Leeds United: Pressure free? Whites should strive to stay that way - Hay

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The staff who inhabit Thorp Arch will tell you that this season and last season bear no resemblance.

Promotion was all-consuming 12 months ago. It is not, by most accounts, the same obsession today.

Before the international break, nothing so sharp as a knife was needed to cut the tension at Leeds United’s training ground.

Leigh Bromby had it right when he said the complex near Wetherby was “not a nervous place”. You would do well to identify an undercurrent of electricity there. A successful year however it ends? Evidently, in the minds of Simon Grayson and his squad. At no stage of this season have they allowed others to dictate their benchmark for a satisfactory outcome.

The freedom of self-assessment is a contrast for the players who served their time in an atmosphere where no standard was good enough. Bradley Johnson, Neil Kilkenny, Luciano Becchio and Robert Snodgrass, to name but four – footballers with raw experience of dodging snipers.

Leeds United’s state was everybody’s business in League One, a division where one of Gillingham’s players felt no shame in doubting United’s nerve with three weeks of last season to go. The shots were cheap and they often niggled. “I can’t understand why people with nothing to do with this club are so worried about us,” said Michael Doyle in response.

In a competition so small, a club like United are verbal cannon-fodder for those with time to chew the fat. Not so in the Championship, or at least not when Leeds carry the brand of a club promoted from League One.

Tomorrow’s game against Nottingham Forest matters intensely, whichever side of the fence you look from. But it is more consequential for the team approaching the end of their third year in the Championship; the team backed heavily for automatic promotion in August and flirting openly with under-achievement.

Peter Shilton, the former England goalkeeper, argued this week that inclusion in the play-offs would be a success for Nottingham Forest. If truth be told, the rest of the country expected nothing less.

At the beginning of March, Billy Davies made the admission that “we’re a little bit short” of the squad and performances required to bring automatic promotion into reach but it is skewed to claim that Forest were destined to be from the outset. The general opinion of Davies’ squad is typically higher than his own.

There is uncertainty in both Nottingham and Leeds about how the last month of this season will go. Davies needs one outcome alone.

Where Grayson is concerned, no conclusion (aside from eight successive defeats or form of that nature) would drag him against the wall or weaken his position at Elland Road.

He ought not to assume that a second season in the Championship would generate the same carefree atmosphere – carefree by the standards of Leeds United at any rate – or enjoy an identical level of understanding, but he has the summer to prepare for a more combative playground if needs be. It is the difference between work in progress and a project that is due some sort of immediate denouement.

Promotion was Davies’ remit last season and this. As Grayson can say with the benefit of hindsight, nine months spent carrying that millstone is hard labour. Leeds will retain a play-off position regardless off tomorrow’s result but Forest could be seventh by full-time. Then the questions begin in earnest. Davies cannot employ the Grayson defence of declaring expectation already exceeded.

As a whole, there is much for Leeds to draw optimism from: not only their position but their remaining fixtures, particularly those at Elland Road. Forest, Reading, Watford and Burnley all to come at a stadium where Leeds, under Grayson, have lost only eight league fixtures in two years and three months.

In respect of qualifying for the play-offs, it is not asking the improbable; a better-than-even chance in some respects. Managers never look for any more at the start of April.

Grayson was asked recently whether tension would take hold of his squad during the run-in and how, in that scenario, he would attempt to fight it. “To be honest,” he said. “I want them to enjoy it.” It is rare for a manager of his club to be able to say that and believe that they will.

Steve Staunton, the former Leeds assistant, once claimed that pressure is for tyres. On the contrary, it’s usually for sportsmen who know the knives are out.

Pressure-free? Leeds should strive to stay that way. History shows that in Grayson’s time, it’s when his players are at their best.

FORMER FAN: Ipswich Town boss Mick McCarthy. Picture: Simon Hulme

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