EUNAN O’KANE’S shorts were briefly at half-mast but Leeds United caught Stephen Bywater with his pants down in the end and the club’s Boxing Day fightback at Burton Albion has others in the Championship looking over their shoulders.
Not a soul in the Pirelli Stadium had seen anything quite like Bywater pulling O’Kane’s shorts to his knees in the positional chaos which preceded Pablo Hernandez’s second-half equaliser, but O’Kane saw the funny side and Leeds had much to smile about after Kemar Roofe pinched another victory on Tuesday afternoon.
It was O’Kane who stood up to counter negativity before Leeds’ 3-1 defeat at Brentford in November, the last of seven defeats in nine games and the final leg in a debilitating run, and his insistence back then that there was “no need to overreact” has been borne out by a pre-Christmas recovery.
Leeds top the Championship’s form table over the last six matches, ahead of even Wolverhampton Wanderers.
The effect of that run has been two-fold, launching Leeds back into the play-off positions while reeling in an automatic promotion place which was a long way out of sight two months ago. United are five points behind second-placed Bristol City, who host runaway leaders Wolves on Saturday. A week ago the gap was 11.
Thomas Christiansen’s players could be forgiven for sensing a big opportunity in front of them. O’Kane was as level-headed after Tuesday’s win at Burton as he was when Leeds were badly out of form; a time when he pointedly remarked that “as far as I’m aware, we’re only in November”.
The only thing to say is that we are in a good position. It would be nicer if we were in second and five points ahead but only last week it was 11 points so for it to be down to five is great.Eunan O’Kane
“The only thing to say is that we are in a good position,” O’Kane said. “It would be nicer if we were in second and five points ahead but only last week it was 11 points so for it to be down to five is great.
“For now we just have to keep winning matches. I know that sounds simple or like me simplifying it but we’ve had a good run of results and it’s up to us to keep that going.
“There’s no prizes and no point in being second at this stage. We need to make sure we’re there late in February to give us a chance in the run-in.”
Leeds needed a big surge in December and their form could hardly have been better. A late equaliser by Henri Lansbury during a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa at the start of the month is the only blemish in a spell where United have taken 13 points from 15.
Tuesday’s victory at Burton was a struggle but nonetheless inspired by two pieces of magic: Hernandez’s 61st-minute free-kick as Burton goalkeeper Bywater lost concentration and a gem of a pass from Ronaldo Vieira three minutes later which cut open Burton’s defence from the halfway line and sent Roofe running away to score. Nigel Clough’s side had earlier struck against the run of play through Tom Naylor.
“We started the game excellently,” O’Kane said, “and the first 20 minutes was probably as good a performance as the one we had at home against them [when Leeds won 5-0 in September]. To be a goal down was a little bit disappointing.
“At half-time it was about staying calm and sticking to what we’d been doing because we had been creating chances. We just needed to put one of them away. In the end it was a little bit of excellence from Pablo that did that.
“At times it takes a bit of brilliance from someone and it’s good to have people like Pablo in your team who can pop up and put it in the top corner. But I think on another day we could have scored three or four more.”
The last fixture of 2017 this Saturday takes Leeds to the Championship’s bottom club, a mounting car crash in Birmingham City who are two adrift.
City have not been prone to regular routs this season but an acute shortage of goals is already threatening to drag them into League One. Their manager, Steve Cotterill, looked at his wits end after a 2-0 loss to Norwich City on Tuesday.
Dispatches about Birmingham’s performances are at odds with the team who ran Leeds close at Elland Road in September, on a night when United moved to the top of the Championship. Former manager Harry Redknapp left his job later that week.
“No-one is easy to beat in the Championship,” O’Kane said. “It [Birmingham] isn’t the nicest of places to go but with the form we’re in and with them having a bit of a tough time, hopefully we’ll come away with a positive result.”
Samuel Saiz is likely to return from a calf strain at St Andrews but Caleb Ekuban and Stuart Dallas are still absent through injury. O’Kane lost his own place in midfield to Ronaldo Vieira after suffering a hip problem at Barnsley last month but Christiansen recalled him in place of Kalvin Phillips on Tuesday.
“Another thing to mention is the amount of players that are injured for us at the minute,” O’Kane said. “There are players out who would be throwing their hat in the ring and saying ‘listen, I want a go’.
“We’ve got a great squad and the bad run maybe did bring us together a little bit more. There’s a great camaraderie but at the same time, it’s a battle every day in training.”