Where this season is going Garry Monk won’t say but if Leeds United find themselves in the play-offs in May he might remember the fifth of November as the moment he knew and the moment the Championship began to suspect.
Leeds crept and crept through September and October, moving up on the blindside and waiting for a seismic result which stood out from the others in a highly consistent streak. It came against Norwich City on Saturday, a 3-2 victory laced with drama and settled by Ronaldo Vieira trying his luck from miles out in the first minute of injury-time. At a stroke, Leeds were in the Championship’s top six for the first time in 22 months and Norwich were on their knees. For both clubs all bets are off.
Monk does not seem like the betting type but even his money must be edging one way. “We know there’s nothing to fear in this league,” he said and by his careful standards, it was as close to an admission of a special season brewing as he was going to make. Monk has tried to shield Leeds from the predictive game so many like to play but after 16 matches and a good sight of what else the division offers, there is no argument against the view that his squad are in definite contention. The result at Carrow Road, a ground where Leeds so rarely win, says that they are.
The Canaries, to their detriment, are riddled with uncertainty and there are some amongst their crowd who want manager Alex Neil dispatched with haste but his squad are fifth in the table and not yet holed. Long ago though it seems, they led the Championship in mid-October before, as Neil put it bitterly, “we got too comfortable with what we’re doing and it’s come back to bite us on the bum.” Monk understood the scalp his players had taken.
It was not the scoreline that resonated so much as the way that Leeds set it up and dramatically forced it when Vieira bought a ticket for the lottery and won. His well-hit but speculative shot from 30 yards, a fierce strike through the right hand of goalkeeper Michael McGovern, was a quick riposte to a Kyle Lafferty equaliser in 89 minutes which would have winded a more fragile squad.
Vieira’s goal was too much for Norwich, driven in after Eunan O’Kane laid a free-kick off to him without a marker in sight, but so was much of the occasion. Neil, whose team were thrashed at Brighton seven days earlier, spoke about fear and nerves as he summed up another loss. Monk spent the entirety of his post-match press conference trying to stop his mask from dropping.
“There are no prizes for where we are right now,” he said, with echoes of what was said after last weekend’s defeat of Burton Albion, “but to come here against a very good team – one of the favourites for promotion – and win shows how far we’ve come. We’re going to have ups and downs because this group are so young but if we fight in this way and play in this way then we can be successful.
“At the end of the day, it’s three points. All I know is that we’re capable. I know that these guys have potential. What we do with results is buy ourselves time to work with them and improve them. We know we’re by no means the finished article but we’ve got character, belief and quality. Sometimes small margins decide games but (results) like today aren’t by small margins. It came from a very good performance.”
There was no disputing his last comment; that while the match was settled in injury-time, an away win had been on the cards for all but a 15-minute period after Norwich opened the scoring in the first half. Neil’s players were pressed high up the pitch from the outset and prevented from starting the sort of onslaught he must have hoped for after Norwich’s rout at Brighton. McGovern denied Kalvin Phillips with a diving save and Leeds allowed other chances to slip through their fingers before Robbie Brady leapt on 24 minutes to float a free header from Alex Pritchard’s corner into the net. Rob Green flapped at the ball but neither he nor Luke Ayling could keep it out.
“The first 20 minutes was some of the best football we’ve played since I came to the club,” Monk said. “Then we conceded a poor goal. But I said to the players ‘if we take that first 20 minutes as the standard, there’s a result to be had’.”
There is, week by week, an infectious composure in Monk’s attitude. Leeds seemed to be onto a good thing when Massimo Cellino finally settled on him as head coach in June and there are few at Elland Road now who would swap him for anyone. Neil, who won promotion with Norwich in 2015, is beginning to resemble a busted flush.
Monk, too, is onto a good thing with many of his players: astute and sometimes brilliant signings in Pontus Jansson, Ayling, Kyle Bartley and others and blessed with a striker in Chris Wood who has never shown better form in white. Vieira was a weapon from the bench and so was Hadi Sacko, whose speed took effect early in the second half and put the wind up Norwich. The competence of O’Kane and Phillips in midfield embarrassed Graham Dorrans. There was an irony in Neil looking on pensively with a loaded squad at his disposal.
With Sacko on in place of an apparently concussed Kemar Roofe, Leeds equalised on 57 minutes. A towering header from Pontus Jansson snuck in at the near post as Louis Thompson failed to guard it by mistiming his jump horribly. Jansson tore away and jumped into the away end, earning himself a booking. Monk muttered something about “cheap yellow cards” but could not bring himself to be a stick in the mud.
Neil suspected straight away that the writing was on the wall. “Once they scored you could see the fear in us,” he said. “Fear about what might happen next.” What came on 74 minutes was Leeds’ finest goal of the season, converted ruthlessly by Wood from close range but created by an interchange of passes between Sacko, O’Kane and Ayling. With Norwich tied in knots and in disarray, Wood was free to smash the ball high beyond McGovern.
Neil reacted by throwing on Kyle Lafferty, the striker who Leeds and Steve Evans didn’t quite sign last season. Two minutes from the end of the 90 Lafferty delivered as Cameron Jerome chested down a cross from Wes Hoolahan and the Northern Ireland international smacked a volley into the net. The relief around Carrow Road was tangible if temporary.
“You can’t control an entire game but for large parts we were what the better team,” Monk said. “Everyone will talk about the last week for Norwich and how its been but I’ve been here many times and it’s always difficult. For my team to come through that, show character and gets a result says a lot.”
Lafferty’s goal left seven minutes of injury-time to play and Vieira intervened spectacularly in the first of them, beating McGovern with a strike which caught the goalkeeper by surprise after Timm Klose bundled into the back of Wood. “The last goal is typical of what happens when things aren’t going for you,” Neil said. It was equally typical of what happens when things are. Monk would have talked about making his own luck if luck had genuinely played any part.
For Leeds, this was Burnley or Queens Park Rangers in 2010; games, results and performances which cut to the chase after a run of form which hinted at better prospects. “The thing I care about most is helping these players improve,” Monk said. “Sometimes we’ll be good enough, sometimes we won’t but it’s great to be in and amongst it. It shows our football’s going the right way but I wouldn’t say I’m surprised. I’ve got great belief in the players and trust in what we do.” He is not alone there.
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