Leeds United’s dressing room makes Rob Green feel every one of his 36 years. When he looks around it occurs to him that his league appearances outnumber those of all of the players beside him.
In truth, he has more to his name than much of United’s squad combined.
Green was just as raw once and at the start of his career, in the years when things went well, he fooled himself into thinking that every season would be a dream. He has prior promotions on his record, with Norwich, West Ham and QPR, but the goalkeeper would take more satisfaction from a notch on his belt at Elland Road.
“It gets harder each time but a little bit more enjoyable too. The enormity of (winning promotion) and the enjoyment of it is more because you realise how hard it is to do,” he said.
“When it happens in your younger years you think it happens every season. Then you realise that it doesn’t. To win something and play in a successful team is a rarity in people’s careers. It’s that trigger and fire which makes you keep going.”
Leeds have persevered over many years in looking for a promotion from the Championship which steadfastly refuses to come. Last month’s results and a defeat to Huddersfield Town on Saturday, dropping United into the relegation places, did not suggest that this season would be different. Green, a former England international, considers himself old enough and well-enough travelled to suck up periods of bad form. “I’ve seen plenty of that before,” he said. But for the less street-wise players in Garry Monk’s team, he saw Tuesday’s victory over Blackburn Rovers – a side who like Leeds were in the bottom three before kick-off – as a “huge win”.
“When I first signed the manager told me he had some really good young lads,” Green said. “He’s right – they’re very good but they’re very young and in the circumstances Tuesday was huge. In no way could you call that game a six-pointer this early but for two home games in quick succession to pass with zero points or one point –well, it would have been hard.
“It’s fine to expect someone like me to deal with a rough patch and cope with the pressure. I’m old enough to bat it off, bat it off, bat it off. But for young lads, you want them to have good times. In the dressing room there’s me at 36 and then there’s Pablo Hernandez. After that the next eldest is 26, 27. I’ve probably played more games than all of the lads under 26 put together.
“It takes a while to learn about handling pressure and to be able to focus on the job. Life’s brilliant when it’s all going well. That’s when football’s easy. But on nights like Tuesday you need to find a way to keep on track, even though things are stacking up against you. It’s a big moment.”
Most of Monk’s players, Green included, have had their difficulties in the first month of the season. It was Green’s error on the first day, failing to stop a high ball slipping into his net in the fourth minutes, which set the tone with a 3-0 defeat against QPR. Leeds finished August with four points from five games and were beaten 1-0 by Huddersfield when the season resumed after the international break.
“Setting the tone isn’t a bad way of putting it but in terms of what was going wrong, I saw it in terms of us not giving ourselves a fighting chance,” Green said. “Conceding three goals from set pieces (at QPR) doesn’t give you a fighting chance. At Forest we conceded two goals from corners and another from a throw-in. So again, no fighting chance.
“At Fleetwood (in the League Cup) it was an uphill battle because we conceded early doors from a set piece. Those things have to dawn on you eventually. At a basic level, doing your job right is critical – and that applies to us all. The brutality of football is the mental toughness you need.
“Maybe we weren’t playing well either but regardless of how well or how badly we were playing, it felt like starting games on minus two or minus three. Between us it wasn’t good enough. It’s fairly obvious that on the days when we haven’t made those mistakes we’ve been better. Yeah, Huddersfield got the win – but we were right in that game and they won it with a quality goal. You can hold your hands up to that.”
Monk’s defence improved markedly against Town and also at home to Blackburn. United’s boss said it was no coincidence that his players had been able to devote more time to training during the recent international break. It did not seem to be a coincidence either that Pontus Jansson, United’s giant and charismatic Swedish defender, started both matches.
It was another centre-back, Kyle Bartley, who snatched an 87th-minute winner against Blackburn but even then the victory owed everything to two brilliant saves made by Green as Rovers threw the kitchen sink his way after equalising through Marvin Emnes.
Green denied Emnes again by getting his body behind a fiercely-hit shot before turning wide Sam Gallagher’s attempt on the rebound with his fingertips. United took the lead within seconds and saw out seven minutes of injury-time.
“Tuesday was one of those game where you make a couple of big saves at an important moment, the lads regroup quickly, go up the other end and score the winner,” Green said. “However many games I’ve played in, that’s always very pleasing.
“You realise through experience that something’s always going to happen. At some point you’ll be needed. That’s the moment you’re there for, especially in games like that – tight games where chances are at a premium. It’s those moments you work endlessly for. It’s in the bank and you know you can do it.
“Injury-time at the end felt like an eternity. That’s how much the result mattered. Those moments, those little five-minute nuggets, they can turn seasons around. I’ve seen it before in my career. But I’d still say that Cardiff on Saturday is the game that would really cement that.”
Victory at Cardiff would give Leeds back-to-back league wins for the first time this season. United were accustomed to taken nothing from the Welsh capital – without a victory away at City since 1984 before Steve Evans smashed that record in March – but Cardiff are themselves in the bottom three after losing heavily at Preston on Tuesday. Green, after many years in the game, smells the scent of a turnaround at Leeds. “If we’re talking about setting the tone then as rough a start it was for us, if we win on Saturday then we could go above QPR,” he said. “That kind of says something. The result down there would seem further behind us. All of a sudden you’ve got a fighting chance and you start looking up.”