Leeds United: Top-six resolve is set for '˜acid test' says Eddie Gray

Eddie Gray '“ the former Leeds United winger and ex-manager '“ reckons a couple of additions in the January transfer window will make the Whites genuine top-six contenders. Phil Hay reports.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 13th December 2016, 5:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 14th December 2016, 12:56 pm
Leeds United's Eunan O'Kane.
Leeds United's Eunan O'Kane.

The recent setbacks suffered by Leeds United have all been relative. Their defeat to Newcastle was a defeat to the Championship’s leaders. Friday’s loss at Brighton came against a club who briefly led the table on the back of that result. And in between, an unlucky League Cup exit at the hands of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Whatever the issues facing Garry Monk, confidence should not be one of them. In a long run of healthy form, Leeds have done what most clubs in the Championship are doing by shipping points to its most dangerous teams. Monk’s priority is to prevent that trend continuing against Reading this evening.

Newcastle and Brighton have a tight hold on the league’s top two places but if a challenge to them materialises it seems most likely to come from the Madejski Stadium. Of the chasing pack only Reading in third can consider themselves in touch. Leeds reached the end of last weekend in sixth position, falling two places but remaining in the play-off zone, and in a long run of telling matches, tonight’s is another.

It is also the first of back-to-back home games which will take Monk’s squad to Christmas. From their meeting with Reading and Saturday’s clash with Brentford, Eddie Gray thinks Leeds need a return of six points. The former United winger considers weeks like this to be an acid test of the club’s ability to stay in the hunt for promotion.

“Quite a few clubs are starting to get their act together now,” Gray said. “I’m looking at a team like Derby coming on strong and there are plenty of teams in with a chance. You’ll need a lot of consistency to finish in the top six.

“It’s so important to make the most of this week because we’ve been good at home and so much better than the last few seasons.

“Reading are going well, that’s obvious, but you’d be quietly hoping for six points from these two games. That would be a big statement. It would make people think that Leeds aren’t going away. It’ll be a good week if it starts well tonight. Get a performance and a win against Reading and Saturday’s game takes care of itself. Then we’ll be go into Christmas in a strong position. There’s a lot of the season to go still but this is a big period.”

Reading’s form could hardly be more impressive, showing six wins from seven games.

The sole blemish in that run, however, was a severe one, a 5-0 thrashing away at Fulham 10 days ago. Their response to that came in a precious victory over Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday. Monk’s players have also shown a certain power of recovery and they have not suffered back-to-back defeats since early September. United’s head coach expects his players to lift themselves quickly from a 2-0 loss to Brighton which was largely unavoidable once midfielder Kalvin Phillips was dismissed on 23 minutes.

“I don’t envisage any problem with that,” Monk said. “We’ve got a strong spirit and a determined group. You don’t whole-heartedly want to go through these experiences but this young group have to. We try to learn from them and react with the right performance. We’ve done that very well so far.”

United’s results have held up despite injuries and suspensions punching holes in Monk’s midfield. The Football Association confirmed yesterday that Phillips will serve a one-match ban for his dismissal at The Amex, ruling him out of tonight’s game. Leeds are monitoring Eunan O’Kane’s groin strain day to day but the Republic of Ireland man has missed the last two matches and is not expected to feature against Reading. Captain Liam Bridcutt is in full training again after recovering from a fractured foot bone but he last played in September and it remains to be seen if Monk is tempted into risking him.

United’s boss made use of Matt Grimes in the second half at Brighton but the on-loan Swansea City player made his only league start on the very first day of the season. The only certain inclusion is that of 18-year-old Ronaldo Vieira.

Monk is also waiting on Pablo Hernandez to recover from a hamstring strain suffered by the Spaniard five weeks ago and there is reason enough for Leeds to be active in the transfer window.

“They need to bring one or two players in,” Gray said. “If there’s going to be a serious push for promotion then that needs to happen. A few extra bodies and a bit more quality would make a difference.

“There are areas where they’re a bit light and I’d be worried if the centre-forward (Chris Wood) got injured. I’m not sure how you’d replace him. The young players have done really well and there’s a lot more consistency about this team but O’Kane’s been a big player and there are times when you need more experience in the midfield. It’s all about managing games and reading games – acknowledging when to push on and when to sit back a bit more. That’s what experience gives you.

“It’s not really been a problem so far and the results have been good. The team have done so well that I don’t think you could say Liam Bridcutt will be an automatic selection when he’s fit but there’s only so long you can cope with losing players like him. What you want to see now is the club in or very close to the play-offs at the start of January.

“When you look at the players who are out and the fact that the window’s about to open, you’d think that this team can only get stronger.”