Rallying call: Whites striker Matt Smith says only wins will do if they are to break into the Championship play-off reckoning. Phil Hay reports.
Leeds United have steadfastly refused to accept that their season is ebbing away but in the words of Matt Smith, this now is crunch time.
United’s manager, Brian McDermott, described recent draws at Middlesbrough and Queen Park Rangers as “good points” but he and the players beneath him can see that many more of those will resign the club to another year in the Championship.
His squad en masse have avoided any use of the phrase ‘must-win’ this week and are speaking about tomorrow’s game against Bolton Wanderers as a welcome chance to play at Elland Road. But Leeds are deep into must-win territory, with 14 matches left and Wigan Athletic cruising in sixth place.
Wigan have an FA Cup tie this weekend, giving United the chance to trim a gap of eight points to the play-offs. Between tomorrow’s meeting with Bolton and Tuesday’s match at home to Reading, McDermott’s squad need to make up ground. Two wins from their last 12 league fixtures have left Leeds looking for one of McDermott’s trademark winning streaks. They are 33/1 for promotion among bookmakers who aren’t often wrong.
“It’s no secret that we really need to go for it now,” Smith said. “I’m not sure how far draws are going to get us at this stage of the season. We need three points most weeks if we’re going to be in and amongst (the play-offs).
“We’ve been pretty resilient of late and a point away at QPR last weekend – anyone’s going to take that against a team of their quality. But it really is crunch time now.
“It’s going to be extremely tough for us because points-wise we’re not too far away but there are many other teams amongst it who could also string a run together. We’ve shown throughout the season what we’re capable of. Now it’s up to us to put points on the board.”
For every bouncing, in-form club like Wigan there are others like QPR and Reading who are struggling to buy a victory. Bolton endured stages of the season where their next win was difficult to see but they have turned over two play-off contenders in the past fortnight, beating Watford before thrashing Blackburn Rovers with four unanswered goals.
Smith saw after Christmas how quickly a busy fixture list can change the Championship. From United’s perspective, that period changed the table for the worse – “what killed us was maybe the festive period,” the striker said – but Leeds have seven games this month and another seven in April.
Smith scored seven times in run-up to Christmas and United were fifth in the table after a 0-0 draw against Barnsley on December 21. “Personally I think we’ve shown that we’re capable of being up there,” he said, “but in certain patches of the season we’ve let ourselves down a bit.
“It’s been frustrating, certainly, but I don’t think any team are going to have a perfect season. Every team are going to go through blips and it’s how you recover from those blips which determines how you’ll do.
“What killed us, maybe, was that festive period. After the Doncaster game (on December 14) we were sixth and then we drew and went into fifth. But we had a sticky patch and it just shows you what that amount of games in a short space of time can do.
“With these games coming up – seven in each month – it could be another season changer if we do well. Three wins in a row can completely change the picture so it’s going to be interesting. We’re optimistic and confident.”
Leeds also have little to lose with clear water between them and the Championship’s bottom three. Their form in the first half of the term ensured that the play-offs would be the sole focus of attention at Elland Road during the run-in, or at least the sole focus of attention where football is concerned.
McDermott’s squad are still in the shadow of a pending takeover and have been that way since Gulf Finance House, the club’s owner, arranged the sale of 75 per cent of shares in Leeds to the Sport Capital consortium last November. Sport Capital’s bid blew up in January, making way for Italian businessman Massimo Cellino, but Cellino’s own buy-out could be under threat with the 57-year-old facing tax evasion charges in Sardinia a week on Tuesday.
A conviction in that case would almost certainly see him fail the Football League’s Owners and Directors Test, though Cellino denies the allegations and will fight them vigorously. His own confidence has been shown by his regular presence in Leeds and by his attendance at the club’s draws with Middlesbrough and QPR. He is expected to be at Elland Road tomorrow.
With the takeover pending, Leeds strengthened their squad last month by signing Jack Butland and Connor Wickham, the latter creating direct competition for Smith up front. Wickham, an Under-21 international, was named in McDermott’s starting line-up at Loftus Road and is expected to partner Ross McCormack against Bolton. How much part Smith will play in the run-in remains to be seen.
The 25-year-old nevertheless welcomed the arrival of Wickham and Butland. “It’s a statement in itself that we’re not just ready to sit back and hope for things to happen,” Smith said. “We’re trying to make things happen.
“It bolsters the options the manager has which can only be good for the team.
“At a club like Leeds you’re always going to be inundated with competition all over the pitch. Connor’s got great pedigree, he’s a big lad for his age and he gives the manager something else to think about - which maybe at times in the season he hasn’t had.”
What McDermott needs now is a blistering string of results and sustained implosions elsewhere, the only factors which together can defy odds of 33/1. Having spent five weeks away from home, Leeds have five of their next seven fixtures at Elland Road.
“It’s a strange division because bottom teams are beating top teams,” Smith said.
“There’s no reason why the picture of the league can’t change in a short amount of time, and hopefully it will swing in our favour.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves or dwell on past mistakes; just focus on improving and making amends. It’s going to be an exciting end,” he said.