There is nothing really to play for in Sunday’s match against relegated Wigan, but Garry Monk wants Leeds to finish their season with a victory to thank the fans for their support this season. Phil Hay reports.
A final total of 77 points would make Leeds United a statistical anomaly in a division where a tally so high is invariably good enough for the play-offs. Only Wolverhampton Wanderers can lay claim to more misfortune, condemned to seventh place with 78 two seasons ago.
This has been no average year, for the Championship or for Leeds, and Garry Monk sees some relevance in a largely meaningless finale at Wigan Athletic on Sunday. United will finish below the league’s top six and Wigan have already been relegated. All that Monk has left is the opportunity to add another win to the record and let the table speak for itself.
A haul of 77 points would be significant for him insofar as proving that Leeds and his squad are capable of reaching a figure which in a typical season would clear a path to the play-offs. It might not change the fact that United allowed the door to slam in their face last month, dropping an eight-point lead over Fulham in the space of seven games, but when Monk speaks of progress in his first year as head coach, the club’s final total is arguably the clearest example of it: potentially 18 higher than last season and their best in the Championship since 2006.
Leeds are three points behind Fulham with one round of fixtures left and Fulham’s superior goal difference – 13 to the good – is why no-one at Elland Road is wasting time dreaming about what Monk called a “mathematical miracle”. “We know it’s highly unlikely,” he said, “so we have to be realistic and what’s realistic is winning this game.
“We could end up with 77 points and in almost any other season we’d have made the play-offs,” Monk said.
“Albeit we can’t make the play-offs barring a mathematical miracle but if we finish with that total then it shows that the players have, in effect, delivered a play-off or promotion-chance season. That’s something the club’s not had for a long time.
“It’s something we can all be proud of, although I’m proud of the players whatever happens. It’s been a successful season but ending it on a high gives us the positive ending that the players and everyone connected with the club deserves.
“We’re all disappointed and hurt because we really wanted to make the play-offs. Like I’ve said many times, it wasn’t the objective at the start of the season but having been so close and had it in our own hands for quite a long period, disappointment and hurt – of course there is. But it shows how far everyone’s come that we believed we were going to do it.”
Monk said a raft of changes to his line-up or experiments on Sunday were out of the question. “It’s a game we have to go into to win,” he said. “We’ve had that mentality all season and this one’s for our fans, 100 per cent.
“They’ve been unbelievable with us this season. I can’t speak highly enough of them and they’ve pushed these players onto higher levels than we probably thought they could get to this early. It’s made everything positive.”
That support might be one of the factors which pushes Monk into staying with Leeds next season. The doubt over his future has been largely seen in the context of United passing judgement on him but Monk has been unequivocal in saying that the club and Andrea Radrizzani, their soon-to-be sole owner, will have to meet his own expectations over budgets and strategy before he agrees to commit beyond the summer.
If United’s backing of him is yet to be confirmed, public opinion is firmly on Monk’s side.
An online petition was launched at the start of this week, urging Leeds to renew his contract. Monk insisted that he had not been tempted to sign it. “Maybe my mum has,” he joked.
“It’s a great feeling and you can’t deny that. I’m not one that searches for gratitude or a pat on the back but the support’s been incredible. It’s been a pleasure.”
For eight months he has seen the best of United’s crowd: vastly increased home attendances, regular sell-outs away from Elland Road and sustained patience which remained intact even after Leeds fell 3-0 behind against Norwich City last Saturday. What developed in the second half, when Leeds fought back to level the game at 3-3, was the sort of hell-for-leather atmosphere which Monk knows he would struggle to find elsewhere. It was football at its most raw and perhaps its most real.
“I knew how big a club this was but this season highlights the potential and what it can be,” Monk said. “Some of the atmospheres at Elland Road...the one (last weekend) when the second goal went in, that’s one of the loudest roars or the strongest feelings I’ve had in terms of the hair on the back of your neck standing up.
“Understanding what’s been put in place this season is what will allow for those occasions to be more regular. I’ve really appreciated the support. One of my big objectives was taking a club that’s been fragmented over many years and connecting it back together. It’s been a big part of the success this season and it’s a big part of what the club needs.”
At his final press conference of the season yesterday, there was no sense of Monk saying goodbye; merely an admission that if Leeds intend to keep him, some quid pro quo and agreement over key issues will be necessary. Even now he would rather prioritise Wigan first.
“I’m very focused on my job,” Monk said.
“I’m like that. I’m very focused on winning this game. All the speculation that goes with it, that’s part of the job.
“It vitally important that we finish on a high.
“We want to put on a performance that everyone can be proud of and that’s how we’ve been this week.”