Neil Warnock believes Leeds United should be entering the final 20 games of the Championship season with a feeling of optimism, despite murmurs of discontent about their recent performances.
Warnock said his squad had given themselves an “opportunity” by producing a spate of home wins around the turn of the year and moving back into serious contention for a play-off place.
Leeds are two points adrift of sixth position with the second half of the term underway, and a rapidly decreasing list of absentees has increased Warnock’s expectation of a strong finish to the club’s campaign.
Rodolph Austin will return to contention for tomorrow’s match at Barnsley after recovering from a virus and captain Lee Peltier’s long-standing groin strain is the only significant worry among Warnock’s regular players.
United’s progress in the transfer window has been slow so far, however, and although Michael Tonge is in line to play at Oakwell after completing a permanent move from Stoke City yesterday, Warnock admitted that United’s season was still reliant on a “bit of luck” in securing further signings before the end of the month.
The Leeds manager also called from an improvement in his side’s form away from home after seeing five straight league victories at Elland Road tempered by defeats at Derby County, Nottingham Forest and Hull City.
The club have struggled to impress since their win over Middlesbrough on the last weekend before Christmas but Warnock said: “We’ve given ourselves an opportunity to make a push in the second half of the season.
“We don’t want to be languishing in mid-table and going on about consolidation. We want to get in there. But it’s a massive ask and we do need to be a little bit lucky in the next couple of weeks.
“We’ve got to be better away from home, without a shadow of a doubt, but we got a battering at Hull and quite a lesson at Derby yet we’re above Derby in the table.
“We’re also above Blackburn, Wolves and Bolton and all of them had parachute payments. When you listen to some of what’s been said, you’d think we were bottom of the league.
“Yes, our position’s frustrating because we could quite easily have been up there but it’s not like it’s a situation we can’t turn around.
“We’ve learned about each other now and if we could have a free run without injuries and bring in players who can win a game or turn a game then I don’t see why we can’t push on.”
The virus which began spreading among United’s squad a fortnight ago struck again on Wednesday evening, forcing an unnamed player to miss training at Thorp Arch yesterday.
But Warnock is largely clear of selection worries and his side should be close to full strength tomorrow. With Austin available, El-Hadji Diouf and Sam Byram are also vying to start at Oakwell after bouts of illness saw both players named on the bench for United’s FA Cup tie against Birmingham City.
This weekend’s fixture takes Leeds back to the scene of an appalling loss 12 months ago which threatened to cost Warnock’s predecessor, Simon Grayson, his job.
A performance devoid of commitment and imagination was punished by a hat-trick from Ricardo Vaz Te, and Grayson described Leeds’ 4-1 defeat as “embarrassing, shambolic.”
Warnock said: “Everybody knows that Oakwell’s not been a good place for us.
“From what I’ve read, last season was about the worst display anyone’s seen from a Leeds team. We’ve got to give our fans something better than that.
“The minimum is that we give 100 per cent and Barnsley’s always a difficult game, wherever they are in the league.”
The South Yorkshire side are propping up the Championship and will contest tomorrow’s match without a permanent manager after Terry Butcher and Sean O’Driscoll both rejected the chance to replace the sacked Keith Hill.
Asked if Barnsley were particularly vulnerable, Warnock said: “I read the papers before our game at Derby and that was supposed to be an easy three points.
“But I always think games against teams at the bottom end of the division are far more difficult.Everyone expects you to do things and I know how difficult it is at Barnsley.
“They’re really solid, a hard team, and they’ll have a good Yorkshire crowd behind them.”