THE CHAMPIONSHIP is some way from sorting out its most sought-after positions but it is clear already which clubs have a chance and which do not.
Leeds United defied the odds by putting themselves in contention for the play-offs and they would defy them again by failing to qualify in the 12 games that remain. Promotion was never mooted this season, or not before Leeds clicked and found their rhythm at the start of November, and it could be argued than anything beyond their traditional mid-table finish is something of a bonus.
But they are past what David Prutton, the former United midfielder, calls “the point of no return”, the stage where anything less than a top-six finish would feel like an opportunity missed.
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I appreciate that Leeds are a huge club with a huge history but, correct me if I’m wrong, there were 11 players signed in the summer. There’s a manager who’s only been here for seven or eight months. Success doesn’t happen overnight.Leeds United midfielder, Eunan O’Kane
Eunan O’Kane saw a comparable situation in 2015, when the Bournemouth squad he was part of then reached out for automatic promotion and ultimately won the title. Bournemouth were touted throughout as the season’s surprise package but by the start of March, a finish beneath the play-offs would have sold them short.
O’Kane, nonetheless, is philosophical about United’s league position: fourth in the table with the chance of moving 11 points clear of seventh-placed Fulham with a win at Birmingham City tonight. The situation could not be much better.
“We’ve given ourselves the best chance possible at this point,” O’Kane said. “But to say it would be a disappointment (to miss out on the play-offs) is a little bit harsh. I appreciate that Leeds are a huge club with a huge history but, correct me if I’m wrong, there were 11 players signed in the summer. There’s a manager who’s only been here for seven or eight months. Success doesn’t happen overnight.
“Everyone is trying to put themselves in a play-off place but at the same time, if for some reason it wasn’t to happen then it’s still been a hell of an improvement on previous years.
“There would be disappointment, obviously. Personally I’d be very disappointed and I’m sure the fans would be. Anyone who has any association with the club would be but again, when you put things into perspective about where we’ve come from, it’s a hell of an improvement. If we keep improving at the same level then it’s only a matter of time before it happens.”
It is players like O’Kane and the proven core of the squad at Leeds who Garry Monk counts on for a sensible outlook. Goalkeeper Rob Green, the oldest player at Elland Road, spoke last month of the “fun pressure” involved with chasing promotion and contrasted it with the stress of fighting relegation. It is rarely forgotten that Leeds were 22nd in the Championship after six games under Monk and O’Kane said that fact had been raised in the dressing room last month after back-to-back defeats to Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City caused a little concern.
“When we lost the two games recently there was a little bit of tension around the place,” the midfielder said. “Some of the more experienced heads in the dressing room got around the lads and put it into reality. We were 22nd at one stage early in the season so if anyone had given us the opportunity to be where we are now, everyone would have taken their arm off.
“When things are put into perspective, the heads go back on. There’s a very relaxed atmosphere now. We’re all very aware of the table and who has to play who but there are 12 matches left and we’ve got 12 opportunities to get more points on the board. If we win more games than we lose then we give ourselves a hell of a chance of making the play-offs.”
Leeds’ trip to Fulham next Tuesday has the potential to change the division drastically, depending on the outcome of this weekend’s matches. On that basis alone, O’Kane is not ready to assume that a play-off spot is virtually secured with 61 points on the board and 36 left to play for. Asked if Leeds were close to guaranteeing a top-six finish, O’Kane said: “No, I don’t think it’s fair to say that yet.
“If there’s 12 games left then that’s 36 points. Anything can happen. We’ve got a few tough games coming up, against teams who are trying to catch us as well as teams who are in and around us so we have to keep our heads down.
“Once you start taking things for granted in football that’s when it usually starts going wrong. From our point of view it’s a case of keep winning, keep putting points on the board and see where we are in May.”
His thoughts echo what Monk has been saying since Leeds began to involve themselves at the top-end of the league before Christmas. United’s head coach has refused to count chickens and refused to take credit for a season in which he is keen to stress that Leeds have “achieved nothing yet.”
All the same, his influence in his first season in charge has been telling and unerringly positive since a poor start. It caused surprise on Wednesday when Monk revealed that United are yet to approach him to discuss an extension to a contract which ends in the summer.
“His impact speaks for itself,” O’Kane said. “He’s the one who has the reigns and makes the tough decisions and he’s the person who’s got us to the position we’re in. He takes a lot of responsibility but he also gives a lot to the players. He wants players to manage themselves.
“I find him very easy to talk to. It’s usually his way in the end but he does listen to you.
“The togetherness in our squad is largely down to him and largely why we’re achieving what we are.”
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