And like that, Leeds United are 12th. A club who were dropping like a stone two months ago are floating on top of 12 other sides with 15 games of the season to go. Only in the Championship.
Neil Redfearn has tried and tried to talk about the top half of the table, only to find himself trapped in conversations about evading relegation, but a 1-0 win over Millwall on Saturday took his side over the threshold. Mathematically Leeds are not safe but from every angle they look it.
It is reasonable to say that they should not go down from here. The club have an eight-point run on the Championship’s bottom three and they are starting to turn out victories in the routine style that stable teams do. Four in five games is on a par with the number accrued before Christmas.
Leeds jumped five places on Saturday and eight on the back of two victories in a week. “It just goes to show how tight the division is,” Redfearn said. “There’s nothing in it and we’re not going to get carried away with ourselves because other clubs could go on similar runs.
“But for the first time in a while, we can start looking at sides above us. We can try and make up some ground and get as much out of this season as we can.
“What we’ve got to start doing is talking about the top half and getting further up the table. If we can keep this run going and string more wins together we’ll see how far we get.
“A lot of sides are going to be under pressure – teams trying to get promotion and teams trying to fight relegation.”
It was not in any way a serious hint about the play-offs. When this season ends, Leeds will wear the mediocrity of mid-table with complete satisfaction.
Their situation was as dire as the Lions’ two months ago but Saturday’s game was a six-pointer for only one of the teams involved. Where Leeds were concerned, it fell into the category of best-not-to-lose.
Defeat was never likely, before or after Alex Mowatt settled the match with a deflected free-kick on 39 minutes, and the tension which developed in the second half was due in part to Millwall’s desperation and in part to United’s appreciation of the breathing space a win would give them.
Millwall’s manager, Ian Holloway, cut a dejected figure afterwards but did not go any further than saying that he “thought we were going to get a point.”
Most of his press conference was devoted to attacking West Yorkshire Police for the stringent management of a fixture which drew an away crowd of just 234. A valid complaint or not, it sounded like skilful deflection on another bad day.
The afternoon got better for Holloway’s players as it went on without giving them anything and they had no answer to Mowatt’s goal.
The match was won and lost in the first 45 minutes as Leeds forced the pace, pressed Millwall on either wing and made the best of a scrappy game.
Sam Byram had the best opportunity, feathering an early shot past the far post after Mowatt found Charlie Taylor wide on the left, but Byram forced the free-kick which gave Mowatt his chance to score.
Shaun Williams was guilty of a loose foul on the corner of Millwall’s box, hacking Byram’s legs from under him, and Mowatt beat David Forde with a curling shot which flicked off the wall and flashed over the goalkeeper’s head. Holloway bemoaned “our luck” but precious little came the other way.
“The first 45 minutes must have been tough for them,” Redfearn said.
“It was vintage Leeds United where you had 25,000 behind us with the team on the front foot. Millwall did well to hang on to be fair to them.
“If we’d gone two or three goals up, it would have been about right.”
For the duration of the first half, Millwall ambled on behind the giant frame of Stefan Maierhofer. The Austrian offered a 6’8” target up front but had an unhelpful knack of shrinking when he jumped and stunting Millwall’s forward momentum.
Behind him Diego Fabbrini tried to drive their performance, on a different wavelength to the rest of Holloway’s side.
At the other end Rudy Austin smashed a volley against Forde’s chest and was booked for diving in an incident which looked suspiciously like a penalty, and Forde took the ball away from Steve Morison’s feet after a woeful back-pass from Joss Hooiveld. Redfearn was happy at the break but Holloway saw the need for a change. Lee Gregory replaced Maierhofer at the start of the second half.
From there on, United’s head coach was made to sweat, though not in the manner of Leeds’ defeat to Brentford. “It ended up tougher than what it should have been,” Redfearn said.
“In the first half I thought we were going to blow them away. It’s probably as dynamic and as well as we’ve played at home for a long time.
“But in the second half they came into the game and they made it a scrap. #
“They stopped us playing and sucked us in.”
Leeds slipped deeper and deeper, reverting to counter-attacks, and Millwall’s threat increased once Holloway added Ricardo Fuller to the mix. Martyn Woolford – a winger who Redfearn wanted in the January transfer window – lost his nerve and shot over the crossbar from close range after Bellusci let Gregory pinch the ball on 61 minutes, and another volley from the same player gave Marco Silvestri more to worry about 14 minutes later.
Fuller scraped the side-netting towards the end of normal time, again after Lewis Cook lost possession on the edge of the box, but Forde was not a spectator.
Mirco Antenucci skied a first-time effort over an exposed goal and Scott Wootton missed a free header from point-blank range.
Steve Morison chipped away in search of his first strike of the season but was denied by a pin-point tackle from Alan Dunne with Forde’s net gaping.
Leeds used to chase games as Millwall chased Saturday’s but the tide has turned in West Yorkshire. Holloway, who appropriately dressed like an undertaker, called afterwards for next season’s meeting between the clubs to be free of any police restrictions but it was hopeful on his part to assume that they will share the same league.
“It’s far more healthy here,” Redfearn said, perhaps feeling that the worst is behind him. He and others must have pinched themselves as the dust settled on the Championship table.