LESLIE SILVER and the board around him at Leeds United were never quite sold on Billy Bremner as a manager, or not in the way that they were with Howard Wilkinson.
But parts of Bremner’s tenure promised so much and the story, when it ended, was one of a coach who fell short by painfully thin margins.
The last Leeds manager to register five straight wins in England’s second division – a run Thomas Christiansen is looking to equal at Birmingham City today – was Bremner and the search for that record goes back to the winter of 1987.
That season got away from Bremner before long but Leeds hit a purple patch that December in the style which Christiansen’s squad have now.
Between December 5 and January 2 in 1988, Leeds reeled off a total of six consecutive league victories, including two against clubs who ultimately beat them to the play-offs. The streak began at Birmingham’s expense, with a 4-1 thrashing at Elland Road, and gave Leeds a chance of promotion. Christiansen will attempt to make more of his in the four months ahead.
It might not matter to him that United’s form in December is likely to shortlist him for the Championship’s manager-of-the-month award, a prize few coaches at Elland Road ever win, but his players are at that level after cashing in on a helpful fixture list. Victory at St Andrews this afternoon would complete a haul of 16 points from six matches and consolidate the club’s already strong position in the table.
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Snow may have cancelled Christiansen’s pre-match press conference yesterday and obstructed outdoor training at Thorp Arch but very little else has hampered him.
The quick turnover of games in December has a habit of forcing the Championship to take shape. Three of the clubs who finished in the top six last season went unbeaten in December, Brighton and Huddersfield Town among them. Newcastle United took four wins from six matches and Sheffield Wednesday lost only once, away to eventual play-off finalists Reading.
The schedule this month fell kindly for Leeds, pitting them against only one side – Aston Villa – who sit in the top half of the Championship.
Wins over Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City, Hull City and Burton Albion fell into place and Birmingham, today’s opponents, are at the foot of the league. Their manager, Steve Cotterill, admitted on Thursday that he was “copping the brunt” of frustration at St Andrews. City hold 17 points and have scored just seven goals at their own stadium.
This period looked crucial for Leeds before it started and it looks even more valuable given the fixtures awaiting Christiansen in a month’s time.
Over the course of seven back-to-back matches from February 3 onwards, United will play six of the Championship’s current top seven. That period will either underwrite their season or write it off but their results in December have put points in the bank and created some margin for error.
Christiansen understood the significance of December but was wary at the outset of taking a favourable sequence of games lightly. “That should look easier but it’s not right to think so,” he said before United’s 3-1 victory at QPR. “When you play against higher teams or, let’s say, bigger teams, the motivation comes from that alone. These games are very difficult.”
That warning was reflected in several of the contests. Leeds struggled at QPR before clicking impressively after half-time and laying on a hat-trick for Kemar Roofe. Norwich were narrowly dispatched at Elland Road and Christiansen admitted after a 1-0 win over Hull on December 23 that his players had been “lucky”.
Less fortune was required at Burton on Boxing Day, where Leeds recovered from a goal down to win 2-1. Burton struck against the run of play in the first half but Christiansen and his players were happy with the tempo and quality of their performance either side of Tom Naylor’s opener.
The class in his line-up told as Roofe and Pablo Hernandez scored in the space of four minutes after the hour, both as a result of touches of brilliance.
Despite that attacking flair, Eunan O’Kane spoke afterwards about the recent effect of Christiansen’s players focusing more on the basics of defending.
“We’ve gone back to being a little bit ugly when we’re defending,” the midfielder said, admitting that the club’s horrible downturn of seven defeats in nine matches earlier in the season had been partly due to the concession of “very easy” goals. “One or two in there that were maybe a bit suspect,” O’Kane said.
There were obvious errors in Leeds’ concessions at Burton and QPR but Christiansen’s defence have leaked only three goals in December, allowing the club to edge a tight fixtures. Felix Wiedwald, in spite of criticism of him, holds nine clean sheets and appears to have seen off any possibility of United seeking to replace him in the January transfer window.
“The defensive line is doing well,” Christiansen said after Tuesday’s clash at the Pirelli Stadium. “Felix and the line of four have been very good but they need the help of the other players too and it’s much easier to defend if players make pressure up front.
“We’re in a good moment and this is a good run but we need to continue. Now we have another difficult away game.”