IT was Kyle Bartley who made the point on the opening weekend of the season that prizes aren’t won in August. The centre-back was in a defensive frame of mind back then, attempting to calm the waters after Leeds United’s first game brought about a sorry defeat to QPR.
At a different stage of the year, and with Leeds in finer fettle, he feels the same now. Pleased as he is with the club’s results, Bartley does not want to look back on his loan at Elland Road and talk about how well the club were doing at Christmas. There is a feeling among Garry Monk’s squad that they are a long way from home and the Championship table hardly encourages complacency.
Leeds have form on their side with 24 points taken from their last 10 fixtures but other teams are hanging in gamely. Derby County, whose start was poor enough to earn Championship veteran Nigel Pearson the sack, have eight wins in nine and set a new record for successive clean sheets at home this week. Huddersfield Town answered a short but definite wobble by producing four victories in a row and Sheffield Wednesday, last season’s play-off finalists, are back in the top six. Aston Villa, Leeds’ opponents in Birmingham on Thursday evening, are 10th in the table but blessed with enough players and money to have a chance.
“It’s been a great start to the season but that’s what it is – just a start,” Bartley said. “We’re halfway in and this half won’t mean anything if we have a disappointing second half. We’ve spoken about that with the manager.
“It’s important from now on that we work harder and get even better results. It’s a long season.”
Monk identified the need to improve United’s results and attitude at home when he became head coach in June, taking control of a club who were too often guilty of lacking confidence at their own stadium, but their promising league position owes much to six away victories.
Leeds have been less consistent on their travels than at Elland Road but the club have won away at Sheffield Wednesday and Norwich City and their Boxing Day trip to Preston North End resulted in a 4-1 rout of Simon Grayson’s team. Villa hold the Championship’s only unbeaten home record, with six wins and five draws from 11 matches, but Monk can realistically expect his players to cope at Villa Park.
“We’ve talked a lot about Elland Road,” Monk said. “We wanted to make it a fortress and a very hard place to come, and we’ve taken steps towards doing that. But of course you have to win away as well. It’s no good just doing it at home.
“I think we’ve been good on the road this year. We’ve had some good results and some indifferent ones too but this league is all about putting results together or putting unbeaten runs together. You have to do that if you want to be successful. That’s three wins in a row for us now and we want to keep it going.”
It is rare for Leeds to be heading into the January transfer window with serious impetus behind them. A year ago, Monk’s predecessor, Steve Evans, was clutching at straws and trailing the top six despite a run of seven games without defeat. Leeds paid for a bad start which extended further than the poor spell Monk endured at the beginning of this term. United have lost a total of two league matches since September 10.
Monk is preparing to tweak his squad next month but his recruitment will not be over the top. He needs another striker but with Chris Wood firmly established as his lone centre-forward, the club seem more inclined to target an emerging youngster like West Ham United’s Ashley Fletcher than a player like Middlesbrough’s David Nugent. The highly-experienced Nugent, now 31, has won promotion from the Championship twice before but would arrive at Leeds with the expectation of playing regularly.
United’s transfer policy in the summer was relatively well defined: a focus on younger footballers or footballers with plenty of years left in them, a reliance of the loan market and the biggest outlays of cash reserved for prospects like Kemar Roofe. The sale of Lewis Cook to Bournemouth helped fund that transfer window but Leeds are not expected to court offers for players next month, even for left-back Charlie Taylor. Taylor is out of contract at the end of June but the club stand to earn a tribunal fee for him on account of his age when that deal expires.
Bartley believes additions to Monk’s squad could be crucial in seeing Leeds over the line during the Championship run-in. “January’s coming and whether we’re going to have some investment or not I don’t know,” he said. “But that might just make the difference. We’ve got quite a small squad and we’ve been struggling with injuries so I think it’s even more remarkable that we’ve been managing to pick up points.”
Bartley himself is an example of how successful Leeds’ summer recruitment was. Aside from Matt Grimes, the on-loan Swansea City midfielder who has featured sporadically and failed to make the bench at Preston on Boxing Day, every one of Monk’s signings has made some impact. Bartley is the more low-key of United’s centre-backs, very much in the shadow of the hugely-popular Pontus Jansson, but his influence has been telling, not least as captain in the absence of Liam Bridcutt.
Like Jansson, he now has his own song: a reworking of Rufus and Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’. It classes as a firm seal of approval from United’s support. “I’m not on social media or anything like that but my mum is and she keeps me informed,” Bartley said. “She told me about it but for me it’s not important.
“What’s important is that we keep winning. Whoever’s getting praise or having a song sung about them, that’s just an added bonus. But it’s important having the fans behind us.
“The way they’ve been has helped to get us a lot of late goals and won us points.”