The weekly interview staged with Ken Bates by Yorkshire Radio turned briefly to the matter of Leeds United’s remaining home matches.
“Win those four games and we’re definitely in the play-offs,” said the club’s chairman. “They’re all six-pointers.”
Bates is right in his estimation but his manager, Simon Grayson, must wish that the job of registering those victories was as simple in practice. Grayson has a habit of saying United’s next fixture is their most significant and, on this of all weekends, he will hear no dissenting voices. It would take a coach with unnatural confidence to look beyond the visit of Nottingham Forest.
Tomorrow’s game at Elland Road is tailor-made for the final throes of the season – so much so that the BBC will broadcast it live to a lunchtime audience. Leeds and Forest have had little in the way of daylight between them since early August, and the difference of one point and one place in the Championship table is the perfect backdrop to a fixture blessed with history and as relevant as ever to the ambition of both clubs.
Forest are the first of four credible play-off candidates due in West Yorkshire before the season ends hence Bates’ suggestion that home soil is where a top-six finish will be won or lost. But the closing month might be influenced by the tone of tomorrow’s performance and, critically, the scoreline at full-time. Grayson is more reluctant to take a long-term view.
“I’m glad the chairman’s got such confidence in the team and the manager,” he joked. “But, mathematically, it might prove otherwise. It doesn’t matter where you pick up points. It’s the final tally that counts.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to play the last eight games at Elland Road but you can’t do more than look at the game in front of you. There’s no point thinking about anything else.
“The Forest game won’t dictate whether we’re in the play-offs or not but a victory would help us along the way. A defeat might knock us a little bit. It won’t mean that we’ve been written off or anything like that, but it’s a great opportunity to pull away from a team below us.
“If we’re ear-marking an eight-match season and we win the first game then it would put us in a really positive frame of mind. That can only help.”
The most recent meeting between Leeds and Forest, staged on the second weekend of the season, failed to yield a decisive result and the teams have continued to shadow each other for weeks and months. They were divided by a single point and a single position at the end of October and again by the last week of January, a time when Forest’s form was ominous.
Six wins from seven league matches brought Billy Davies the manager of the month award, four weeks after Grayson won the prize for December. Two months on, Davies arrives tomorrow without a win in seven. Both he and Grayson are aware that automatic promotion has not yet escaped them but United’s clash with Forest is as much about the need to protect their respective play-off positions. Forest, in sixth place, are most at risk.
Leeds were not anticipating such a scenario when they visited the City Ground on August 15, but the nature of the game in Nottingham told Grayson that his squad were potentially the equals of a club like Forest. Badly outplayed for the first 20 minutes, United were ultimately under-rewarded by a 1-1 draw. “We definitely should have won the game,” said Grayson afterwards.
Davies might be in a position to select striker Robert Earnshaw, who tore a hamstring before the international break but appears to have recovered. Full-back Paul Konchesky, on loan from Liverpool, has a similar problem and will not play.
“Of course we’ll try to exploit their weaknesses,” Grayson said. “Every team’s got them, and if it means putting more misery on Forest then so be it.
“But they’ve got strengths too and their results don’t interest me. If a team have gone six or seven games without a victory then somewhere down the line they’re going to win.
“This fixture’s steeped in history. It’s a game that rolls off the tongue. But tomorrow’s all about my team, and Billy’s team, taking three points, cementing a place in the play-offs and chasing the top two. That’s what it boils down to.
“Like most of our games, it’ll be open, with both teams desperate to make sure they don’t get beat but also keen to put on a show. It could be a fantastic spectacle because there’s a lot at stake. On paper it’s got the ingredients. Hopefully, it lives up to the billing and, hopefully, we come out on top.
“Winning would be a real boost to our chances of finishing in the play-offs at the very least but I still don’t think losing would make too much difference to our confidence. We’re in a position that we didn’t really expect to be in.”
Grayson has had two full weeks to reflect on and address a 2-0 defeat at Sheffield United, Leeds’ last game before the international break. Some of his players were more distracted – no fewer than seven were away with their countries and three returned to Thorp Arch as late as yesterday. Grayson’s squad is, nevertheless, largely intact.
United’s captain, Richard Naylor, claimed that the sojourn was welcome, despite the loss at Bramall Lane. “You never really want to go into a break on the back of a bad result,” he said. “It gives you a lot of time to think about it.
“But a lot of the players went away to internationals and there were only a few of us around the place. It’s been fine and the atmosphere’s good. In a long, hard season, every free weekend is welcome.
“That goes especially for the lads who’ve played a lot of football, they probably needed a bit of a rest, but we’re looking forward to the run-in. It’s all there for us and it’s still in our hands. We know what we need to do. We’ll have to put a run together to finish in the top two but, if not, let’s finish in the play-offs.”