Leeds United’s recent ‘long-term’ form shows 18 points taken from a possible 30. It is something close to play-off form or would be if the Championship’s top six had not escaped some time ago.
Only once this season, in mid-January, did Leeds look like threatening the play-offs but Steve Evans still sees that juncture as an opportunity missed. His players were nine points adrift ahead of back-to-back games at sixth-placed Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday in seventh. Evans set a win and a draw as the minimum required. Leeds lost both fixtures.
Since then, United’s head coach has rarely spoken about anything more than a top-10 finish. He has criticised his squad at times, applauded them at others but the most accurate analysis of Leeds came after a 4-1 defeat against Huddersfield Town on March 19.
“We’re a mid-table side for a reason,” Evans said. “Not good enough to get out of it, too good to go down.”
Evans stands by that opinion even though Leeds have taken six wins from their last 10 games, three either side of a slump which started with Huddersfield’s victory at Elland Road. It is that which has given United sight of 10th place and an outside chance of eighth. Tomorrow’s game at Hull City is their penultimate away fixture.
Evans’ view on January is that better results against Ipswich and Wednesday would have opened the door in more ways than one. They would have brought the play-offs closer and, according to him, encouraged more transfer activity than Leeds and owner Massimo Cellino were ultimately willing to carry out.
Leeds were picked off by an injury-time goal from Brett Pitman at Portman Road and wasted a strong first half at Hillsborough by conceding twice straight after the interval.
By full-time in Sheffield Evans’ side were 15 points behind Derby County in sixth and no-one gave them a prayer, Cellino least of all.
Did Evans think United were in the running before those defeats? “Yes,” he said. “I thought we’d still have needed some help but I’ve always maintained that if we’d a good week we’d have got some help by signing new players.
“But after those games we had to look from a strategic point of view and say ‘are we going to spend lots of money to not go anywhere (this season)?’ It wouldn’t have been a wise football decision. But it does frustrate you as a coach, as it always would.
“I was more frustrated by the performances though. When you go to Sheffield Wednesday and have the total dominance we had, to not turn around in front at half-time was the frustration.
“When you get to this stage, every head coach or manager looks back at missed opportunities. We’re no different. But you have to move on in this game. We’re still two or three bodies, maybe four, away from being a top-six side but we’ve got some real quality and these players don’t need anything other than a little bit of help. How do you help them? You give them more quality players to work with.”
Over the past few weeks, Evans has felt an increasing amount of satisfaction with Leeds’ performance and position in the table. He is not ecstatic – “there’s so much more to achieve here. Finishing eighth or ninth in the Championship isn’t good enough for where Leeds United need to finish” – but relegation was mathematically averted last Saturday and it felt like a diminishing threat from the moment Leeds started a seven-game unbeaten run by claiming a 2-1 win over Hull in December.
He drew appreciative chants from the crowd on Tuesday as Leeds saw off Wolverhampton Wanderers with some unbridled, expansive play in the second half. Wolves manager Kenny Jackett saw United hit the woodwork three times and conceded afterwards that his team had deserved nothing.
Evans, whose signings number three and only one of those permanent, sees the possibility of a top-10 finish as a valid way of staking his claim to a new contract as head coach at Elland Road. Leeds’ novel season-ticket offer, in which the club upped the ante by offering to refund a percentage of cash to supporters if they fail to make the play-offs next term, has not rattled his confidence at all.
“Any head coach who sits here at the start of the season should have the target of promotion or finishing in the play-offs anyway,” Evans said.
“But when you come here and the club haven’t won a home match for eight months, when you’re three quarters of the way down the league table but you can now finish in the top third, it shows you that what you’ve delivered is a success. We’ve done that principally with the same group.
“There will be coaches in this league who think ‘if we had 54 games then we’d have a chance now’ but all I know is that when you inherit what we inherited, we’re setting everything up for a very positive summer.
“This club has to challenge for the Premier League and it has to challenge sooner rather than later. I’ve spoken to the owner but only by (text) message. He was delighted by the quality of the performance on Tuesday and, like all of us, he wants us to finish the season strongly and then have a positive summer.
“You’ve seen the season-ticket offer. Clearly the owner’s focus is finishing in the play-offs as a minimum. If we want that remit then I’m the coach to deliver it.”