Adam Forshaw said he could feel the pace of the Championship promotion battle rising after Leeds United regained their place at the top of the league.
The midfielder claimed Leeds were entering “the start of the race” with 14 games gone and the division waiting for its prominent clubs to seize the initiative.
United have been jostling for first place since the opening weekend of the season and regained that ranking after 2-0 win over Ipswich Town yesterday but they are one of three sides on 26 points and part of a top six which is separated by just two.
The table is likely to shift markedly again over the weekend, with Leeds hosting Nottingham Forest in a 5.30pm kick-off on Saturday, and Forshaw expects the heat of the fight to increase significantly with almost a third of the campaign gone.
“Early on in the season it’s really tight, as we all know,” he said. “I heard someone on the telly saying that from Derby in fifth there were six points to Aston Villa in 16th so this moment is the start of the race.
“Hopefully we can stay up there, keep on taking points and crawling away from everyone. I think then we’ll be up there at the end of the season.”
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Leeds and owner Andrea Radrizzani made their play for promotion by recruiting head coach Marcelo Bielsa on a salary of more than £2m in the summer and the club have lost only two league games under the former Chile and Argentina boss.
Forshaw said he had seen enough in United’s early performances to believe the squad could last the pace and make a first concerted bid to rejoin the Premier League since Leeds’ defeat in the play-off final in 2006.
“We’ve got a good mix,” he said. “We’ve got experience, we’ve got youthfulness, we’ve got intelligence from the manager and his staff. What he brings is massive.
“We’ve got the work rate and the ability and I think it’s all in place for us now. Us as players need to step up, act like leaders and drive us forward.”
Forshaw came off the bench during the second half of yesterday’s victory against Ipswich and helped to avoid a slip-up against a club who are bottom of the table and today sacked head coach Paul Hurst.
“We all know what this league is about,” Forshaw said. “You only have to look at Rotherham going to the Riverside (on Tuesday) and getting a draw. We have to approach every game as if it’s the hardest game of the season and that’s what we did.”