Much of what might have gone wrong did go wrong at Burnley on Saturday but in spite of the result it could not have been said that Leeds United’s players were mentally on the beach.
Burnley’s season is very live while United’s dwindles towards a low finish in the Championship – a fact which could explain why Burnley looked the more anxious of the teams at Turf Moor – but it was widely agreed at the end of Leeds’ 1-0 defeat that the better side had lost.
Centre-back Liam Cooper described the result as “devastating”, a comment which probably overstated the mood but underlined a sense of deflation, and he railed against the suggestion that Leeds might coast through their last six games and into the summer.
“We’ve got to finish as high as we can,” Cooper said.
Leeds are mathematically out of contention for the play-offs and by the end of this week, starting with tonight’s visit to Birmingham City and Saturday’s meeting with Brian McDermott’s Reading, they should be mathematically free from the threat of relegation. The season is over, in other words, but one of the positive aspects of United’s performance at Burnley was their ability to make the game look like it mattered.
It has, undeniably, been a hard campaign for the club. The fixture at Turf Moor was a reminder of how much has changed since former head coach Uwe Rosler set the ball rolling against Burnley on the first day of the season.
A 2-0 defeat to Birmingham City in October, meanwhile, was the result, after only 10 games in charge, which first made Rosler think that he might be on a sticky wicket under the gaze of Massimo Cellino.
On Saturday Leeds conceded after 59 seconds, picked open and picked off by Scott Arfield, and two glaring misses by Chris Wood in the second half allowed Burnley to hold onto first place in the Championship.
Cooper found much to praise in United’s display but was critical of their run of four games without a win, admitting it was “not good enough”. The defender said the final six matches of a hard campaign were about “being professional”, despite the inevitability of another season in the Championship.
“We know the fans are hurting with the form but we are too,” Cooper said. “We’re doing everything we can to turn it around and we want to win as many games as possible.
“As professionals, we want to finish as high as possible. I know that’s what the boys want and it’s certainly what I want. We’ll be looking for another positive result at Birmingham. It’s never nice to lose but we’ve got to brush ourselves down because this is the Championship – you’ve got another few days, another game and we’ve got to be ready for it.
“Football’s a tough game sometimes. Sometimes you don’t get what you deserve but no-one’s going to give you anything. We’ve got to appreciate that and go get it ourselves.”
Thoughts at Leeds are rapidly turning to next season, particularly among the club’s fanbase. A group of supporters who crossed paths with Cellino in Wakefield on Saturday, as the Italian travelled to London after the defeat to Burnley, said he was talking about the future and giving very clear signals that he planned to replace head coach Steve Evans in the summer.
Evans remains in his job and looks likely to retain it until the term ends on May 7. In those circumstances, it is difficult for him or any of his players to think about what the close-season will bring.
“It’s always hard to talk about next season when we’ve got six games to go,” Cooper said.
“We did well at Burnley, we were the better team for most of the game but a bad start cost us. It’s the Championship, though, so you get a chance to put it right straight away.
“Birmingham’s another game, we’ve got to look forward to that and we can take positives from Burnley.
“There were a lot of them and hopefully the fans have seen that. We’re trying our hardest. But we can’t start like that again.
“They’ve gone direct, they’ve put the ball up and won a flick-on. It’s a good finish from Arfield but it’s very disappointing to concede in the first minute. We had chances to win the game but we do have to do better and we’ve got to start getting some positive results now. It’s not been good enough.”
Birmingham, too, are facing up to the same reality after one victory from their last six games.
Gary Rowett’s side have been one of the Championship’s unfancied contenders this season, in the running for the play-offs for most of the campaign, but they need a victory badly at St Andrews tonight to stay in outside contention.
“If we play like we did at Burnley then we’ll give Birmingham a right good go,” Cooper said.
“They’re another strong team, a hard place to go, but we’re looking forward to it.
“Once we settled down (at Turf Moor) we looked the better team, we passed the ball well and we’ve given a Burnley team who’ll probably be playing in the Premier League next year a good run for their money.
“They’ve a good defence have Burnley but at times Chris (Wood) got in great positions. He should have scored but I’m sure he’ll make it right and hopefully he nicks a goal at Birmingham.”