GEORGE McCARTNEY admits the high-octane demands of a strength-sapping season has resulted in several Leeds United players being ‘out on their feet’ during the climatic business end of 2010-11.
Heading into Saturday’s final day of the regular season at QPR, United need the footballing equivalent of snookers to pocket a place in the Championship’s play-off lottery after suffering a bad case of the yips by virtue of a season-defining run of one victory in eight matches ahead of last Saturday’s Roses win over Burnley – quite probably a case of too little, too late.
That punishing sequence saw United hit a brick wall with a four-point advantage over Nottingham Forest following their 4-1 home win on April 2 having been savagely decimated with the finishing line in sight with the Reds having enjoyed a seven-point swing since to virtually nail down sixth spot.
As no-one will need telling, Simon Grayson’s troops must now rely on a huge favour from Forest’s final-day opponents Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, allied to a handsome victory 12 miles away at the toughest of venues in Loftus Road this weekend to claim the most unlikely of play-off lifelines.
United are likely to pay the price for their April points famine, where they largely failed to negotiate an intense schedule of games – which proved mentally challenging as well as physically – against sides in desperate need of points for differing reasons as they claimed zilch at Crystal Palace, Millwall and Derby County and dropped further points against Watford and Reading.
While McCartney doesn’t particularly subscribe to the fact that a tough run-in has ultimately caught up with the Whites, he does feel that a sense of jadedness among certain players has proved telling.
McCartney, who turned 30 on Royal Wedding Friday, admits to feeling the pace himself after playing 30-plus games for the first time in several seasons after an injury-hit run over the previous few campaigns.
When asked to pinpoint a reason for United’s form dip ahead of Saturday, it’s probably fair to say that many supporters would venture that several big-hitters have been running on the equivalent of empty following a gruelling year.
And for creative forces such as Robert Snodgrass, Max Gradel and Jonathan Howson – the latter has been a league and cup ever-present this term – it’s inescapable to avoid the conclusion that a bit of rest and recuperation and mentally recharging of batteries will certainly be overdue.
Out of the top seven, only Reading and Swansea City, who have reached the half-century of games, have played more competitive matches than United, who will reach the 50-barrier at QPR this weekend.
McCartney, who returned after missing the Easter programme for last weekend’s single-goal success over Burnley, which gave United just a glimmer of play-off hope heading into this season’s finale, said: “I think to be honest, there’s quite a few players who probably over the last weeks have been out on their feet after playing so much this season.
“We put so much into the early part of the season and a lot of players have played 40 games or so and it does take its toll on the body. It’s definitely hindered us at the end of the season. We had it in our hands a few weeks ago and had a tough run-in and just haven’t been able to cope.
“We’ve worked hard all season...It’s a bit disappointing it’s come to us relying on other teams. But we’ve given it a good crack.
“At the start of the season, I think everyone would have taken finishing mid-table. But we’ve done better than what people expected and when we were in the position we were in, it would have been nice to see it through to the end.
“You look at the fixtures and we probably had to hardest run-in of everyone. But throughout the season, you play everyone twice and can’t really use that as an excuse.”
Thousands of QPR supporters are desperate to attend a joyous Shepherd’s Bush party and not a potential wake on Saturday afternoon with an outcome of an FA hearing over alleged irregularities following their signing of Alejandro Faurlin set to be revealed the previous day – with some in the media speculating that the R’s could be handed a whacking 15-point deduction.
But whether QPR are in party mode or not won’t come into the equation for home players, according to McCartney, who feels Neil Warnock’s troops will be seeking to settle a score after United’s impressive 2-0 home victory just before Christmas, with that win lifting them to the giddy heights of second spot and marking their apex of their season.
While Rangers will be aiming to hopefully put gloss on their return to the top-flight table for the first time in 15 years in front of an expectant capacity crowd, there’s also the small matter of their proud statistics at Loftus Road with the West Londoners having lost just once at home this term, which represents the best record in the Championship, with only Watford having triumphed there so far in 2010-11.
And if there is a final twist, everyone with United in their blood are just praying it’s a positive development for them as a dramatic season finally winds up.
McCartney, who will return to parent club Sunderland following Saturday’s last-day assignment, said: “Hopefully, QPR will have nothing to play for. But they will probably be looking for a bit of revenge after we beat them earlier on in the season.
“Neil Warnock is that sort of manager (who will be wanting to win). I played against his teams quite a few times and he always has his teams fired up for games, no matter what is on offer.
“All we can do is keep battling on and we’ll see where we end up next Saturday afternoon.
“Football’s a funny game. I can recall lots of goings-on and crazy things happening in the past on the final day. We just have to rely on Palace taking points off Forest and us doing our job.
“I remember about two seasons ago, we (Sunderland) were playing Chelsea at home on the last day and Newcastle were away at Aston Villa. We lost, but fortunately, Newcastle lost and we stayed up and that was memorable.”