SATURDAY was one of those days when it was necessary to keep an eye elsewhere. There will be others like it as the weeks count down.
Fulham blitzed Newcastle United in a way that no-one else in the Championship has and Sheffield Wednesday and Reading took sound beatings away from home. The table closed up and most bets were off.
The surge towards promotion has inspired a fierce standard of competition but Ian Holloway, the ever-quotable Queens Park Rangers manager, appeared to have missed the memo. The Premier League? “It can be a bit boring,” a contrary Holloway said. “I’ve been there and it sucks. You’ve got Chelsea away, Liverpool and Arsenal. You ain’t winning those games. The top six more or less pick themselves every year. How boring is that?” Someone should tell the Championship.
Offered after a 0-0 draw with Leeds United, his comments were an endorsement of the second division rather than an outright attack on the world of showbiz above it. “A wonderful league,” Holloway called the Championship and much as a goalless afternoon at Elland Road was devoid of champagne football, you took his point. With nine games to go, or 10 in some cases, there is no sign of closure for anyone with a chance of promotion. “You can never predict what’s going to happen,” said Garry Monk. “It is a slog, it’s a marathon and it’s about who can last the longest.”
Monk’s squad are coping in the endurance stakes, higher than all but three clubs in the table with March upon them and their remaining matches into single figures. It was a more reassuring context than a soft draw with QPR, who felt aggrieved to leave Leeds with no more than a point. Monk was happy to bank his, conceding that his players “never did enough in the game to win it”. Rob Green, on his 600th league appearance, made sure the game wasn’t lost.
There are recurring themes at Leeds, of which getting by has been one in the past two months. Monk said United had “shown the consistency you need” in the Championship and he is right: six games unbeaten as it stands and ticking over regularly, but against a backdrop of valid questions about certain areas of his team. His midfield found Holloway’s a handful on Saturday and there was very little for Chris Wood to exploit from out wide. Monk’s back five – so uncompromising and character-laden that it has spawned its own song – picks itself and his centre-forward is undroppable. Elsewhere, United are in a system of rotation where combinations and places are barely nailed down.
The absence of a set midfield pair or first-choice wingers does not detract from the work Monk has done, in the eyes of Holloway or anyone else. There is merely the fear while Fulham lurk with serious intent six points behind, those factors might catch up on him. “I tipped Leeds for the play-offs and I was happy to throw my hat into the ring because I know how good Garry is,” Holloway said. That sort of praise for Championship colleagues has also been on repeat recently. “Good luck to Leeds and I don’t know how it will go for them but the way he works, it’s only a matter of time before he’s successful. He makes players better and he gives them patterns to work to.”
QPR had evidently analysed those patterns and Holloway’s approach was as effective as Cardiff City’s last month, the only home game since November that Leeds have lost. They were energetic and feisty, as their form said they would be, and alive to second balls; sharp enough to win many of them and use the possession. Conor Washington had already allowed a tap-in to slip by his feet at the far post when Massimo Luongo played him in behind Kyle Bartley and one-on-one with Green in the 14th minute. Green, almost 20 years on from his senior debut, applied textbook goalkeeping to narrow his angles and block the striker’s shot with his feet. “It was an important save,” Monk said. “It’s what you’d expect from a good goalkeeper in that situation.”
All the chances of note fell to Washington and his miss in the second half – a shot whipped around Green’s far post with QPR wading forward every time the ball broke to them – was the point where Leeds looked to have pushed their luck too far. With 63 minutes played, Monk’s side quickly tightened up and found a way of quelling Rangers’ interest.
“The positives are it’s a clean sheet, it’s a point and that’s six games unbeaten,” Monk said, “but there are no excuses. We were below our usual standards, especially here at Elland Road and we’ve not had to say that too many times.
We’re in a fantastic position and we have to realise that, especially when you think about where the group has come from.Leeds United manager, Garry Monk.
“We didn’t do enough in the whole game and we accept that. QPR did well and even when we were pushing in the last 20 minutes we were huffing and puffing. We didn’t give ourselves a chance to win. But this league is so competitive. Consistency is key and when we have our best performances or our low-key performances we’re never too far off where we should be. The group have been extremely consistent.”
They also hold a box seat in the fight for the play-offs, although Fulham’s 3-1 win at Newcastle gave their 96th-minute equaliser against Leeds at Craven Cottage last Tuesday a different perspective.
United were seconds from moving 11 points clear of seventh place until Tom Cairney picked out the top corner of Green’s net. By full-time on Saturday, Fulham were six behind with a game in hand, very much on the tails of Sheffield Wednesday but close enough for Leeds and Reading to be wary.
There was an additional cost for Monk as Luke Ayling collected the 10th yellow card he had been trying to avoid for weeks for a first-half tackle on Jake Bidwell, incurring a two-match ban.
Monk, who chose to field him and Kyle Bartley just 24 hours before the Football Association’s amnesty for 10 bookings, was unrepentant about the decision or about the loss of Ayling for games against Brighton and Reading either side of the international break.
United’s head coach has refused to protect players from bookings and was not about to start against QPR.
After so much progress in his first season in charge, there is little he seems inclined to change so far down the line.
“We didn’t reach the levels we needed to reach but we’ll get back to them,” Monk said. “These players will do that. We’re in a fantastic position and we have to realise that, especially when you think about where the group has come from.
“I don’t think anyone is trying harder.”