Leeds United may still be searching for their Premiership nirvana, but it certainly smells like team spirit at Elland Road these days.
No-one can argue that Neil Warnock hasn’t rung every last drop of out of his United charges so far this season and distilled a team ethic and spirit in double-quick time in 2012-13.
A collection of largely new players, while not quite total strangers, have been moulded into a team with the required resilience every successful side needs comfortably inside four months by Warnock amid the relentless grind that is Championship football.
That has been there for all to see from the Amex Stadium to Hillsborough and the Reebok Stadium – right to the rain-sodden evening at Elland Road in September when United, personified by two stitched-up centre-backs and a blooded one at that in Jason Pearce, did a job on a top-flight side in Everton, who have regularly bullied a host of Premiership rivals over the years, according to the media luminaries.
While the quality has not yet been there for all to see on a consistent basis, the unquenchable commitment has, the hallmark of all teams previously managed by Warnock, whose newly-assembled side are currently three points behind sixth-placed Blackburn Rovers, who occupy the final Championship play-off slot.
Team spirit may for some represent a mythical thing in football, but it has always been high on the list for the veteran boss.
Indeed, he has even addressed hundreds of members of staff and students about the importance of it at the Duchy College in Cornwall, where United trained in the summer and none can say United have been found wanting in that department this season.
Warnock, whose side’s resolve will again by tested this evening at a raucous Turf Moor, said: “All a manager can do is get the best out of what he has got and I think the lads are giving everything at the minute. I can’t fault any of them.
“We might be limited, but I cannot fault the effort. Everyone is giving me everything. I cannot get any more out of them.
“They have all fitted in really well and they are a good bunch and there is no bad apple in the camp now. Everyone gets on well and I think that is why we don’t give up.
“The other night at Brighton, we could have gone under in the first twenty minutes. But the lads stuck in there.
“That is what you have to do in the Championship when it is often game after game.
“We hung in at Brighton and did the same at Bolton and Sheffield Wednesday and they were also tough games. It’s not effort, but we probably lack a little bit of quality here or there. But from a manager’s point of view, if lads give you everything, that is all you can expect and I am really pleased.
“The way the league is, every point is valuable. It’s about hanging in there and hoping to make inroads.
“I don’t look at targets if I am honest, just at where we are in the league. I know with a bit of fortune that it would be in the top six, although we are not good enough yet. But I know it would not take a lot to put us up there.”
Chiselling away in games to dig out collective reward has brought its gains of late for United and their team of grafters, with Luke Varney the latest individual to show his wares in that aspect, with his industry seeing him put in a shift for the team in the recent games against Brighton and Southampton.
It’s an open secret that Warnock is seeking to supplement his attack further, but Varney’s performances have managed to earn praise from the Whites boss, while justifying his inclusion ahead of Luciano Becchio, who looked noticeably jaded ahead of his recent demotion to the substitutes bench.
He added: “We do need a new face and I think Varney has shown we need something different up front. For me, he has done well between the channels as (Luciano) Becchio needed a bit of rest.
“When Becchio played well at the start of the season, I thought we played well.
“Then we lost Ross (McCormack) and Beccs has not been himself of late.
“I had no option really but to give Luke a chance just to liven things up and it’s an area we need to liven up still.”
United’s character is exemplified by the fact they head to East Lancashire this evening on the back of a four-match unbeaten sequence on the road, with their only away league defeats thus far coming at tough venues in the Cardiff City Stadium – where Malky Mackay’s early pacesetters have won seven out of seven this term – and Bloomfield Road.
Tough will be the operative word at Burnley this evening, where the fired-up hosts – under a new boss in Sean Dyche – will be seeking to further benefit from the traditional ‘bounce’ that befriends many a freshly-installed manager.
The Clarets – who triumphed 2-0 against Wolves on Saturday to provide Dyche with the perfect start – are seeking their third successive home victory and clean sheet at Turf Moor, although United have their own hat-trick to strive for.
Namely a win treble at what has proved a happy hunting ground in recent years for the Whites.
Almost 12 months ago, a late Robert Snodgrass double saw the visitors pinch an unlikely three points in a 2-1 televised triumph after being second-best for most of the afternoon.
The previous campaign, a stunning second-half comeback in a memorable 3-2 win in December 2010 – after trailing 2-0 at the break – yielded an early Christmas present for the United hordes who headed over the Pennines, with Jonny Howson’s late winner the prelude to ecstatic scenes of celebration.
It’s a fair bet that Clarets supporters will still be smarting from those two painful defeats, not to mention any players who took part in both and who will line up again tonight.
On what United can expect this evening, Warnock said: “Burnley steamrollered Wolves really on Saturday. And Sean has come in and got their lads going like you would expect a new manager to.
“A new manager in does make it more difficult. But I like Sean who has just gone in there – he’s a steady young man and he did such a good job at Watford and obviously got a great result on Saturday.
“We are glad we weren’t playing them on Saturday, but hopefully we will give them a tougher game than what Wolves did.
“In every game we go into, we are showing a spirit and organisation and have given everyone a game.”