Leeds United's Mateusz Klich ready to embrace pressures of a Premier League promotion race - starting with Sheffield United
Mateusz Klich would have preferred a night game tomorrow; the added theatrics of Elland Road under the lights.
West Yorkshire Police might not have been keen and neither would any supporter who has been climbing the walls for 48 hours but Leeds United’s players are embracing an unavoidable sense of occasion.
Earlier this week, Twitter rediscovered the programme notes written by Howard Wilkinson on the day Leeds beat Sheffield United at the height of the second division season in 1989-90.
“What more can I say about today’s game that has not already been said or included in print,” Wilkinson asked, and those words resonate 29 years on. There is talking left to do in the Championship but the table says it all: win this weekend and promotion is Leeds’ to lose. Give way to Sheffield United and all bets are off.
Marcelo Bielsa was brief and understated in his press conference yesterday, unwilling to fuel the hype around a derby which Chris Wilder, his counterpart at Bramall Lane, insisted was not “season-defining”, but Bielsa’s squad can feel the buzz.
Pontus Jansson wants the crowd to pack into Elland Road an hour before a 12.30pm kick-off and Klich, United’s Poland international, is lapping up the pressure.
“Personally I’m really enjoying it,” he said.
Leeds are giving that impression; of players for whom carrying the weight of the club’s recent timeline of mediocrity is no labour of love.
The heat came on last month when they lost away at Queens Park Rangers, a game in hand which was supposed to take Bielsa’s squad back to the top of the Championship, but United drew breath from that and humiliated West Bromwich Albion three days later. Anxiety might be less of a threat tomorrow than the very real threat and continuity of style in Wilder’s Sheffield United camp.
“In football you need pressure,” Klich said. “It gets you going and it’s weird to say but even losing the QPR game, it motivated us to destroy West Brom at home. I hope we’re going to play the same game and win.
“We need an early goal, it always helps us, but I really can’t wait. It’s too bad it’s not an eight o’clock game and it’s 12.30pm instead because eight o’clock under the lights would have been even better. But I can imagine it’s going to be a fantastic atmosphere. So far the home games have been something else.”
Klich was a Dutch Cup winner with Zwolle in 2014, part of a team who thrashed Ajax in the final, but the well-travelled Pole can think of no season which compares with the emotional intensity of this one.
There was the personal relief for him of finding Bielsa more receptive to his attributes than Thomas Christiansen was last year but the burden too of a fanbase who never let the players forget what the club’s mission statement is. Have the public been badgering him about beating Sheffield United?
“They want to win 46 games,” Klich said.
Nine games, the number both Leeds and Sheffield United have left, is still a long stretch in football. Five were enough to turn the tide when Garry Monk lost control at Elland Road at the tail end of 2016-17 season. Wilder was right to say that tomorrow’s match would not be definitive but it is late in the day to be conceding ground.
For players and staff at both clubs, this is fairytale stuff. Sheffield United were a League One side two years ago, having been trapped there for an eternity.
Leeds, with many of the players Bielsa is coaching now, finished 13th last season and a frustrated Klich could not even get in the matchday squad. From that standing start, the 28-year-old is a handful of good results from the Premier League.
“It’s not only me,” Klich said.
“A lot of players in the dressing room have never played a Premier League game. Everyone knows it’s the best league in the world but everyone wants to be there, not only us. A couple of other teams in the Championship want to be there too and it’s a very long journey. We’ll see how it ends but I’m very optimistic.
“This is the biggest pressure I’ve ever had. I’ve been quite busy in the last couple of months with the baby (Klich became a father in November) so maybe that’s helped me to deal with it. Every day I can feel the pressure but it motivates me personally to keep winning games.”
Would the experience of winning the Dutch cup final be useful to him this weekend?
“It helps but the pressure on us in the cup final wasn’t that much because we were playing against Ajax,” Klich said. “We were a small club in Holland so no-one expected us to win.
“This is different because we’re Leeds United but the pressure is good and could be useful to motivate the players. I know a lot of players can’t handle pressure but we’re handling it quite well.”
Klich’s performances since Christmas have felt the pace of a long term but Bielsa’s vote of confidence in him is an ever-present record after 37 matches.
Tuesday’s 3-0 win at Reading yielded the opening goal and Bielsa has never shaped to drop him. It is far removed from the situation under Christiansen, who gave up on Klich and loaned him back to Holland after one bad night at Cardiff City.
“It’s a good season for me and obviously all of you, all the Leeds supporters, didn’t expect that,” Klich said. “I thought I could be part of the team and I thought that last season but I wasn’t.
“This year is different and I got a chance. I came here last year to do that and I couldn’t but this year is probably the best season of my life. I just hope it ends well.
“I used to have coaches where after one bad game you’re straight on the bench or straight in the stands. It doesn’t really help. If you don’t have the best game and still play, it helps. If you have a bad game and go straight onto the bench, you’re afraid to show yourself on the pitch.
“You don’t want to make mistakes but if you don’t make mistakes, you cannot play your game.”
Bielsa’s mantra from the very start