The hardest bit of a successful season is planting the flag at the top of the mountain.
A club gets promoted on the basis of 40-odd games but, at the very last minute, the thought comes into your head that it all counts for nothing if you don’t get that one, crucial result.
I felt like that when we went to Wembley for the play-off final back in 2008. I’ve been there several times since as a pundit and the stadium always feels the same to me: so massive and cavernous that it’s almost overwhelming. You feel a bit knackered before you step on the pitch. The setting and the occasion, this futuristic ground, only reiterates exactly what’s on the line. Obviously we failed that year and I don’t think at any stage many of us enjoyed the experience.
Leeds United are very close to qualifying for the play-offs and two defeats on the bounce is not the equivalent of a crisis or anything like it. Every player in their dressing room will have experienced far worse runs of form and these are the times when perspective counts. No team plays well from the start to the season to the end of it.
Every team just tries to.
If you can’t handle the odd poor result and get it out of your head then you really will get nowhere.
What Leeds have done in the last few months is buy themselves enough credit to afford a loss at Reading and a loss at Brentford. In reality, you have to suck up a few bad results. The frustration for Garry Monk and his squad, apart from the fact that they can play much better than they did, will be that different results would have virtually sealed a top-six finish.
Tomorrow’s game against Preston would have be a nice, steady fixture, the sort of home game you love. Instead it’s a game Leeds have to win and there’s no point making any secret of that.
I wrote a few weeks back about enjoying the run-in, about how chasing promotion feels like a breeze when you’ve spent time fighting relegation, but it’s hard to enjoy a match like tomorrow’s. The older I got and the more experienced I got, the more I started to see crucial fixtures like this one as work and nothing more. Forget the joy of playing football or the pride of the club you’re representing. Simplify things by going out and doing what you’re paid to do.
I use the word ‘work’ loosely because I know how great this profession is. My work as a player wasn’t night shifts and I wasn’t in the army but they call this the business end of the season for a very good reason.
If you can’t handle the odd poor result and get it out of your head then you really will get nowhere.David Prutton
It’s purely about business. You clock-in mentally at some stage, usually on your way to the ground, and when you get there, there’s no fooling around, no nonsense. Get the game done, get the win and then think about slapping each other on the back afterwards. But in the meantime, you’re absolutely there to do a job.
I still feel that this season at Elland Road has been an assault on the senses and nothing like the season we all expected, but when you’re this close with this much of a chance, it does you no good to think like that.
I read Garry say that Leeds have done brilliantly well to be in this position and he’s right. But, trust me, that won’t be the attitude behind closed doors. He’ll be pushing the players and keeping them keen. It’s okay talking about each game as it comes when it’s autumn and you’ve got months ahead of you, but Leeds need to finish this off. You can’t hide from that fact and I’m sure Garry isn’t.
The biggest trick at this stage is to make sure you don’t overcomplicate things. Preparation is vital, but when everything’s on the line, all players want is a clear and simple message.
I find it hard to read too much into performances either. Every team has a lot of football in their legs. Mentally and physically most of us start to feel it at some stage towards the end and that’s really what this comes down.
There’s no question that Leeds are good enough to make the top six or good enough to beat most teams in the league.
Much more depends on their emotional state and their ability to keep themselves in check mentally. That’s absolutely paramount.
Win tomorrow and the pressure eases again. That’s basically the way the run-in goes – up and down all the time.
Sheffield Wednesday were in a bit of trouble but got it together by beating Rotherham on Tuesday. I was at Huddersfield on Wednesday and they’d had two defeats in a row before they played Norwich. Personally I thought there was a foul in the build-up to their first goal against Norwich but it was allowed to stand and seven minutes later, it was 3-0 and game over.
Sometimes it takes something as small as that to turn everything back around.
Upcoming Sky-televised Championship fixtures include:
Tonight: QPR v Brighton & Hove Albion (Sky Sports 2, 7.45pm kick-off).
Saturday: Sheffield Wednesday v Newcastle (Sky Sports 1, 5.30pm kick-off).