It is widely accepted that to reach the Championship play-offs a club must first pass 70 points but a tally of 45 after 25 games puts Leeds United on the straight and narrow. Failure to make the top six from here would buck the trend of a league which more often than not gives into that form.
That stands to reason insofar as Leeds, at full-time on Boxing Day, were looking at their best ever start to a Championship term and even now they are matching step-for-step the last United squad to reach the play-offs a decade ago.
But in the 16 years since the turn of the century only seven clubs have fallen away from the position Leeds are in. In nine of those years, 45 points from 25 matches has been enough of a head start. Garry Monk’s squad are playing with the odds in their favour.
It was significant last week that for the first time, a gap of sorts developed between Leeds and the clubs chasing the play-off places.
Tomorrow’s league fixture at home to Derby County now carries considerable importance with Derby in seventh and five points adrift of United. Steve McClaren’s side broke a record for clean sheets with their form around Christmas but their bubble was pricked by a 3-0 defeat to Norwich City on January 2. After a poor start, resulting in the sacking of Nigel Pearson, the pace of the division is threatening to get to them.
That pace is underlined by the fact that Leeds, with 45 points, are fifth behind four other clubs who have equalled or exceeded their total. History is on the side of all of them. Since 2005, Derby and Middlesbrough are the only teams who held as many points after 25 matches before slipping out of the promotion picture. Boro have the distinction of doing so twice and their abject collapse in 2013, the last full season of Tony Mowbray’s tenure as manager, is unrivalled in its brutality.
Boro were better placed than Leeds are now at the same stage of that term, with 47 points on the board. Having gone backwards in the second half of the previous season and finished seventh, they lost the plot under Mowbray and rounded off 2012-13 with 15 defeats from 21 games. Their final points tally of 59 was a staggering failure which exposed Mowbray as a busted flush. Boro sacked him five months later.
“For 27 games we were as good as anybody in this league,” Mowbray said, reflecting on Boro’s implosion. “For the rest we’ve struggled and won three of them. We’ve fallen away and we can’t hide that fact. It is what it is.”
There have been other notable retreats too. In 2014-15, Derby led the division in the lead-up to Christmas and were second after 25 games on 48 points. The club dropped to eighth by May and promptly parted company with Steve McClaren. Fifteen years ago, in 2002, Burnley went from a position at the top of the table with 50 points to a place below the play-offs on goal difference.
A 5-1 beating by eventual champions Manchester City shortly after Christmas tipped the balance against them. “We’re all feeling very flat,” Ternent said.
“To miss out by just one goal is very hard to swallow.”
Burnley were not alone in seeing the play-offs slip away. Huddersfield Town in 2000 and Watford in 2001 both fell from the position of strength that Leeds are in. Sheffield United slipped to eighth from third in 2004, the first of repeated tilts at promotion under Neil Warnock, and Reading found a way to convert 47 points after 25 games into 70 on the last day of the 2004-05 season. Their response was to destroy the Championship with a record haul of 106 points the following year.
In that same season, Kevin Blackwell’s Leeds squad made the most of a strong start and reached the top six easily, 11 points ahead of Watford in seventh.
Blackwell’s players were in an identical position to Monk’s with 21 matches to go and confidence about a top-six finish abounded at Elland Road. In the end it rankled with his players that they were not able to out-maneuver Sheffield United to automatic promotion. “I was really disappointed to be in the play-offs,” former Leeds midfielder Shaun Derry told the YEP last month. “It still disappoints me now looking back. Reading, they were miles out in front and on their own. But we could have caught Sheffield United.”
Monk and his squad might feel the same about Brighton and Newcastle United, both of whom have cleared 50 points already but have not quite shaken the rest of the field.
Newcastle were beaten at home by Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day and again at Blackburn Rovers last week, allowing Leeds to close the gap to second to seven points. It will drop to four if United beat Derby tomorrow.
Monk, nonetheless, preached caution after Leeds’ 3-0 win over Rotherham United, picking fault with their effort in a goalless first half.
Rotherham saw the better chances before the interval but a tweak to Monk’s system and the introduction of 18-year-old Ronaldo Vieira at the start of the second half allowed United to cut loose and bank another league victory.
“We’re a team who have to be 100 per cent,” Monk said. “We’re not a team who can afford to be below 100 per cent. When we do that like we did in the second half, when we were up near our best, that’s how we’ll win games.”