LEEDS UNITED boss Garry Monk won’t get his calculator out, but Phil Hay has been looking back through the record books and has worked out the Whites need four victories to reach the end of season shake-up.
Garry Monk’s calculator is gathering dust as Leeds United’s head coach meets questions about promotion with a straight bat but the club are almost at the stage of crunching numbers. “We haven’t achieved anything,” said Monk on Saturday after Leeds fended off Sheffield Wednesday. The statistics say four more wins will take his team into the play-offs.
The Championship ebbs and flows each year and in the past 10 seasons one club has fallen short of the top six with a total of 78 points. Another made it with only 68, the lowest tally needed for a sixth-placed finish since Leeds were relegated to the division in 2004. The average stands at 73 and United, on 61, are close enough to that figure to start ticking the victories off.
Sheffield Wednesday’s manager, Carlos Carvalhal, engaged in some mathematics after his side’s defeat at Elland Road on Saturday. Leeds’ 1-0 win, completing a first home-and-away double over Wednesday since the days when both were Premier League clubs, was a victory over a direct rival for promotion and Carvalhal was more inclined than Monk to start looking down the line. “In the next four games we have three home and one away,” the Portuguese coach said. “It will be a very important month to us and we want to achieve a good position at the end.”
Wednesday, who lie sixth with 58 points, are in a stronger position after 34 games – three better off – than they were at the same stage of last season, when a total of 74 guaranteed their involvement in the play-offs. The division’s top six have moved at a quick pace in front of a chasing pack which is struggling to keep up. Two years ago, Ipswich and Brentford required 78 points to edge Wolves into seventh on goal difference on the last day of the term. Neither Leeds nor Wednesday are likely to need such a high tally in May.
That particular season, 2014-15, was unlike most others in the last decade. Bournemouth won the title with 90 points, a figure which would not have earned automatic promotion the previous year, and the play-off places were decided by the finest margins. Wolves missed out with 78 and Derby County fell short with 77. It is the only occasion in the history of the play-offs where 78 proved insufficient.
Leicester City experienced the opposite extreme in 2013, sneaking in with a tally of 68 despite 16 defeats over the course of that season and a return of two wins from their last 13 fixtures. It took Anthony Knockaert’s injury-time winner against Nottingham Forest on the final day to deny Forest and Bolton Wanderers after a run-in in which all three clubs juggled the initiative.
“I can talk about positives but it’s such a fine line,” said Leicester manager Nigel Pearson. “It’s been a ridiculous league this year and another illustration of this crazy league.” Bolton’s 2-2 draw with Blackpool, dropping them into seventh on goal difference, is still seen as the start of a long slide which took the club into League One last year. “Bolton looked nervous,” said Blackpool boss Paul Ince afterwards. “You would be when you know how important it is to get into the play-offs.”
Wolves have a particularly unlucky streak, twice missing out on goal difference since winning the Championship play-off final in 2003. Even they were not as unfortunate as Cardiff City who amassed 74 points in 2009 but finished in seventh behind Preston North End having scored one goal less. City lost their last two matches without finding the net, surrendering what had looked like a certain top-six finish. Their manager, Dave Jones, took the failure on the chin. “Maybe we just lacked the mental strength to see it through,” he said. “The table doesn’t lie. We had a fantastic record until four games ago.”
As a rule, a total of 75 points has been a safe mark for clubs to aim for – enough for Southampton in 2007, Forest in 2011 at the expense of Simon Grayson’s Leeds and Cardiff the following year. Only Ipswich and Brentford in 2015 have needed more. Leeds are five wins short of that target with 12 fixtures remaining, their next this Friday against a Birmingham City side who were in the running for the play-offs before Christmas. City took the confusing decision to sack the high-performing Gary Rowett in December and name Gianfranco Zola as manager, at a time when they and Leeds were separated by one point. Two months on, the gap is now 18.
Birmingham’s mood was improved last week by a 2-1 win at Wolves, the first away victory of Zola’s 15-match reign. Leeds defender Kyle Bartley believes that result will be a shot in the arm for a club who have lost their way badly in the second half of the season.
“Every away game in this league is tricky but getting a win against a local rival was massive for them,” Bartley said. “You could see how much it meant to them after the game. But we’ve just got to focus on ourselves. When we’re on the front foot we’re difficult for anyone in this league.”
Leeds are not mathematically out of contention for a top-two finish but the club lie a long way short of the average tally of 86 needed to claim automatic promotion and Monk won’t even been drawn on the likelihood of a top-six finish. “At the end of the day it’s three points,” he insisted after Saturday’s win over Sheffield Wednesday. “An important three points but three points. That’s how we’ve focused on every game.”