The truth about Leeds United’s rise to the top of the Championship is that it’s been in the post for a while.
Perhaps not back at the start of June, when everything at Elland Road was up in the air, but certainly since the season began. They’re the definition of a club on a roll.
You get a feel quite quickly for how a team are playing, and I’m not simply talking about results. Seven games unbeaten is a good record but mediocre teams can go seven games unbeaten, just by scrapping, fighting and edging the percentages. I’ve been in sides who would frustrate or stick in and find a way of grinding out results.
What looks on paper like the mark of a good side can sometimes be a bit deceptive but Leeds are on a different level. Tuesday’s win over Birmingham was a grind, let’s be honest about that, but you don’t often hammer Harry Redknapp. Over the weeks they’ve outclassed Sunderland, comfortably outplayed Nottingham Forest and absolutely smashed poor old Burton Albion. You don’t have to be at the back of the North Stand to feel something building.
So, top of the table after seven games. To me that’s significant. We’re far enough into the year for form to be slowly taking shape and, quite frankly, Leeds are bang at it. As a pundit I’m impressed and if I was one of the players there, I’d be buzzing. I’d have perspective too – it’s not like we’d be sinking cans in the training ground car park or planning the open bus parade – but why not feel satisfied about the start you’ve made? Why not feel like it’s the start of a big push?
To anyone who says the table doesn’t matter at this stage, I cautiously disagree. A year ago it was Huddersfield Town in first place with 16 points; out of the blue, totally unfancied but sticking around. You’d have lost count of the number of people who said it wouldn’t last, and maybe I was one of them, but they did what successful teams do – they gave themselves a cushion. Huddersfield had their challenges and they had their wobbles but when results got away from them, they had the safety net of points in the bag early on.
When you look back and see Leeds finishing five points below the play-offs last season, it’s hard not to think that something other than the terrible start made by Garry Monk would have helped in a big way. If the average target for the top six is still 75 points then Leeds have already taken a sizeable first step. Personally I’d be sitting in the dressing room thinking ‘we’ve got a real opportunity here’.
No-one will say that publicly, of course, because all of us play the game with the media. There’s a kind of unspoken rule that no-one shouts the odds early on – I say an unspoken rule. Sometimes players are told in no uncertain terms to avoid saying anything rash in public – but behind closed doors there’ll be smiles aplenty.
People will want to spend longer at the training ground and won’t be in a rush to go home. The tempo of training will get higher and the guys on the fringes, the lads who can’t get in the team, will be desperately trying to make themselves part of it all. My perception, looking in from outside, is that expectation isn’t weighing too heavily on the club.
I’d say there’s more pressure on some in the chasing pack, on the clubs who were supposed to be tearing the league up. You can probably class Leeds as a surprise package so far because there was far too much change in the summer to make them a guaranteed success. Change to that extent normally leads to some mixed results or a bit of a learning curve.
With Christiansen there’s been nothing of the sort. His new signings have fitted in well but I also think there’s a story to be told in the way that some of the existing players are performing. Eunan O’Kane wasn’t used as much as he should have been last season but he seems to be driving the midfield, leading it with his experience.
Kalvin Phillips has been excellent and, like Liam Cooper, is playing as well as he ever has for Leeds. That can’t be a coincidence and it can’t be happening by chance. Christiansen is impacting on everyone it seems and everyone is buying into his ideas. Who knows if it will last over seven or eight months but the performances are of a standard which suggests that it might.
What’s intriguing is the fact that Leeds now go to Millwall tomorrow; Millwall away, just as the club go top of the league. In my experience there aren’t many side who like turning Leeds over more and there aren’t many more hostile grounds in the Championship.
I’ll be diplomatic and call The Den unique. Try warming up in front of the home end with an Alice band and long hair. That was always a laugh. Although I did have the pleasure of scoring there when we won 2-0 in 2008, on the way to the League One play-offs.
As a pre-match ritual, the players should do what a few of us did on the morning of that game.
We were staying down by Tower Bridge and we took a walk around the corner to the Tower of London. Andy Hughes was giving us a potted history of everything, Jonathan Douglas did what Dougie liked to do by telling us the whole thing was a load of s**** when suddenly one of the Beefeaters marched over, took his hat off and showed us a Leeds United badge stitched on the inside. An avid Leeds fan, who I’ve kept in touch with since, that result was for him.
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