The season of excess is approaching and Leeds United were in suitably greedy mood ahead of Saturday’s visit to Pride Park.
That their ravenous appetite for a glut of Championship points was checked by virtue of a 3-1 loss at Derby County was a source of huge frustration, according to midfielder Michael Tonge, with the result providing a ‘wake-up call’ for several big challenges ahead in the run-in to the turn of the year.
United offered only sparing glimpses of the form which had seen them record an impressive triple-whammy of sweet victories against Crystal Palace, Leicester City and neighbours Huddersfield Town, with their hopes of a fourth successive league win for the first time in three years soon floundering at bogey side Derby.
While Whites boss Neil Warnock had a bit of an axe to grind with referee Scott Mathieson over his failure to dismiss home midfielder Jeff Hendrick for a first-half challenge on Ryan Hall in the 35th minute, what could not be truly disputed was that the Rams fully deserved to claim their eighth successive triumph over Leeds on the evidence of 90 minutes which they largely bossed.
United looked like a pale shadow of the side who played with a swagger the previous weekend at Huddersfield, with their fluctuating fortunes in the space of seven days further proof of the topsy-turvy nature of the Championship.
Left to rue the proverbial bad day at the office, Tonge said: “After being on such a good run, you want to follow it up and be greedy and get another three points. But it wasn’t to be.
“It was a wake-up call for us and a little reminder that you can’t take anything for granted in this league.
“Before playing Crystal Palace the other Saturday, yes, we would have taken nine points out of 12. But after taking nine out of nine, we were disappointed. It was more the manner of our first-half performance, really.
“We have been playing better than we did on Saturday. In the second half, we had a go but conceded a bad goal; that’s what the Championship is like. It was a reminder of what can happen if you are not at the races from the first whistle.”
“It was massively disappointing. Everyone was gutted. We just don’t feel like we did ourselves justice in the first half and we couldn’t get going.”
After bossing the likes of Huddersfield rivals Adam Clayton and Scott Arfield in the engine room at the John Smith’s Stadium, the boot was on the other foot for Tonge, Paul Green and David Norris at Derby, with prodigiously-talented teenage midfielder Will Hughes and Hendrick holding sway from the early stages.
The Rams’ midfield swarmed all over their United rivals with Tonge and company struggling to cope with the hosts’ intensity. Collectively, the team were the architects of their downfall in other areas.
Chiefly in defence, with the Rams’ first two goals being poor ones to concede, with a lack of ruthlessness in the final third, particularly early in the second period when the game was delicately poised, also proving telling.
After being given a lifeline through Green’s equaliser against his old club shortly before the interval to make it 1-1, it was very much a case of an opportunity being lost for United.
On United’s toils in midfield on the day, Tonge, whose 93-day loan spell ends at United shortly before Christmas – with boss Warnock expected to make moves to sign him permanently at the start of the New Year – said: “It was a very intense, fast sort of game and there wasn’t much time in the middle of the park, which we managed to find in previous games. It was difficult.
“We didn’t manage to get our foot on the ball as much as we’d have liked in midfield. Maybe if we’d got the ball down and passed it a little bit more, we’d have given our strikers more of an opportunity.
“To be fair, they came out and took the game to us. At home, they have been doing well, but we knew that and were aware of that.
“I don’t think there was one thing you could put things down to on the day. We just didn’t get to grips with them and they got on top of us.
“In this league, it is difficult when you don’t start well and it’s hard to pick it up and we found that.
“We did come in at 1-1 and got ourselves a lifeline and we did come out in the second half and got on top of them really. We just needed to score when we were on top, but we didn’t manage to do that.
“Everyone was thinking that at 1-1, we were well in the game, but at the start of the second half, we just couldn’t take advantage.
“Then we conceded a disappointing goal from our perspective. But even after that, we had a couple of chances with Tom (Lees) hitting the post with a header, which was gutting, really. We thought it was in.
“We huffed and puffed, but just couldn’t get that goal.”
United have been afforded time this week to dwell on the defeat ahead of Saturday’s home encounter with Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich Town, the first part of a triple-header of games at Elland Road.
The eagerly-anticipated Capital One Cup quarter-final with Rafa Benitez’s Chelsea follows on December 19 with United rounding off a key run of home fixtures against high-flying Middlesbrough on Saturday week.
Following that, the festive season is in full view with trips to Nottingham Forest and Hull City on the Christmas agenda before United start 2013 with a Roses encounter against visiting Bolton Wanderers.
The Ipswich game aside, to all intents and purposes, United will be playing in high-profile games for the rest of the year, given the intensity of the festive programme and spicy fixtures against the likes of Chelsea and Forest, which possess an extra edge regardless of geography.
The clash that is undeniably being talked about most by supporters is the encounter with their foes from Stamford Bridge, who will be travelling to Elland Road for the first time in just over nine years next week.
But Tonge insists the players at least will not be thinking about the mouth-watering tie until after Saturday’s engagement with Ipswich when good performances can rubber-stamp a starting place for the cup assignment.
Tonge added: “Everyone has got to play as well as they possibly can to stay in the team. There’s competition for places and we will definitely be looking to get back to winning ways on Saturday, first and foremost, before anyone starts thinking about the cup.”