Even Ross McCormack’s son called it. A Leeds United mascot for the day on Saturday – fulfilling a promise made by his father that he would grow up in white no matter which club McCormack was kicking a ball for – he picked a home win as the stadium announcer fished for predictions at Elland Road.
It is something of a prevailing view, even for a five-year-old. No-one bets against Leeds any more.
The bandwagon rolled on and over Aston Villa, derailing Steve Bruce’s in the process. Villa were unbeaten under their manager before Saturday but a robust end to a fairly dismal Championship game dragged them down as Leeds hopped up to fourth in the league. United have chipped away at the division over a period of three months, climbing the table little by little, and they can go third with a win at Brighton on Friday. A victory at the Amex would do nothing less than turn their fire on automatic promotion.
There is none of that talk inside Garry Monk’s dressing room and Monk, as his personality usually dictates, blended satisfied comments after a 2-0 victory over Villa with some honest analysis of a game which was nobody’s until Kemar Roofe broke the drought and claimed his first Leeds goal with a brave header in the 68th minute. Monk said his side had been “passive” for too long; “giving Villa the smell that we could be hurt”, as he put it but with the deadlock broken, they turned the screw with the confidence of a team who hold the whip hand in the Championship.
Villa had cards to play, throwing on the talented Jack Grealish and loading their forward line with Jordan Ayew and Gabriel Agbonlahor, but the late chances fell to Leeds and the anxiety of the closing minutes infected Bruce’s players more than Monk’s. An injured McCormack watched Villa sink from the sidelines. In added time, Hadi Sacko’s pace took him beyond Bruce’s defence and his shot under goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini held up for long enough for Chris Wood to slide it into the net. Sacko might have accused Wood of poaching an effort which was virtually over the line but Leeds are not that sort of squad. “We don’t care who scores,” Monk said. “We care that we win and perform.”
It has done Leeds no harm at all to migrate into an era where egos and personalities are almost an irrelevance. Back in August, Monk reacted to his first league win – 2-0 at Sheffield Wednesday – by disappearing quietly down the tunnel and leaving his players to milk it. His reluctance to take credit for anything has persisted since then and he was stood in the cold at 9pm on Saturday, signing autographs long after Elland Road had cleared. Bruce had the names at his disposal, the recognisable faces and the Premier League nous in his squad. Bruce has a five-year contract at Villa Park. Set against that, and when the game was won, Monk’s deal to the end of this season felt like a daft anomaly.
“We’re happy with how it’s going but I honestly think there’s a long way to go for this group and more progression to come,” Monk said. “It’s going well but I’m very balanced with this squad. I hold a high standard and so do the players. We weren’t happy with our performance before the first goal.
“We were doing things we don’t normally do, uncharacteristically. Players were making mistakes and we were causing our own problems. We gave Villa the smell that we could be hurt. That’s how I saw the game. But once we got the first goal we really showed what we were capable of.”
Leeds’ discomfort in the first half did not ever threaten to leave them in disarray but Villa’s pressing forced Monk’s players to lie deep and gave his centre-backs no useful options as they tried to pass possession out from the back. Pontus Jansson came closest to a goal, a header from Charlie Taylor corner which flew over the crossbar from close range. Villa’s best hope was a penalty appeal after Jonathan Kodjia went down as Robert Green reached for a ball which Charlie Taylor was leaving to him. Replays showed that Green had timed his dive perfectly.
It was early in the second half when Leeds’ began to wobble and show signs of fatigue after Tuesday’s League Cup quarter-final at Liverpool. The night turned on a bad miss from Albert Adomah who whipped a low shot wide of goal after walking through a tackle from Jansson and breaking clear. Adomah has that air about him – dangerous on his day, infuriating when he plays with his head down – and Bruce counted the cost of his 53rd-minute opportunity. “Up to the goal there was nothing in it,” the Villa boss said, sucking up a first defeat in eight games. “We had the better chances and didn’t take them.”
Monk heard himself saying the same, albeit with more justification, at Anfield last week after Roofe struck a post with the tie against Liverpool goalless. Roofe could hardly have come closer to a first goal for the club who paid £3m to sign him in July and that near-miss left him wondering if it would ever come. But Gollini could do nothing on 68 minutes when a beautiful cross from Souleymane Doukara caught Villa’s centre-backs sleeping. The Italian rushed out but was beaten to the punch by Roofe’s deadly header.
Unusually, Monk reserved specific credit for Roofe and his young midfield pair of Kalvin Phillips and Ronaldo Vieira, brought together after Eunan O’Kane bowed to a groin injury before kick-off. “Considering they were up against Jedinak, Gardner and Westwood – a lot of Premier League experience there – those guys went toe-to-toe,” Monk said. “I don’t normally like to single out players but those three against very difficult opposition – they came out on top.
“It’s been coming (for Roofe). He’s been very unlucky not to score before now. His performances have helped him and helped the team but he’ll tell you himself the most important thing is the three points. The team win together and lose together. At the moment we’re on the right end of results.”
After long periods of doubt, Leeds made the most of Roofe’s strike and bullied Villa out of the final 20 minutes brilliantly, even with Agbonlahor and Ayew added to Bruce’s ranks. It was, and is, fearless. Grealish’s undeniable skill on the ball was not enough in itself to turn the tide and Wood had already smashed a shot against the body of Gollini when he nipped into blow Villa out with his 13th goal of the season.
“We finished the game really strong and looked the most dangerous team,” Monk said. “If anything we looked like extending the lead rather than conceding.” It feels like that in the Championship too. The division ebbs and flows and clubs go backwards but Leeds were sixth a fortnight ago, fifth last weekend and fourth by 8pm on Saturday. Their poorer performances are relative.
Monk readily conceded that his side had struggled against Villa. “You have to recognise that as a team,” he said. “I don’t think we were at our best all game. We know in this period coming up that we have to be better. That’s what’s going to be needed to stand a chance.
“We’ve had a few games where we weren’t at our best but came through them. We’ve also had games where we were fantastic. It’s hard in this league to play at your peak every week but you can always compete and fight hard. It has to mean something – and you can see that in this group.”