STUART DALLAS has never felt in better form at Leeds United and it cannot be a coincidence that he came into this season questioning if he would see another at Elland Road. By “fighting for my Leeds career”, as the Northern Ireland winger puts it, he succeeded in making himself stick.
The irony of a good pre-season, his performances and a new deal is that Dallas is yet to start a league game under Thomas Christiansen but United’s head coach was as insistent as anyone at the end of the last transfer window that Dallas should stay. Norwich City had an eye on him and his old contract ended next summer. An extension tied him down until 2020.
In his body language and football there is more promise and enjoyment than Leeds saw in his previous two years with the club. Last season, he says, “wasn’t good enough for my standards” and Dallas has never properly sold himself here but he is being crowded out of United’s starting line-up on the smallest amount of merit.
Twice in the past month-and-a-half he has come off the bench to wrap up a 2-0 victory, once at Sunderland and again at home to Birmingham City. When Saturday’s visit to an old enemy in Millwall began sliding towards a first league defeat, it was naturally asked whether Dallas’ game would have suited the heat that particular fixture.
Christiansen will start him tonight, in Leeds’ Carabao Cup third-round tie at Burnley, and Dallas is one of those players to whom the League Cup matters; a chance for a player who describes himself as “champing at the bit”.
“I haven’t started many games and if I was to sit here and say I don’t want to start then I’d be telling a lie,” Dallas said. “I want to start every game and play every minute but that’s not the way football works. I’ve got to bide my time and, when the time comes, take my chance.
“I feel a lot more confident this season and I’ve said it before that last year wasn’t good enough for my standards. There were a number of reasons and I could use them as an excuse but I’m not that type of player.
“For me, if I’m not scoring or creating then it’s a big problem. That’s what I’m there to do and it can play on your mind if you go so long not getting a goal. Last year I went too long. I scored a few but nothing major.
“I was probably coming into this season fighting for my Leeds career because I was out of contract at the end of it. I needed to do something. I never wanted to leave and I class this as home. We’ve got a very good team and so far it’s been a joy to be part of.”
He agreed that his form had risen a level under Christiansen. “That’s probably fair to say,” Dallas said. “Scoring goals is something I haven’t done enough of and it’s something I wanted to add. It’s not easy to score goals, you know? It’s quite tough. But it’s something I’m working on – being more positive when I have the ball.”
Dallas is part of the group of players who provide a balance in culture and experience at Leeds; the core who understand the Championship and can help a clutch of foreign signings feel their way into it.
There was no feeling required in the six weeks as five wins and two draws took the club to the top of the Championship but Millwall, the first side to lay a glove on Christiansen’s players, provided what Dallas called a “rude awakening” on Saturday and ended the division’s only remaining unbeaten record.
Leeds lost to a 73rd-minute goal from Aiden O’Brien but were on the back foot throughout.
“We weren’t good enough to get anything out of the game and we were lucky to come away with only a 1-0 defeat,” Dallas said.
We’ve had this result now and we’ve got to move on from it. The manager touched on it: if we’re not at 100 per cent then we’re an average team. Every week we’ve got to be 100 per cent.Leeds United’s Stuart Dallas
“From start to finish they were the better team but the good thing about it is we’ve got a chance to put things right within a few days.
“A lot of people were waiting on us to fail. That’s just the way it is. People outside the club want to see Leeds United fail, because we’ve done so well so far. Last season too, people were probably looking for us to fail and we did. We failed at the end of the season. It wasn’t good enough.
“We’ve had this result now and we’ve got to move on from it. The manager touched on it: if we’re not at 100 per cent then we’re an average team. Every week we’ve got to be 100 per cent. We’ve got to make sure we do right what we did wrong on Saturday.”
Christiansen spoke of Leeds “losing our identity” at Millwall, of being denied the chance to play their normal game and failing to adapt to a direct, aggressive approach from Neil Harris’ side.
Millwall have a track record of ramping up and dominating home meetings with United but tonight’s visit to Turf Moor should be less predictable.
Christiansen plans to make changes and Sean Dyche, the Burnley manager, is likely to do the same.
Dyche’s alterations might give Charlie Taylor, Leeds’ former left-back, a start this evening. Chris Wood’s inclusion is less certain after a run of outings in the Premier League. Taylor’s summer departure from Elland Road was telegraphed for months – largely inevitable after the defender submitted a transfer request 11 months earlier – but the exit of Wood last month was different, coming late in the window and 10 days before FIFA’s deadline passed.
Leeds lost a talented left-back in Taylor and a 30-goal striker in Wood. The pay-off in transfer fees ran to more than £20m and United have not lost their way without them. Pierre-Michel Lasogga, a direct replacement for Wood, scored twice on his debut. Christiansen has Vurnon Anita, Gaetano Berardi and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson competing for a place on the left side of defence.
The sale of Wood, belatedly confirmed as Leeds prepared to play Sunderland on August 16, was a potentially troublesome set-back.
“I don’t need to explain how good Woody is,” Dallas said. “He showed that last year. If you give him a chance he’ll hurt you. He’s a good lad and he’s still a good friend but when we step over the line, whether he’s playing or not, we’re enemies for the night.
“We’ve all got different visions. He saw the chance to go and he took it. We were disappointed he left but there’s more to life than Chris Wood. I don’t mean that in a bad way. The players we’ve brought in are more than capable.
“This year we’re getting goals from all over the place. Last year we depended a lot on Woody and he did well for us – he carried us, probably, in some games.
“This season more players are chipping in and that can only be a good thing.”