In two years and four months as manager of Leeds United, Simon Grayson has never made a more eye-catching signing than Kasper Schmeichel.
Grayson’s first deal in the aftermath of promotion from League One was seen as a statement of intent.
Schmeichel, as footballers invariably do, had several other offers to consider. Arsenal and Bayern Munich were loosely mentioned but the accepted truth is that the goalkeeper tore up several tickets into the Premier League by joining Leeds. The most pertinent question was why.
Eleven months on, he would argue that the answer is plain to see. United’s prospects in the Championship – a league they joined 19 days before Schmeichel signed a two-year deal at Elland Road – were a matter of debate, much of it leaning towards a consolidatory season.
Schmeichel anticipated more and has not been disappointed. The play-offs continue to call with seven games ahead of his club.
“I honestly did expect this,” Schmeichel said. “I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think it was possible, or if I didn’t think there was a chance that a season like this might happen.
“Others clearly disagreed but that might have helped. It was maybe in our favour that people didn’t expect very much of us. But I always felt optimistic.
“For me, we’ve got the two best wingers outside the Premier League (Max Gradel and Robert Snodgrass) and a good young captain (Jonathan Howson) who leads the team fantastically well. Across the board there are guys who play consistently well week after week, and a few old heads too.
“If you were looking for the right sort of mix in the Championship, this is pretty close to what you’d want. Our squad is full of players who like the idea of playing in the Premier League and want to make it happen. But I know that’s true of almost every other Championship team too.”
Schmeichel and Leeds are beyond the point of building a fine season. They have reached the stage of finishing it off. Schmeichel knows a fair amount about that having helped League Two champions Notts County close out their season 12 months ago.
“You can’t afford to look at the long run,” he said. “You get there game by game and step by step – by making sure you do your job properly every time you play.”
Tomorrow’s match at Millwall is United’s 40th Championship fixture, a significant marker in a season which has passed in a flash. With 64 points and another 21 available, the portents for Leeds are undeniably good.
A resounding victory over Nottingham Forest last weekend was, in Schmeichel’s words, a “statement of intent”, and a similar result against Millwall would be another. The New Den is not generally a happy hunting ground for Leeds.
“The Forest result showed that we really want to make promotion happen,” Schmeichel said. “It’s there for eight or nine clubs to take at the moment. If we hold ourselves together then we’ve got a great chance of going up.
“Players like us have one immediate goal which is to get into the Premier League. I’ve had a taste of it with Manchester City but only a taste. I want more and so do the club.
“Everyone here feels that the Premier League is the rightful place for Leeds United. I’m not saying we should expect to walk into the division or that it owes us in some way, but it will feel right when the club get there. A club as immense as this should be there. That’s the bottom line.
“But it’s not something to think about now. You can’t start looking at the run-in as a whole. Any team who are up here with seven games to go are clearly good enough to get into the play-offs. The table shows that. But the key now is to stay focused – don’t worry too much about the long-run, just make sure that you do your job properly day by day.”
Schmeichel spent part of this week publicising a new range of goalkeeping gloves, designed by him in tandem with Precision Goalkeeping. The obvious joke was that any gloves worn by a keeper in United’s squad are likely to be well-used. Between them Schmeichel, Shane Higgs and Jason Brown have conceded 67 goals this season, though they would carry the blame for relatively few.
“I’d love it to be clean sheets every week,” said Schmeichel. “Some quiet games would be nice as well. We had a little spell in September where we let in six and five in a couple of games and that didn’t help with the numbers, but it doesn’t change the fact that we do concede a lot of goals.
“I think it comes down to the way we play, though, and I’d rather see us concede goals by trying to be positive and doing the right things rather than be negative and invite teams to turn us over. And, at the end of the day, the tactics have worked. If you look at the results, you have to say that the way we play is paying off.
“With the attacking players we have, it would almost be a waste not to use them as we do. We always score goals and I’m never in doubt that when we need one we’ll get one. If we had a better record of clean sheets then we’d have been out of sight but that’s the way it is.”
It is reasonable to ask, with seven games remaining, whether thoughts among Grayson’s players have strayed towards the play-offs or even the outside chance of automatic promotion.
Schmeichel was guarded against that complacency by Tottenham Hotspur’s calamitous defeat to Real Madrid on Tuesday night, a result which effectively ended Spurs’ celebrated involvement in the Champions League.
“I’m not preparing for anything, apart for Millwall,” Schmeichel said. “I’m sorry if that sounds boring but it’s the only way you can be.
“Planning or preparing for things that haven’t happened and might not happen is crazy. You can’t afford to do it. Look at Tottenham. All of a sudden, Aaron Lennon’s taken ill, Peter Crouch gets sent off and their whole plan is ruined, absolutely finished. They’ve gone from all this optimism and excitement to having basically no chance of getting through. There’s a warning in that for everyone.”
● Kasper Schmeichel was speaking at the launch of his new Schmeichology Precision Goalkeeping gloves. For more information go to www.precisiontraining.uk.com/Goalkeeping
EYE ON THE BALL: Kasper Schmeichel is taking things one game at a time
PICTURE: steve riding