The 60-point mark is reached and breached and Leeds United can be forgiven for looking towards the finishing line. They will do so over Garry Monk’s dead body but there is no denying how far on the club are: not yet in March but already beyond the total of points accrued last season.
It reflects better on Monk to record that no Leeds manager since Simon Grayson has gained more points over 46 games than Monk holds after 34.
No manager since Grayson has done anything of note, at least until now. There is work to do but Saturday’s victory over Sheffield Wednesday all but laid the play-offs on a plate. Four more wins might be sufficient to force Monk’s players over the threshold.
Monk will be forced to concede as much before long but even the outcome of a pressurised derby at Elland Road did not tempt United’s head coach to break cover. Was he starting to feel a sense of anticipation? “I’m always excited,” he joked. “Can’t you tell? Look, I’m just balanced. Nothing’s been done yet.
“Winning’s important – I love winning and we all do – but we haven’t achieved anything. As I’ve said before, we’ll get the calculator out when it’s ready. It’s not ready now. No team in this league has achieved anything that’s guaranteed.”
The Championship bore that view out over the weekend as Bristol City derailed Newcastle United at St James’ Park and Huddersfield held onto the tail of the division’s top two. But a breathless defeat of Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham’s failure to beat Cardiff City allowed Leeds to regain some of the initiative lost in the past month. There are, as Monk said, no certainties yet, aside from Rotherham United’s inevitable relegation. But the door to the play-offs is open.
It is open to Sheffield Wednesday too but in losing to Leeds for the second time this season, they took the hit that both Yorkshire clubs were anxious to avoid. There was obvious value in winning on Saturday but a potentially high cost in defeat and Wednesday, in sixth, are most exposed to the pack below the play-off positions. Chris Wood’s 23rd goal of the season set up Leeds’ win. Jordan Rhodes’ failure to beat Rob Green with a penalty 10 minutes into the second half nailed it down.
Green guessed right as Rhodes went for the bottom corner of his net after a contentious passage of play in which referee Michael Jones ignored one penalty appeal from Leeds before granting another from Wednesday as play flowed from end to end. Wednesday midfielder Sam Hutchinson was involved in both, flooring Eunan O’Kane with a risky tackle in one box before going down in the other as he and Souleymane Doukara tussled for the scraps from a Wednesday corner.
“At the time it was clear for us,” Monk said. “Ours looked like a penalty to me. To then go to the other end and have what we felt was a soft one given against us, we felt a bit of aggrieved.”
Green, at 37, has had an up-and-down season at Elland Road; prone to occasional criticism but, in the weeks since Christmas, a steadying hand in a squad who need reassurance at the right time. Rhodes took the penalty and gave himself a short run-up but Green read the direction and glanced the ball onto his left-hand post, delighting a young fan in the West Stand who had turned up in a full replica of Green’s kit, gloves and all.
“It was a fantastic save at a critical moment,” Monk said. “We’d literally come off the back of what we thought should have been a penalty for us. Greeny didn’t have much to do but when he had to face the most important shot, he was there. That’s what you need.”
Had Green analysed Rhodes’ previous penalties, Monk was asked. “We study everything and try to get an advantage,” he said. “You obviously have to have a feeling on the pitch too but of course he’ll have studied things. Most keepers do for specific situations. Credit to Greeny for going right.”
Rhodes, the exorbitantly expensive striker who tempts investment among Championship clubs like few other footballers, popped up for that moment and that moment alone. Peripheral either side of it, he was jeered when Carlos Carvalhal, the Wednesday manager, replaced him with 22 minutes left.
Rhodes’ value is based on his ability to conjure goals from very little or to turn games in which his influence is scarce but Wood has usurped him in that respect.
Leeds’ top scorer, who now has 20 league goals to his name, saw one chance and buried it on 24 minutes, controlling and finishing from close range after Vincent Sasso misjudged a curling cross from Gaetano Berardi.
Wednesday meandered through the first half, perhaps more aware of the weight of a meeting between two teams locked on 58 points before kick-off and separated by goals scored. It pleased Monk that for much of the afternoon, his side played the opposition rather than the occasion.
“We followed the game plan very well, especially with the pressure that’s there to win this type of game,” he said. “The teams were on the same points beforehand and it’s a derby. All of those things you talk about, we handled the pressure really well.
“As a group that’s one of the things we’ve managed. We’ve spoken about pressure, about what you can control and what you can’t and about what your focus should be. What other people want to say is irrelevant.
“There was no thinking about ‘this is a derby’ or ‘this is against a team on the same points’. None of my players were thinking about that. They were thinking about what they needed to do and the gameplan we had. That’s what got us three points. Not everyone’s looking for that but from a management point of view, it’s what I look for.”
Pressure came to bear in the second half as Wednesday piled forward, drawing mistakes from Leeds which replicated errors made by Carvalhal’s players before half-time. Monk’s side were guilty of overplaying around their own box and inviting Wednesday onto them but Green was not subjected to a barrage of chances and Rhodes’ penalty drew his only save. Wednesday have thrown stacks of money at their attack during Carvahal’s reign. Leeds found Ipswich Town harder to contain.
There were heart-in-mouth moments and one in particular for Kyle Bartley who held his head in his hands after Jones pulled out a yellow card after a tackle by the defender on Ross Wallace. With Bartley resigned to incurring a two-match ban for his 10th caution of the season, Jones booked Wallace for diving instead. There were cards aplenty – more than the match deserved – and debatable decisions, in amongst some scrappy but undeniably engaging football.
“It was a fascinating game and a good game I felt,” Monk said. “All the ingredients were there. In the first half we looked like the team on the front foot, creating and pushing, and we got our goal.
“As expected, we were playing against a very good side and in the second half they put some pressure on. But we dealt with it extremely well. I can’t remember them having a shot on our goal apart from the penalty. It was a perfect example of how to manage a game. Play well when you have to, defend well when you have to.” It is Leeds United’s season, in 12 words.