Leeds United’s players spent Tuesday afternoon visiting children on the wards of Leeds General Infirmary.
As it usually does, the annual walkabout gave perspective to a squad who doubtless needed it. Surrounded by kids with no chance of making it home for Christmas, the strain of the past fortnight did not seem so bad.
It has been bad of course, but only in footballing terms. And footballers, as midfielder Adam Clayton says, always have the chance to right their wrongs. For Leeds, it will come at Derby on Monday – the moment when the club will discover whether no-shows against Watford and Reading were indeed a blip.
Clayton’s visit to the LGI was his first as a Leeds player. A year ago he was on loan at Peterborough United in the run-up to Christmas, far removed from United’s Championship season and their festive commitments.
“It’s brilliant to do that, especially around Christmas,” Clayton said. “The look on the kids’ faces…they and their parents seemed to love it.
“At this time of year you tend to forget what some people are going through. Going round the hospital reminds you how lucky most of us are – not to be footballers, even, but just to be healthy and happy. That’s what matters most in life.
“When you’ve got kids in hospital over Christmas when they should be at home, that’s horrible. It makes you think.”
For professional reasons, it is rare for footballers to spend the whole of Christmas Day at home. United’s squad will travel south at some point tomorrow, heading for Derby and staying in a hotel overnight. It is their usual pre-match routine and even Christmas does not disrupt it.
“It’s always hard watching my brothers eat their dinner,” Clayton joked, “but that’s what footballers do. We’ll be focused.”
Derby, after all, is a crucial game, coming after two of the more inept performances of Simon Grayson’s reign as manager. He has handled too many competitive fixtures – 162 over three quick years – to say exactly where the meetings with Watford and Reading rank but both displays scraped the barrel. It did not take raucous booing at the end of last weekend’s loss to Reading for Grayson or his players to acknowledge their failings.
“I wouldn’t say the booing was harsh,” Clayton said. “The Leeds fans are the Leeds fans. When you’re doing the business, they’re brilliant. When it’s not happening, they’ll let you know about it.
“You can dwell on that if you want but if we put a couple of wins together then it’ll all be forgotten about. That’s not just true of Leeds. It applies to every club. People always look at your last performance or your last result and ours wasn’t great. There’s no point denying that but no point beating ourselves up either.
“Derby’s a winnable game – very winnable. They’ve had a strange season. They started the season on fire, had a dip, picked up for a while and seem to have gone again. But I don’t read anything into form because it’s impossible to forecast any game in the league and you should never feel anything but confident.
“The way the Championship is, there’s no such thing as a game you can’t win. I honestly feel confident every time we play. I can’t call the division at all but I’ve said this right from the start – any team who are properly consistent will go up, guaranteed.”
That description applied to Derby last month, though not in a positive sense. Their manager, Nigel Clough, was in a position of strength at the end of October and received a new contract from the club’s board. What followed was a run of five successive losses, shunting County down the table without ceremony.
They, like Leeds, are seeking post-Christmas enlightenment, albeit from a thankless run of fixtures. West Ham United will be next to Pride Park on December 31 and County’s first game of 2012 is away to fourth-placed Hull City. While Leeds are seeking to defend their play-off position, Derby face a fight to stay in the running at all.
United have been well-served in the East Midlands this season, beating Leicester 1-0 through a majestic strike from Clayton and routing Nottingham Forest by four clear goals on a night when the 22-year-old also scored.
This has been his breakthrough year and Grayson’s reliance on him has been almost absolute. Clayton is one appearance short of being ever-present and no player in United’s squad has started more competitive games. His tally of five league goals is far from shabby in a division where only two players have scored 10.
Such was his impact at the start of the season – sharp, dominant and box-to-box – that any backwards steps were bound to be noticed. Recently, his influence has been less telling or so he is told. The same accusation could as easily be aimed at many of the players around him.
Asked if his form had dipped, Clayton said: “People probably think that because I’m not having the same impact I had at the start of the season. But I’m doing exactly what I did back then and I’ll continue to do it.
“I’m fully aware that I set a standard for myself but I’m sure I can stick to it. I think I’m doing that at the moment to be honest. When results come, everyone’s performance starts to look a bit better and when we’re winning it’ll all be back to normal again.”
Clayton would not go so far as to say that the spell after Christmas is a defining period for Leeds. It can hardly be so decisive when, between December 17 and January 2, United have been asked to contest only four league matches.
“I don’t think we’re looking at it like that,” Clayton said. “If we come out of these next three games with nine points then you could say it’s defining. If we come out with none then maybe that will be a defining moment too. But however it goes, there’s a still a lot of football to play.
“For now we’ve got to go to Derby and think like we did at Nottingham Forest – believe we can go to places and destroy teams. We’ve proved that we can. I don’t just want us to go to Derby and win. I want us to win convincingly.”