Leeds United’s pre-Christmas future has turned out pretty much as predicted by Liam ‘Crystal Ball’ Cooper a month ago. Phil Hay reports.
It was Liam Cooper who put his head above the parapet and said after a 1-0 defeat at Queens Park Rangers that Leeds United were “definitely not going to be in a relegation battle.”
The centre-back seemed to be ignoring their position in the Championship.
But a month on from that poisonous day at Loftus Road his comments sound prescient.
Leeds have a safety net of 11 points. Even the bookmakers no longer think the club are at risk.
Cooper was well aware that Leeds were being “written off” but the centre-back is enjoying the feeling of sudden impetus.
For the first time since the start of September, Sunday’s 1-0 win over Preston North End allowed United’s players to think that a top-six finish is more than a blindly implausible aim. The victory was their third in four games.
“It’s crazy what a few wins can do,” Cooper said.
“We’re five points off the play-offs now and we’re looking up. I said that four or five weeks ago, when the pressure was on and people were seeing us in a relegation battle, but we’ve come together as a team, stuck at it and we’re right back up the table.
“Ten points out of 12 is good. We were getting written off, we were in a relegation battle, but we’ve proved a lot of people wrong and a lot of teams in the league wrong as well.
“They’ll be looking down now and looking at us coming for them.
“The manager keeps saying ‘put a few wins together and teams above you will start thinking ‘Leeds are coming.’ But he keeps on at us about not getting complacent and I don’t think the lads will. We’ve not got that type of character.”
The change in mood around Elland Road has been palpable since Steve Evans and his team were berated by the away crowd during their loss at Loftus Road on November 28.
Evans was scathing about the performance, saying the fans were “right not to pull any punches”.
Cooper admitted to being “bitterly disappointed” but insisted results would improve. December has been a healthy month, yielding wins over Hull City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Preston.
United were denied a victory at Charlton Athletic by the width of a post but rode their luck to the same extent against a 10-man Preston side over the weekend.
Ten points from four games will seem to Evans like a very fair return.
Two pivotal games await United in the week ahead, a visit to Nottingham Forest on December 27 followed by a clash with Derby County two days later.
The majority of Championship sides play their Christmas fixtures 24 hours earlier, potentially leaving Leeds to make up more ground on the top six.
Cooper, however, spoke of mounting confidence in United’s camp.
“We don’t fear anyone,” he said. “Obviously we’ve beaten some very good teams in the last few weeks and if we play our own game then I think we can beat anyone.
“When you take 10 points from a possible 12 it’s always going to be an upbeat dressing room and rightly so.
“We’ve worked hard and we’ve dug in. I know that if we approach games properly and do things right we’ll take anyone in this league. We’ve proven that in the last few games. It’s just a great feeling at the moment. The place is buzzing.”
Evans’ players looked jaded against Preston and needed a 46th-minute own goal from Alan Browne to force a victory against a side who lost goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to a red card in the first half.
Evans said a lack of “recovering time” after a Thursday-night trip to Wolves had affected his squad.
Leeds relied on a series of saves from Marco Silvestri, including a fingertip stop from Neil Kilkenny late on, to protect their lead, and Cooper said United had struggled after the substitution of Luke Murphy and a change of formation on 64 minutes.
“We made it a bit hard for ourselves in the second half,” Cooper said.
“We scored at a good time and you think you can go on and get more goals but it wasn’t to be.
“Murph came off, we went two in the middle and we struggled to deal with it.
“We should be better than that. But we stuck at it, we defended well and I thought we looked dangerous on the break. We just couldn’t find the final pass to get us that second goal but it’s another three points.
“It’s not pretty or nice but at the end of the day there’s that big ‘W’ – the win and three points better off.”
Silvestri was one of several players who came in for criticism earlier in the season – criticism which the Italian keeper admitted was deserved.
But his performances have been key in the past month and Evans described him as “top class” after the win over Preston.
“He had one wonderful save from Joe Garner in the first half,” Evans said.
“I was behind it and I thought it was in.”
Silvestri was also on hand three minutes form time to tip a Kilkenny header over the crossbar.
“He’s been brilliant,” Cooper said.
“Everyone knows Marco’s a great shotstopper.
“Obviously he took a bit of stick but he’s a strong, brave character and he’s answered all the questions.”