THREE games, three wins. It all sounded so simple.
Even Leeds United head coach Garry Monk was happy with the scenario, even after his side’s eight-point gap to the teams outside the play-offs had been wiped out.
“It’s very clear,” said the Whites boss. “It’s very simple now, we win our three games and we make the play-offs. It’s actually, probably, in a funny way, it’s a bit easier.”
Easy in theory, but not in practice, with Leeds down at the first hurdle and with their play-offs hopes probably gone for a Burton.
The Brewers presented a test against a side from the opposite end of the table, but that one that spelled trouble from the outset. Albion boss Nigel Clough enjoyed six wins from six games against Leeds as boss of Derby County and his men were only swatted in the final eight minutes of October’s clash at Elland Road.
A team who were clear favourites to be relegated went on to win eight games after their defeat at LS11, putting Clough’s side four points clear of the dropzone ahead of Saturday’s visit of Leeds.
While not quite as crystal clear as United’s mathematical equation, there was a very strong chance that three points for the hosts would leave them mathematically safe.
Victory for Nottingham Forest and a draw for Blackburn Rovers mean Burton’s survival is not yet guaranteed – and neither is United’s bid to reach the play-offs completely done.
But it would now be a major shock if Burton and Leeds did not meet again next year with Saturday’s crushing blow at the Pirelli surely leaving United on course for a 13th consecutive season outside of the top flight.
And in truth, Monk’s men looked well short of Premier League material in Staffordshire, even if it could be argued that United were unlucky to leave with nothing.
Monk looked to have a difficult decision to make with impressive young midfielder Ronaldo Vieira back available having recovered from tonsillitis. With Kalvin Phillips having impressed alongside Vieira in the recent 3-0 win against Preston, would Monk be prepared to drop his captain Liam Bridcutt?
But the head coach was spared a potential headache by Bridcutt suffering a reoccurrence of his Achilles problem leaving Vieira and Phillips to start in centre midfield, as Irish international Eunan O’Kane again looked on from the bench.
Spanish winger Alfonso Pedraza and full-back Gaetano Berardi also dropped to the bench as Monk opted to start Souleymane Doukara in place of Pedraza with Charlie Taylor coming in for Berardi.
Taylor – who is out of contract at the end of the season – produced some decent crosses to which there were no end result. Doukara had one of those frustrating afternoons when nothing went right. But there was little sign of what was about to all go horribly wrong as United made a bright start at the Pirelli and the Whites looked to have taken an 11th-minute lead. After Pablo Hernandez had earlier blasted a chance over the bar, the Spaniard’s corner was headed on by Kyle Bartley to Chris Wood who nodded into an empty net.
But referee Darren Bond felt Bartley had fouled keeper Stephen Bywater and the goal was ruled out.
In fairness, there were few protests from Leeds who at the time were back in the play-off places with Huddersfield Town 1-0 up at home to United’s chief play-off rivals Fulham.
Yet it was all to go horribly wrong and as Fulham raced back to eventually lead 4-1 at the interval, Burton began to dominate at the Pirelli.
The Brewers consistently surged through United’s midfield with worrying ease and forced a series of corners which Leeds survived.
Rob Green was then grateful when Jackson Irvine failed to make a strong connection when set up outside of the box.
Leeds had chances too, with Luke Ayling unable to convert from a tight angle and Phillips lashing over the bar but the Brewers looked a big threat.
Monk faced another huge half-time team talk and his Whites came out with a spring in their step with the lively Ayling firing wide after surging into the box.
Monk then called for Hadi Sacko to replace Doukara and soon after Leeds missed their best chance yet.
Taylor’s fine cross picked out Hernandez but the Spaniard put a free header wide.
Pedraza then came on for Phillips with 24 minutes left as Monk upped the ante and opted for just one defensive midfielder in Vieira as Kemar Roofe joined Wood upfront.
United continued to go close and Pontus Jansson headed just wide form a 74th-minute corner. But just four minutes later United were 2-0 down with Burton taking full advantage of the space in United’s midfield when Sacko’s loose pass failed to find Hernandez in his own half.
Burton sub Michael Kightly fed the ball to Marvin Sordell who still had plenty to do on the edge of the Whites’ box, but the striker worked an opening and produced a rasping low drive that gave Green no chance and nestled in the bottom right corner.
Leeds were stunned – and with fifth-placed Sheffield Wednesday also 2-1 up against Derby County, Monk’s men were looking at the worst possible outcome.
And just two minutes later Burton doubled their lead when a shell-shocked Whites were sliced open with ease and Kightly raced in on goal before firing past Green who again had little chance of saving.
Game over you felt, even then, though to their credit Leeds produced a strong response and netted in the 80th minute through centre-back Bartley who is now the club’s joint-third top scorer this season and had moved to play upfront.
Vieira’s inviting cross from the right was headed goalwards by Wood and Bartley had the simple task of converting from close range.
United then should have levelled just five minutes later but Roofe was somehow unable to convert from a mad scramble near the goalline.
But the damage had been done and Leeds hardly threatened at all during five minutes of stoppage time.
United’s players looked completely broken following the full-time whistle with Ayling – who was United’s best player –looking particularly down.
Needless to say, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday had both won and for the first time this season United’s prospects of finishing in the play-offs were suddenly out of their hands with United now three points adrift with two games to go.
To think the club were eight points clear of Fulham earlier this Spring.
Monk will be keen to stress that Leeds have already surpassed expectations this term – which they have – and the club are guaranteed to finish at least seventh which is a far cry from last season’s effort of 13th.
Progress, but hard to feel like that in the immediate aftermath of a day when anything that could go wrong, did.
A 24-page supplement reliving the season that Leeds won Division One 25 years ago, including interviews with players from the time, where are they now, photos and memories will be in the Yorkshire Evening Post this Wednesday April 26
To obtain a copy please telephone 0333 207 0743 and select option 5. The cost will be £2 inc P&P per copy. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.