Seven months after their 2016-17 campaign went up in smoke at the Pirelli Stadium, Leeds United return a much stronger proposition, but as Luke Ayling tells Phil Hay, the damage done took a long time to heal.
One promise Leeds United have about their second competitive visit to Burton Albion is that it cannot be as bad as their first. Nothing at the Pirelli Stadium this afternoon could compare to the empty, pit-of-the-stomach feeling which came at the end of the club’s defeat there in April.
Leeds’ Championship season was already coming apart and there is no specific score to settle with Burton but April 22 was the date when United and Garry Monk knew the Championship play-offs had gone. Before kick-off the club needed three wins to qualify. By the end of a 2-1 loss they needed divine intervention.
Luke Ayling, like most of Monk’s players, was mentally preparing for the play-offs and ready for Leeds’ season to extend by a month. He had no summer holiday booked and expected to play on through May having seen United sit in the top six for six months. A 3-3 draw with Norwich City the following weekend made the mathematics impossible but it was defeat at Burton which left the squad on their knees. The body language at full-time was that of a resigned team.
May for Ayling became a “horrible” month in which the near-miss sunk in. “All season we were there and there was always a little gap below us so in your head you do start to prepare for the play-offs,” he said. “We thought we were going to be in there. I had no holidays planned and I thought May was going to be play-off month.
“Then bang – within the space of three weeks it’s gone. It took me the whole of May to get over it. I went away and I didn’t watch any of the play-offs because it hurt not being there. I tried my best to switch off and then come back to start pre-season.”
We thought we were going to be in there. I had no holidays planned and I thought May was going to be play-off month. Then bang – within the space of three weeks it’s gone.Luke Ayling
Huddersfield Town, a serious long-shot before the season began, won the play-off final at Wembley, beating another unfancied club in Reading. The division’s third and final promotion place is rarely more open or up for grabs.
“It was a real disappointment,” Ayling said. “Every player wants to play in the Premier League and that was a massive chance right there. And if you look at the play-off games, it was all so tight. Who knows what would have happened?
“We did well to get into the play-offs after such a bad start and I suppose you could look at it like that if you wanted to but we had a dip in form at the wrong time. Other teams were flying but at the same time, we went through spells where we’d put three or four results together and not even change position. You’d expect to jump up a couple of places but we always seemed to be fifth or sixth. It was hard.”
The consolation for Ayling, United’s box-to-box right-back, was that the year went down as the best of his career. He has had more successful seasons – major youth-team success at Arsenal and promotion from League One with Bristol City – but he has never looked better than he did in his first year at Leeds. A six-figure transfer fee paid to Bristol City was made to look like peanuts as Ayling’s defensive nous and wing-back levels of fitness shored up one side of the pitch.
It helped that Ayling had Kyle Bartley to his left, a rugged but considered centre-back who played in the same youth side as Ayling at Arsenal. The pair have been friends since they were teenagers and Bartley offered Ayling a room when the full-back moved north to Leeds a couple of weeks before the summer transfer deadline in 2016.
Bartley was himself on a season-long loan from Swansea City and his form at Elland Road denied Leeds the chance of discussing a permanent deal. Swansea wanted Bartley to rejoin them in May and he was heavily involved in the Premier League this season before suffering a knee injury in September.
“We’ve been best friends since we were 16 so it was nice to be back with him for a year,” Ayling said. “I had to get my own house which was a bit disappointing! But that’s football at the end of the day. People move around and you just carry on. I’d have had liked to have had him back here but it wasn’t happening.
“Last season was my best season. I felt like every single game was going well, like I was feeling good. I had Kyle next to me and I’d played with him for five or six years at Arsenal. That really helped.
“But I’ve got Pontus (Jansson) now and he’s the same kind of player.
“I know he’s always going to cover me so I can bomb on. I can gamble a bit going forward, knowing he’ll sweep up.”
Ayling conceded that his form had been more inconsistent this season, reflecting the general view of him. Leeds en masse strayed from a streak of seven games without defeat in the first month and a half –enough to take the club to the top of the Championship – into a run of seven losses from nine. That downturn reflected poorly on many of Thomas Christiansen’s players but panic was never apparent at Elland Road. A marked improvement before Christmas brought United’s season under control.
“Things have picked up again,” Ayling said. “We went through a bad spell but we were always close to the play-offs and it wasn’t like we were dropping far away from them. It didn’t feel like we were out of the play-off chase.
“We always knew three or four wins would put us right back in it and we always knew we could get three or four wins like we have.
“I started the season better than I’m playing now. I had a dip in form and I just wasn’t feeling myself. Things weren’t going my way. You have spells like that and I was aware of it. I knew I had to pick it up.
“This is more like where I should be and having players who can step in helps.
“I think we all know that if your form drops you’re going to be on the bench and I’ve never been one to enjoy sitting on the bench. I did it at Bristol City and I hated it so I tried to get out of there. I hate not playing football and I’ve got it in my head that if I’m not consistent, I won’t be playing.”
As a whole, Ayling is wary of feeling too comfortable. Leeds closed in on the play-off positions quickly in the run up to Christmas but the league is such that clubs are never far away from a turn for the worse and a slide into mid-table. Today’s game at Burton should be United’s to win – against a side they routed 5-0 in September and who have barely won a game at the Pirelli Stadium – but Albion were around the Championship’s bottom three when they stuck the knife into Leeds in April.
“It’s all so tight and this league has always been like that, certainly for the three years I’ve been in it,” Ayling said, the memories of last season not far from the surface.
“You’re always five points off the play-offs but six off being near the bottom three. You never get a chance to relax.
“Every single team fancies themselves but we’ve got good games coming up and if we come through those then who knows where we’ll be by January?
“It feels like we’re back where we were at the start of the season and right back in the chase.”