Leeds United must strike now while the play-off iron is still relatively hot or see their season fizzle out. Phil Hay reports.
If Leeds United are to raise themselves for a concerted attack on the Championship play-offs, their squad and manager might concede that the time to strike is now.
The club’s 30th league fixture came and went at Brighton last week and they pick up their season after a short break on Saturday with more ground to cover after Reading’s priceless win at QPR.
That victory – only the second produced by a visiting team at Loftus Road – put eight points between sixth place and Leeds in 11th but Sam Byram, United’s player of the year, is refusing to accept that a top-six finish is beyond his club’s reach.
He admitted, however, that the need for a spate of strong, convincing results was growing as he and United’s players readied themselves for a televised match at Middlesbrough.
“You want to win every game but sometimes when that’s out of reach, it’s good to get a draw,” Byram said. “For instance, a draw down at Brighton would have been a good result.
“But wins are what get you maximum points and points are what get you up the table. I think that we’re more optimistic than ever and we just want to finish the season strongly.”
Leeds were beaten at Brighton by a 64th-minute goal from Leonardo Ulloa, the only goal of a forgettable game in which a lack of creativity hampered United’s attempt to pick Albion off on the counter-attack.
It was a contest, Brian McDermott said afterwards, which should have ended 0-0 but Ulloa’s deflected finish from 12 yards sent Leeds back from the south coast with a 12th Championship defeat to reflect on and only 16 games with which to make a final push for the play-offs.
A win at The Amex Stadium would have placed Leeds two points behind Reading, the team who have held sixth place for several weeks. Instead, Reading’s 3-1 defeat of QPR with 10 men weakened United’s position further.
This time last year, Byram and Leeds were in an identical position – 11th in the league with 42 points and a record showing 12 wins, 12 losses and six draws. Goals conceded is the statistical improvement since McDermott replaced Neil Warnock as manager in April.
Warnock made United’s season flicker briefly towards the end of February, with wins over Blackpool and Millwall, but Leeds added 10 more points to their total before he was sacked on April 1. They finished 13th.
“It’s never out of reach, especially in this league,” Byram said when asked about the play-offs. “There have been surprises in the past with results.
“Looking back at the Brighton game, I thought it had a draw written all over it. It was just a switch-off towards the end that cost us and we conceded.
“It’s not nice but that’s football. We need to work as a team to get rid of mistakes like that.
“Every game’s going to be tough from now until the end of the season. We’ll prepare for each game specifically and set up a team that’ll do a job. We’ll go to Middlesbrough, do our best and hopefully get three points.”
McDermott said he was ready for a break after United’s loss to Brighton, keen to take a few days away from the stress of the on-going takeover at Elland Road. Certain players might have felt the same.
Ross McCormack has started all but one of United’s games this season – their League Cup tie against Chesterfield back in August – and goalkeeper Paddy Kenny holds an ever-present record, though Leeds have been looking at the possibility of signing another ’keeper on emergency loan with Massimo Cellino’s takeover pending. Rodolph Austin has missed just one league game.
Byram’s season tells a different story, affected by injury and only now bringing him back into the form which earned him numerous player-of-the-year awards at the end of last season.
His performance in a wind-swept win at Yeovil Town on February 8 displayed the energy and overlapping intelligence which built his reputation, and his outing at Brighton took his league starts into double figures. United’s squad were given time away from training after that fixture but returned to Thorp Arch on Monday. McDermott, who met with Cellino last week for talks about the Italian’s plans for Leeds, resumed his all-hours routine by attending Chesterfield’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tie against Fleetwood Town on Tuesday night.
“It’s not been the best having a couple of days off,” Byram said. “For me personally I prefer to be in and training. But the break’s good for tired legs and for the boys who’ve played a lot of games. It’s done the squad good to get a rest.
“I still think I’ve got more to give in terms of consistency. That comes with games. It’s been frustrating for me being in and out of the team and having a few niggles. I’m just trying to get back to where I was last year.”
McDermott’s current line-up is pairing Byram on the right side of the pitch with Jimmy Kebe, McDermott’s most recent signing and arguably his most high-profile to date.
Kebe joined on loan from Crystal Palace a matter of days before Sport Capital’s planned buy-out of Leeds imploded and his impact has been mixed.
He scored in a 5-1 rout against Huddersfield Town and helped lead the charge in the second half on the day when United’s supporters fought for McDermott’s job.
But he was jeered during a 1-1 draw with Ipswich Town and drifted through the defeat to Brighton.
But Byram said: “Playing with Jimmy is great. Going forward he’s a real threat and you can see the work he puts in helping me out in defence. He’s really good to have in front of me.”