From Simon Grayson’s vantage point in the home dug-out, this must all have looked familiar.
He was Leeds United’s manager the last time the club were on such a roll, sitting pretty at Christmas and looking to January for a crucial shot in the arm. Six years later Garry Monk carries the baton which Grayson dropped on the way to the finishing line.
Promotion and the play-offs got away from Grayson in his second full term at Elland Road and the years since then made Leeds’ dithering in the mid-season transfer window of 2011 feel criminally wasteful. No coach since him has had a better chance, or a better chance than that which is falling to Monk now.
A brilliant victory over Grayson’s Preston North End, in a style reminiscent of the punch-for-punch football employed by the 47-year-old at the height of his time with United, was the surest sign yet that Leeds have the capacity to do what Grayson’s squad couldn’t and finish inside the top six. The club careered past 40 points at Deepdale yesterday, with half of the Championship season to play.
Four goals in 14 first-half minutes made the fixture one of the picks of the Boxing Day schedule and when the mayhem subsided, Leeds found themselves 3-1 to the good with almost an hour to play. They have rarely had it so quick or so easy this season, even though the game threatened to finish five a piece. Monk let his players off the leash with spectacular results and Pablo Hernandez wrapped up a 4-1 win two minutes from the end of normal time. Preston’s Christmas ended with another red card for Jermaine Beckford.
A 17th-minute header from Kemar Roofe, the goal which relieved Deepdale of all caution, began a flood of drama in which Preston came off worst. Hadi Sacko gave United a 2-0 lead before Marnick Vermijl perked Deepdale up briefly by battering a shot through the hand of Rob Green but Souleymane Doukara’s bundled finish provided ample breathing space, despite the feeling that both teams were in the mood to score and concede at will. As Monk watched his strategy pay off perfectly, Grayson ripped his up.
From one coach to another, United’s former boss can tell the current incumbent that a strong league position at Christmas is a guarantee of nothing but Monk has more points after 23 games than Grayson did in 2010. Monk’s squad are extremely close to the average of two points a fixture which traditionally makes promotion possible. If the Championship was wondering whether Leeds might start dropping off, yesterday’s scoreline was a compelling show of strength, achieved once again with a below-full-strength line-up.
Their last visit to Preston famously ended in tears as Steve Evans accepted the inevitability of the end of his reign as head coach.
In amongst the frivolity of the final day of last season, including the appearance of a surfboard in the away end, there was no hint of the vision or direction which Leeds have found with Monk.
The club have travelled some distance in seven months and far enough to have forgotten the confusion and indecision of May.
The humiliation yesterday was felt by Grayson and Beckford who, having just returned from a suspension incurred for a punch-up with team-mate Eoin Doyle earlier this month, was dismissed again after three minutes on the pitch as a substitute, for a sly kick at Kyle Bartley’s head.
Beckford is prone to doing favours to his former club and he left Preston to play out the last 20 minutes with 10 men and no remaining hope.
Another apology might be winging its way to North End’s official website soon.
The most remarkable aspect of Leeds’ form and a sequence of eight wins from 10 league games is that Monk has barely had the luxury of an entire squad to work with. There was no Charlie Taylor yesterday – left behind with the Achilles injury suffered by him against Brentford before Christmas – and Chris Wood sat among the substitutes, a precautionary measure after his hamstring strain. Neither issue made any difference once Roofe drew first blood on 17 minutes.
The pace of the game was intense from the start and the game itself was ragged because of it but Leeds had settled steadily before Roofe found the net from a yard out with a chance he couldn’t miss.
The forward was perfectly placed to beat Chris Maxwell after Pontus Jansson looped Stuart Dallas’ free-kick over the flat-footed goalkeeper. Roofe did the rest with a point-blank header.
It took six more minutes for Sacko to extend United’s advantage further with a more deadly finish, sprinting onto Roofe’s through ball, leaving Grayson’s defence trailing behind him and beating Maxwell with a rising finish which gave the goalkeeper no chance. Preston were in danger of caving in but on 26 minutes with the match wide open, Marnick Vermijl briefly pricked Leeds’ bubble with a rapid reply.
Simon Makienok, Preston’s imposing centre-forward, knocked down a cross towards the penalty spot and Vermijl hit the bouncing ball with a fierce strike which Green got a hand to but couldn’t parry.
The quick reply might have turned the tide had Maxwell not failed to cope with Doukara’s shot on the half-hour.
The forward broke in from the left and smashed a low effort straight at Maxwell, who appeared to have blocked it but watched helplessly as it rebounded off his legs and over the line.
A desperate attempt to hack it clear did not fool assistant Shaun Hudson who flagged for a goal. It was one cut too many for Grayson’s players and their attempt to throw caution to the wind in the second half fell foul of a brilliant save by Green and some rank indiscipline from Beckford.
Green dropped down to knock away two stabbed attempts from Alan Browne after Makienok caused more trouble inside the six yard box on 59 minutes and Preston did not come closer to a second goal.
Grayson looked for it by sending on Beckford in the 66th minute but having earned rapturous applause from Leeds’ support when he took to the field, he received more again after he flicked a boot at Bartley, caught the centre-back and received a straight red card from referee Jeremy Simpson.
Beckford lost the plot, Simpson had lost it some time earlier and Grayson knew defeat was nigh even before Hernandez, making his first appearance since early November, kept his head and slotted home on 88 minutes with Preston buckling.
There is absolutely no sign of Leeds doing the same.