this occasion, Blackburn have the advantage of consistency, position and, as ever, one of the Championship’s top scorers.
They habitually look to Jordan Rhodes for goals but their results since August have been driven by Rudy Gestede, the French forward who began his career at Metz and saw out two-and-a-half years with Cardiff City without making waves. Cardiff sold him to Blackburn for £200,000 in the last January transfer window.
Gestede’s strike in a 1-1 draw at Brighton before the break was his 10th in total and his fourth in as many matches. Rhodes was used as a substitute in that game but has claimed five.
Just four strikers in the Championship have reached double figures – Gestede, Britt Assombalonga, Chris Martin and Daryl Murphy – and Redfearn’s defence will meet all of them before the end of December.
They tangle with Derby’s Martin on two occasions after the fixture list contrived to pit the league leaders against United twice in a month.
Gestede was considered to be a gamble when Blackburn first signed him but manager Gary Bowyer said: “He’s just grown in confidence. Like many strikers when they’re scoring, he’s got better and better. We still think there’s more to come from him.”
Redfearn said the same of his entire squad after their 3-1 win over Blackpool on November 8, enthused by the most eye-catching half of football produced by Leeds in 17 league fixtures, but he admitted that a team with an average age of less than 24 would not be infallible. With the emergency loan market due to close in little over a week, United’s head coach has been looking for experienced players with the wit and ability to complement his style of play.
He might be grateful for that assistance over the next five weeks. Leeds play Derby at Elland Road in 10 days’ time and meet County again at Pride Park on December 30, their last fixture of 2014.
A 1-1 draw on the final day of last season ended Derby’s sequence of 10 straight wins over United but Steve McClaren’s squad reached the break at the top with 32 points.
In McClaren’s view, Derby are a stronger team than they were in May when Queens Park Rangers picked their pocket in the play-off final.
Ipswich manager Mick McCarthy is quietly optimistic about his squad. Helped by 10 goals from Murphy, they are fourth and will clash with Leeds at Portman Road on December 6. Fulham, who have recovered from the worst of starts, come to Elland Road the following weekend and are a point behind United.
Forest are 11th after beating Norwich City before the break.
Forest away is Leeds’ last fixture before Christmas and a meeting with a side who are overcoming a period of implosion.
While United were enduring a winless run of eight games and sacking Milanic, Forest went 10 without a victory and manager Stuart Pearce faced questions. “We’re on a bad run but I’m not worried about losing my job,” he said. “I don’t live in fear of the sack.”
His group of players is, nonetheless, one of the most expensively-built in the Championship; so much so that Forest, like Leeds, are at risk of breaching Financial Fair Play rules and receiving a transfer embargo in January.
Wigan – United’s opposition at Elland Road on Boxing Day – have an ample squad but they dismissed Uwe Rosler last week after failing to get their season going. Their decision to sack Owen Coyle a year ago was the catalyst for a run to the play-offs.
Redfearn has been given no such target and he made that point when he replaced Milanic as head coach last month. Asked what United owner Cellino had demanded of him, Redfearn said: “What he wants is progress – to see the players gel and a side coming together.”
The month ahead should dictate whether those players spend the second half of the season chasing the top six or working to keep themselves out of trouble.