Simon Grayson wore a knowing smile when he said last Saturday that Leeds United were safe from relegation.
Leeds, as any fool could see, were safe from relegation some time ago.
And it went without saying that the club’s effort would not end there.
Survival this season was the extent of United’s realism. From here on, the club will see how far imagination can take them.
Grayson would not pretend that he foresaw the success of the past six months but he can see how the land lies now. Relegation is no longer so much as a tenuous threat; Leeds will either finish the season in the Championship’s top six or finish it in the comfort of mid-table.
As such, this weekend is an appropriate juncture for Elland Road to stage a game as significant as tomorrow’s engagement with Norwich City. A six-pointer Ken Bates called it with all the expectation of a chairman who knows how close his club are to an unlikely but desirable aim.
Game number 32 would be Glynn Snodin’s description. Safe or not, there is no sign of Grayson or his coaching staff breaking cover after climbing beyond the 50-point benchmark at Bristol City six days ago.
“We’ve got an opportunity,” Snodin said. “I can see that and so can everyone here. But I don’t go along with the theory that one game is more important than another. I don’t think you can say that we’re almost there either. That’s how you think when you’ve got two or three games to go.
“The aim is obviously to beat Norwich tomorrow. Then we’ll look at beating Barnsley on Tuesday. Think like that and the season looks after itself. It’s a good philosophy – Simon’s philosophy – and we live by it.
“When we came off the field in Bristol, the first thing we said to the players was ‘well done, that’s us safe’. At the start of the season, the biggest thing on our minds was to be able to say that. I hope the players patted themselves on the back because staying up is no mean feat. But it doesn’t mean that we get the deckchairs out or start coasting. We’ve got a chance and, let’s be honest, we want to take it.”
The same noises can be heard in Norwich. Neither they nor Leeds expected their seasons to be defined by promotion – a stipulation made of both clubs in League One last year – but their prospects are comparable with 15 games to play.
Norwich hold 54 points and Leeds 52. The winner of tomorrow’s match at Elland Road could finish the afternoon in second position. There was no shock, then, at Norwich selling their entire allocation of away tickets or Leeds predicting a crowd of 32,000. It is, on past evidence, a game worth paying for.
These clubs, after all, have form. Their meetings in League One were settled by goals too late to reply to, one scored in United’s favour and the other in Norwich’s.
At Carrow Road in November, a 1-1 draw displayed their squads in a bright, ambitious light. The controversy of a foul on Kasper Schmeichel, leading to Norwich’s equaliser, maintained the fixture’s dramatic tendencies.
Grayson and Paul Lambert, City’s single-minded manager, have similarities of their own. Their clubs won promotion in their first full seasons at the helm and are punching at a higher weight than they might have done in the Championship. They also shared nomination for December’s manager-of-the-month award, a trophy which Grayson won on account of three wins and two draws.
“There’s a rivalry between the clubs but it’s healthy,” Snodin said. “It’s a mutual respect really. I respect Norwich as a talented team with good values and a manager who’s a winner. They’re very like us. They’re doing every bit as well as us in the Championship and they’ve probably surprised as many people as we have.
“We both knew the situation last season – win promotion, no question. There wasn’t the same pressure on either of us this season but that doesn’t mean you think any differently or make less effort. It just means that people don’t say the same things if you’re outside the top six. The players and staff do their jobs in exactly the same way and you reap what you sow.
“Tomorrow’s one of those great games where you know both sides will go for it. It always seems to be that way when we play each other. You can hardly put a piece of paper between us.
“I know there was a bit of controversy at their place (in November) but a draw was the right result and a good one at that. You don’t get points for free at Carrow Road.”
The same is true of Elland Road, a stadium where Leeds were last beaten in a league fixture on October 25. The statistic is one of several which paint Leeds as a dangerous candidate among those vying for entry into the Premier League.
The club have suffered one defeat in 18 Championship fixtures and won three of their last five. It amazes Snodin that a record so consistent is worth no better than sixth position in the table.
Norwich held them back last weekend with a 94th-minute winner against Reading, scored by their captain and striker Grant Holt. It is not the first time that City have used the last seconds of a fixture to salvage vulnerable points.
“It’s not down to pot luck,” said Lambert. “It’s down to the never-say-die attitude of the players and how much they want to win games.”
“We’re aware of that,” Snodin said. “It tells you that they play to the last minute and further. We’ve drilled the same mentality and spirit into the players here over many months, and that sort of attitude pays off.
“But we’re in good form and losing one in 18 is a great record. To be honest, it’s a surprise that we’re still only sixth. You’d think that a record like that would put you in the top two if not better.
“But it proves what we’ve been saying all along – that the Championship is a tough, tough competition. You don’t cruise out of this league.”