Ahead of Leeds United’s Good Friday trip to Championship title-chasers Newcastle United, Phil Hay discusses the game and possible outcome with a coach who has had a foot in both camps.
John Carver, the former Leeds United and Newcastle coach, is a long way from home. A management offer from Omonia, a football club based in Nicosia, took him to Cyprus last year and Carver remained on the island despite losing his job in February.
For all the distance between him and St James’ Park, Friday’s meeting between Leeds and Newcastle has not passed him by. Carver’s history gives him a natural interest in the game but in the weeks preceding it, the family of his brother-in-law, Peter Haddock, have been chasing him for tickets.
Haddock was born in Newcastle and began his playing career there but on account of his transfer to Elland Road in 1986, his sons grew up as Leeds supporters. “They’ve been badgering me to see if I can help,” Carver said, “but there’s not a great deal I can do about tickets from here. Hopefully, they’ve sorted themselves out – and, hopefully, they’re in the away end.”
St James Park is sold out for Friday’s fixture, a capacity crowd of 52,000 in which 3,200 away tickets were allocated. Sky chose to televise the fixture long ago and it has the billing the broadcaster hoped for: Newcastle on the verge of automatic promotion and Leeds on the verge of qualifying for the play-offs but neither club close enough to relax completely. A win either way would ease any lingering tension.
Carver, a born-and-bred Magpie, has followed the Championship season closely and believes both clubs have broken the back of the division.
“It’s never done until the table says so but Newcastle have got enough points to get over the line now,” he said. “I feel the same about Leeds. It’s another result or two to be certain but, realistically, I don’t see it going wrong for either of them.
“It’s a huge game on Friday because of the crowd and the clubs involved but it’s not a game where you feel like everything’s riding on it. That’s going to come later, or certainly for Leeds.”
The likelihood is that it will come for Leeds in the play-offs, a scenario which has never worked for the club. Four times the club have entered the Football League’s end-of-season lottery and four times they have lost, most recently in League One in 2009.
Carver witnessed one of those defeats as first-team coach under Kevin Blackwell in 2006. Leeds fought their way through a Championship semi-final against Preston North End but were trounced by Watford during the final in Cardiff. “Watford destroyed us,” Carver said. “It’s still amazing, and not in a good way, when I look back and think about how the final went.”
Eleven years on, Carver thinks that Leeds under Garry Monk might stand the pace of the play-offs in a way that Blackwell’s squad couldn’t.
“With no disrespect, the squad we had back then had a lot of players in it who were getting quite close to the end of their careers.
“It was still strange, though. We had some massively experienced individuals, guys who’d been in the play-offs before, but walking around the dressing room beforehand I could feel a bit of fear. You could see it in the players’ faces. It was there when we lined up on the pitch and if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t feel confident about what was going to happen.
“When I look at this Leeds squad, I see younger players and maybe fresher players. There’s a bit of experience, and experience in the right areas, but they’re full of energy and that’s vital in the play-offs. You always need match-winners, the quality players who’ll decide the games, but it takes a massive effort to see it through.
“I’ve watched a lot of the season and quite a few of the teams around Leeds look a bit hit-and-miss. Leeds, to me, are the one: always at the same sort of level and very difficult to beat.
“They’ve been there for most of the season but they’ve been quite quiet going about their business. They don’t see the need to be shouting the odds and they’ve come up on the rails. That tells me there’s real confidence in the camp.”
Newcastle should feel the same, with a 10-point advantage protecting their automatic promotion place, but this season has not been the cakewalk it was for the last Newcastle side to play in the Championship.
In 2010, Chris Hughton’s squad won the title with 102 points. Brighton are currently threatening to outrun Rafa Benitez’s side with five games to play.
“Newcastle are doing what they needed to do,” Carver said. “They’re on the way to getting back into the Premier League and when you’ve been in the Championship you find out how hard that is. No club knows it better than Leeds.
“There’s a little bit of pressure on Newcastle because they haven’t been performing too well at home. Leeds go there with a real chance I think. An early goal always sets Newcastle up nicely at St James’ and an early goal (conceded) is exactly what Leeds have to avoid but the players are going to go at each other because a game like this you want to win. It’s that simple. Forget about the table for a minute – Newcastle versus Leeds in the Championship is a huge game.”
Leeds have doubt about the fitness of captain Liam Bridcutt ahead of Friday. Newcastle expect to be without top scorer Dwight Gayle who suffered a hamstring strain over the weekend.
“They’ll miss Gayle,” Carver said. “He’s a top player in the Championship and one of the biggest things Newcastle got right this season was signing quality Championship players.
“If Benitez starts (Aleksandar) Mitrovic or Daryl Murphy, Newcastle might have to be a bit more direct and Leeds’ defence would probably be happy about that.
“At the same time, you can’t ignore the talent in Newcastle’s squad. However you look at it, I don’t think it’s a result you can call.”