While it’s always nice to be recognised for your efforts, Leeds United pair Neil Redfearn and Luke Murphy have their eyes on a bigger prize – comfortably avoiding relegation. Phil Hay reports.
Monthly prizes rarely come the way of players or coaches at Elland Road and January failed to buck the trend, but this time the nominations were enough.
The Championship’s manager-of-the-month award went to Middlesbrough’s Aitor Karanka this morning and Lee Tomlin, one of Boro’s main men, took the player-of-the-month award in tandem, leaving Neil Redfearn and Luke Murphy to settle for honourable mentions.
Boro dabble with these trophies regularly – Karanka has been shortlisted no fewer than three times this season – but at Leeds United, commendations and positive attention are hard-earned and elusive. In Redfearn’s case, his inclusion in the running for the January award and Murphy’s appearance on the shortlist for the player-of-the month prize said all he wanted to say.
It told United’s head coach that others far away from Leeds understand the way in which the sand has shifted at Elland Road in the past three or four weeks. A return of eight points from four games might have put Redfearn in contention for a monthly award at any stage of the season but for Leeds, their form was more than a purple patch; it was an injection of hope which no-one saw coming.
The club were a single point above the Championship’s relegation places at the end of 2014. With February upon them, they are five. The gap is still small – small enough for Redfearn to warn against relaxation – but the form in January might ultimately rescue United’s campaign. A month ago, relegation was like creeping death.
Redfearn’s nomination for manager-of-the-month was taken with a pinch of salt, as is tradition. “It’s nice,” he said, “but I’d swap it for three points against Brentford on Saturday.” The manager of tomorrow’s opponents, Mark Warburton, was also a contender for the January prize. A hard game awaits and Redfearn did not spend too much time talking up his own performance. The Football League’s acknowledgement of him – and also of Murphy – was, nonetheless, a vindication of the job he is doing. Part of the reason for the drastic improvement last month was the recall of Murphy from the wilderness and the construction of a line-up which relied less and less on the mass of signings brought to Yorkshire last summer by the club and their owner, Massimo Cellino. Redfearn was brave; his gambles paid off.
“We’re getting it right, bit by bit,” he said. “It’s a long season and it’s been tough for us, a tough situation to turn around. We didn’t have a great start and we also had a blip in the middle.
“But the belief and the effort has always been there. When you’ve got those two things there’s always a chance of turning it round. It’s been a team effort, a big team effort, and it’s about everybody pulling in the right direction. We’ve definitely seen a shift in that respect.”
Murphy is an example of the attitude Redfearn talks about; a surprising one if truth be told. The midfielder was so surplus before Christmas that Leeds were more than willing to allow him to leave Elland Road in the last emergency loan market. When Redfearn played him in an FA Cup tie at Sunderland on January 4 – part of a heavily-changed team – the motivation seemed to be two-fold: to rest other players for games which mattered more and to remind clubs in need of a midfielder that the transfer window was open and Murphy needed a fresh start.
In spite of that assumption, the 25-year-old helped give Sunderland the runaround and began piecing together the most consistent month of his career with Leeds. He scored in a 1-1 draw against Birmingham City and again in United’s 1-0 win over Bournemouth on January 20, a 20-yard finish buried in the top corner. His flighted pass – without question Murphy’s main weapon – caused the confusion which led to Sam Byram’s strike in a victory at Huddersfield Town last Saturday.
“Deep down I knew what he could do,” Redfearn said.
“I go back again to the conversation I had with him a while ago about getting him in a better place. At the time I just felt that if we were able to that do, he’d show that he’s a good player. And he is a good player. That’s the bottom line.
“Good players don’t become bad players overnight but sometimes the circumstances aren’t great. Sometimes they need better circumstances. To be fair to Luke, he’s shown mental toughness and a desire to get better, a desire to put himself in a better position. He deserves all the credit that’s coming his way.”
The story of January was that between them, United’s coaching staff and squad – some of whom had been largely forgotten – found a way to take up the fight against relegation. They cleared 30 points last weekend and are six wins from 50, the mark which clubs usually see as a guaranteed safety net above the bottom three. Brentford are at the opposite end of the table, fifth in the Championship and as much of a surprise as league leaders Bournemouth. “I rate them really highly,” Redfearn said.
“They can play but they can mix it if they need to. They’ve got the lower divisions about them, not in a disrespectful way, because they know how to fight.
“But we want three points. And if we don’t get three points, we can’t get beat. We’ve had that mentality for the last four games and we’ve put ourselves in a better position. But we’ve got a lot of games to go. There’s a lot of work to be done.”