By the 88th minute a queue was forming around the block, with everyone in it waiting to tell Garry Monk how much Leeds United had missed Chris Wood. Then Kyle Bartley stepped up with a goal and Elland Road remembered that Leeds United rarely miss anyone. Leeds are less of a one-man team than they are a cast of thousands.
They would be nowhere, patently, without Wood’s goals but they would be nowhere either without Pontus Jansson. Jansson himself would be bailing more water were Bartley not running the ship beside him and Monk’s centre-backs could not take credit for the pressure which broke Brentford towards the end of Saturday’s game. Bartley filled Wood’s shoes by applying the finishing touch.
Leeds were always prone to the loss of their leading striker, a singular player at Elland Road, but Brentford did not find them crippled.
“Chris has scored goals and he’s integral to what we’ve been doing but it’s not about one player,” Monk said. “I don’t look it like that. It’s about the group and this group go hand-in-hand with each other. They push each other.”
They pushed each other to a win which was slipping away before Bartley’s 89th-minute header. Elsewhere, late winners were flying in for Sheffield Wednesday and Reading and it is becoming apparent that the Championship will show little leniency for any mis-steps. Bartley’s finish, driven in from much the same range as the goal which dug Monk out of a hole against Blackburn Rovers in September, was the first time Leeds had given Brentford goalkeeper Daniel Bentley anything to save. The power of the header gave him no chance.
Bartley milked the goal, sliding in front of an ecstatic East Stand, and it took a moments like that to bring the centre-back’s influence to the fore. Wood carries the mantle of fronting Leeds’ attack and Bartley has none of Jansson’s flamboyance or social-media charm but his role in captaining Leeds through their best spell in years has gone under-appreciated, even if his defending has not. In the grand scheme it could still be asked where Monk would be had Bartley not kept the club’s head coach afloat against Blackburn by starting this surge with the first of seven home wins in nine.
Monk and Bartley were team-mates at Swansea City, the club who sent Bartley on loan to Leeds in July. Monk was also his manager there and saw enough in the 25-year-old – once an FA Youth Cup winner for Arsenal in an Under-18 team which included Luke Ayling - to think that Bartley might come into his own at Elland Road this season.
“I’ve known Kyle for a long time and I knew the quality he had,” Monk said.
“But this is by far the best I’ve seen Kyle Bartley play. He’s matured, he’s taken responsibility and I think he understands that this is an important season for him having played bit parts for the last two or three years. He’s taken the bull by the horns and he seems determined to make it a good year.”
The good news after Bartley’s goal was that Wood, who missed Saturday with a hamstring strain, has a chance of being fit for Preston away on Boxing Day. Monk did not pretend that his central defenders or anyone else could compensate for a lasting injury to Wood but there were chances even before Bartley timed his run perfectly to meet Stuart Dallas’ right-wing cross.
Souleymane Doukara, Leeds’ lone forward in Wood’s absence, spared Brentford on 67 minutes when he sprinted onto Dallas’ weighted pass but dinked a shot beyond Bentley’s far post. Ayling, who provided a telling injection of late urgency and looks as clever a signing pound-for-pound as any Championship club made last summer, drove two shots narrowly wide. Leeds were lost for the first hour – “it was obvious we weren’t at our best,” Monk said. “I felt we looked tired” – but their impetus was enough. So often these days it tends to be.
“This team has the belief to fight every second, no matter how long,” Monk said. “We play to the whistle and there’s that feeling especially in tight games that there’s going to be one more chance. We know it’s going to be ours. When we get it we can take it. We defended very well and we never looked under threat. I don’t think the clean sheet was ever in danger. We huffed and puffed and there was a sense of it being one of those days but we instil in the players, especially in tight games, to make sure that last chance is ours, not the opposition’s. It came along with a great header from Barts and the roof came off.”
Leeds have not welcomed Christmas in with such good cheer since they scalped Queens Park Rangers six years ago. To that end, Elland Road avoided any temptation to snipe or grouch as Leeds trudged through mud in the first half. Monk’s players oozed a drowsy air and Brentford looked sharper. There is goodwill in the bank, waiting to be cashed in on days like Saturday.
“They (the crowd) could have easily and quite rightly got frustrated, especially with the first half,” Monk said. “We weren’t at it and we were sluggish but they see the benefit of pushing the group to the very end. Even if we’d not won that game I don’t think there’d have been masses of disappointment like there might have been in the past.”
The only flicker of a goal before half-time was a disallowed effort, converted by Scott Hogan after Lasse Vibe found United’s defence sleeping from a free-kick. “He was marginally onside,” said Brentford manager Dean Smith. “Sometimes you get them. For an hour we made a very good team look average. I don’t think we deserved (to lose).”
Doukara’s effort in the first half never dropped but his tendency to drift away from the centre forward’s position highlighted the fact that he see himself as a winger and naturally plays like one. Kalvin Phillips found control impossible to exert in midfield. The game followed an unyielding pattern for 65 minutes but Doukara’s miss with only Bentley to beat waved Leeds forward. Ayling should have scored before Bartley did. Bartley made no mistake when a corner won by the persistence of Sacko was played short to Dallas and into space for the Northern Ireland international to attack the six-yard box.
There was injury-time left but Leeds no longer specialise in self-destruction and an overhead kick from John Egan which clipped the crossbar had Rob Green waiting below it.
“I don’t think Brentford made it easy for us,” Monk said, “and I don’t think the players were happy with the performance. You could tell that in the changing room. That’s a good sign.”
Monk is living with ups and downs in their performances but soaking up very few hard knocks in rapid pursuit of a play-off place. As the phrase goes, on, on, on.