Thirty-THREE players have contributed to Leeds United’s season, some more heavily than others.
As ever in the Football League, the credit for it will be widely spread if and when the club arrive in the Championship play-offs.
At his present rate of involvement, Eric Lichaj’s appearances for Leeds are set to span a third of their league games.
The sad realisation for him is that his loan from Aston Villa will expire a week before the play-offs begin.
His sole concern is therefore ensuring that United succeed in qualifying.
The club signed Lichaj in early February, as cover for injured right-back Paul Connolly. The loan was agreed on an emergency basis and restricted under Football League rules to 93 days, a limit which the defender will reach after Leeds’ last game of the Championship term at Queen’s Park Rangers.
It would not be his choice to miss the play-offs any more than Simon Grayson, United’s manager, would choose to lose him at such a critical stage. Lichaj has started 11 consecutive matches since arriving in Leeds and is part of the furniture at Thorp Arch.
He is destined to be a victim of timing should the club’s delicately-balanced season deliver the intended result.
“For me, this is purely about making sure we get to the play-offs,” Lichaj said. “I’ve known for a while that my loan wasn’t going to run for long enough but I’m still able to influence how the season ends.
“The priority for all of us at the moment is to qualify for the play-offs. We’re not in a position to think about actually being in them. But on a personal level, it’s a shame. When you play so many games and get so involved, you want to be here to help finish the job off. I’ve never experienced the play-offs before and I’d really like to be part of them but there’s nothing any of us can do about that.”
Grayson was mindful of timing emergency loans to encompass the play-offs but the loss of Connolly to a pulled hamstring was an emergency in the truest sense of the word. Having allowed Andrew Hughes to join Scunthorpe in January, United’s manager was faced with the prospect of travelling to Bristol City without a right-back.
Lichaj made an accomplished debut in a 2-0 win at Ashton Gate and won Grayson’s favour immediately. He was retained at right-back on Connolly’s return from injury and moved to the left side of defence last weekend in answer to the loss of George McCartney. It said much about Grayson’s opinion of Lichaj that he employed him at Millwall ahead of Ben Parker, the only other left-back in United’s squad.
“It’s the first time in my career that I’ve played this many games in such a short period of time,” Lichaj said. “I was told when I came here that if I did what they asked me to then I’d have a good chance of staying in the team and it’s the most involved I’ve ever been at any club.
“To start with, I didn’t feel there was a massive amount of pressure on me but I’ve started feeling it like everyone else. There’s as much resting on me as any other player in the team and it’s good to experience a situation like this. I was at Leyton Orient last season when they were fighting relegation and the two scenarios are similar – the same sort of target at different ends of the table. You’re fighting for points and every point counts.
“But the difference here is the level of expectancy. It’s a massive club with crazy fans. I love that, and even though I was never going to play in the play-offs, I wanted to stay for as long as possible.”
The 22-year-old plans to return to his native America when the regular Championship season ends, most likely in preparation for the USA’s appearance in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Lichaj’s spell with Leeds could guarantee a call-up and he was part of the USA squad which contested a friendly with Paraguay last month.
“If Leeds are in the play-offs then I’ll listen to them or watch them – whatever’s available to me,” Lichaj said.
“For now, I just want to make sure they’re in there. It’s never great to watch games like those but there are worse scenarios for the club.”