Only in a league as jittery as the Championship could Leeds United sustain a defeat like no other yet find their proximity to the play-offs largely unchanged.
In the minutes that followed the club’s 10-goal shambles against Nottingham Forest, it was put to Neil Warnock that results across the division had lessened the impact of an horrific defeat. “You lot are optimistic,” he joked, and said no more.
But still his team go to Millwall tomorrow with a sliver of optimism to cling to; optimism they ought not to have after five wins from 18 league matches and six points from as many games with Warnock as manager.
While Forest tormented Leeds on Tuesday, winning 7-3 at Elland Road, Birmingham City were annihilated at Portsmouth and Hull City lost at home to Southampton. A useful draw for Middlesbrough at West Ham was the least Boro required.
The following evening Cardiff City and Blackpool missed their step again and the division as it looked from United’s perspective at the start of the week is almost unaltered after another round of 12 fixtures. Six points back with eight games to play – too small a gap to consider the season dead.
Warnock is sceptical, however, and has been around long enough to realise that his squad are drinking in the last-chance saloon; that they have been binging in that establishment for most of his time as manager and will hear the bell sound if the week ends in miserable fashion.
And so to the New Den and a confrontation with the club who would take most satisfaction from calling time on Leeds’ campaign.
“Good teams don’t get beaten by seven,” Warnock said. “Even average teams don’t get beaten by seven. Something somewhere is wrong in our make-up.
“Yes we can say we’re still going for the play-offs, but teams in the play-offs don’t lose 7-3. I’m not worried about other teams or their results. It’s about whether we can get enough points ourselves. And if we play like we did against Forest, we won’t get enough points to be anywhere near the play-offs.
“It’s down to us – have we got enough goals, enough midfield bodies, enough good defenders to make it happen? There are so many questions you need to ask and every week there are more. I’m not getting too many answers if I’m being honest.”
Fatigue and a thin-on-the-ground squad were blamed by Warnock for Tuesday night’s massacre, on top of incidents of criminal defending, but the emergency loan window closed yesterday without any last-minute signings.
Warnock used it only once to recruit Paul Robinson from Bolton Wanderers while also taking advantage of Danny Webber’s unattached status to tie him to a permanent contract, but his stipulation in the closing days of the window was clear, limiting his interest to players who might serve him well next season as well as this.
Robinson falls into that category – out of contract with Bolton in the summer and a viable target for Leeds, assuming another Championship term awaits them. Warnock planned to do more business than he has but was loath to make wasteful investments so late in the day. Though he considered signing Sheffield United’s Nick Montgomery, a player who recently joined Millwall, he chose not to unsettle the midfield partnership of Michael Brown and Adam Clayton.
“I couldn’t see anyone coming in and changing us now,” Warnock said. “It’s pointless bringing players in for the sake of it.
“You’ve really got to do your work in the summer and I’d have been looking at anyone who came in with a view to next season. We tried and a couple of deals were nearly over the line but that’s how it goes.
“We’ve had a few calls as well from clubs wanting people like (Ramon) Nunez, (Billy) Paynter and (Mikael) Forssell but we’re quite thin on the ground. A couple of lads are on nine bookings until the Reading game (on Good Friday) and we’re struggling to fill the substitutes bench.”
Millwall could still still see a different line-up to that beaten so viciously by Forest. Warnock expressed concern about the energy levels of Clayton and Luciano Becchio on Tuesday and substituted an off-colour Aidan White at half-time.
Webber is an ample replacement for White but Warnock lacks an obvious stand-in for Clayton’s box-to-box style and would be trusting to luck by fielding a lone striker other than Becchio. Both Paynter and Forssell are available but neither has scored for Leeds this season and only the Finn has started a competitive match.
Warnock’s initial plan was to make wide-reaching changes in Bermondsey but he admitted he was having second thoughts with the fixture almost upon him.
“I’m not so sure now,” he said. “Not when I look at what we could change the team too.
“But there are players who I’d like to have a look at before the end of the season. We can’t keep saying ‘we’re six points away’. If the results don’t go for us in the next couple of games then I’ve got to look at some of the players who are under contract next season – to give me with what I’m looking at.”
Tomorrow’s game is one that Leeds have reason to dread: aesthetically engrossing but so often ending in defeat. Gary McAllister was manager on the last occasion that Leeds won at or took a point from the New Den, four years and five attempts ago.
Form at home has been the crux of Millwall’s buoyancy under Kenny Jackett, the Football League’s longest-serving boss, but their own ground has not been kind to them this season. While Leeds yearn for a first win in south-east London since 2008, Millwall yearn for their first since Boxing Day. They will equal a club record of games without a home victory if Leeds subdue them this weekend.
Warnock knows what to expect and so do United. Not without justification did Millwall issue a statement this week urging their supporters to refrain from taunts referring to the death of two Leeds supporters in Istanbul. It has so often been the tasteless backdrop to matches between the clubs at the New Den.
“To come off a 7-3 defeat and go to Millwall takes some guts,” Warnock said. “It’s the most difficult place you can go to after a defeat like that.
“But in a way it’s probably the best game for us. I’ll find out about the players now. The atmosphere at the New Den is nothing like the old Den but I do like places like that.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Leeds have struggled (at Millwall) in the past and my QPR team got battered there last season. If we play like we did on Tuesday night then we’ll get turned over too.
“It’s as difficult as a game could be and it’s one of those – who’ll come through with flying colours and who’ll goes under? We’ll see.”