If Leeds United’s dressing room is a nervous environment then Stuart Dallas has rejoined it with a timely spring in his step. Hard days in Leeds contrast with pure elation in Northern Ireland where random men in the street try to kiss Dallas’ feet.
The atmosphere in the province is an example of what happens when football teams deliver – and deliver to long-suffering supporters as Northern Ireland did by qualifying for Euro 2016 last week. Fifth seeds in their group and absent from a major tournament since 1986, October 8 for them was a genuinely historic date.
Dallas, who joined Leeds from Brentford in August, was keenly involved throughout the qualifying campaign and can expect at this stage to make the cut for next summer’s finals in France. It would be easy to understand why he is pinching himself while others players at Elland Road stew over the form of their club. He is doubtless alone in seeing this international break as an “incredible two weeks”.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience and something that’ll live with us for the rest of our lives,” Dallas said. At 24, the winger is relatively new to international football and, among his Northern Ireland team-mates, unaccustomed to the sense of perennial failure.
“For me this was my first campaign,” he said. “I never experienced any of the failures. But Steve Davis, Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt, Jonny Evans – the older players, like Aaron Hughes, they’ve experienced the real lows. For them it’s probably even sweeter.
“A lot of people wrote us off at the start of the campaign – especially as a team from the fifth pod. No team’s ever topped the group being fifth seed before and Northern Ireland are probably known for failure over the years.
“It’s incredible when you’re walking down the street and you’ve got grown men almost crying, people bowing down to you. It is incredible.”
Did he believe that Northern Ireland would make it in the end? “We put ourselves in a position where we knew it would be a failure if we didn’t qualify,” Dallas said. “Michael (coach Michael O’Neill) has installed a belief where any game we go into, we think we’re going to get something out of it.”
Leeds would like to capture what Northern Ireland and O’Neill have got – the knack of making the sum of their whole exceed the sum of their individual parts. United have had odd moments this season, particularly at the end of August when a rare win away at Derby County appeared to set the ball rolling in earnest, but Dallas left behind a club ranked 17th in the Championship when he linked up with Northern Ireland a fortnight ago.
Like club and country, Dallas’ thinks that his own form has been different in different shirts, despite encouraging flashes of form for Leeds. Rosler kept faith with him amid the arrival of two other wingers, Jordan Botaka and Will Buckley, but Dallas’ role against Brighton this afternoon will be decided shortly before kick-off.
Rosler wanted to see how well recovered he was after two weeks away and appearances in qualifiers against Greece and Finland. “Sometimes it’s good to play on the back of such a great achievement and adrenaline boost,” Rosler said. “Sometimes it’s good to just let the horse go further.”
“For Northern Ireland I’ve done well,” Dallas said. “I think for Leeds, maybe my performances could be of a higher standard.
“I’m my biggest critic and I set the highest standards I can. Sometimes I’m disappointed when I come off the pitch but that’s the way it is. You keep working hard.
“I’ll always give 100 per cent. That’s a given. Any player who doesn’t shouldn’t be here. But there’s always something you can improve because nobody’s perfect. That’s why you train – to put things right.”
The defeat to Birmingham was a result which needed amending quickly. So too the performance and United’s run at home which continues to show no victories since the first week of March.
Rosler called the Birmingham result – a 2-0 loss inflicted by a side who sat deep and picked Leeds off – a “bitter defeat” and Dallas said: “It does niggle.
“It gives you a big boost if you go into the international break on the back of a good performance and unfortunately we weren’t able to do that. We know it was a below-par performance, there’s been no pretending otherwise.
“But you can only take the next game as it comes and a first home win against an unbeaten Brighton side would be the best time. The boys have regrouped and we’re raring to go. The atmosphere’s good. We look to win every game we can but we’ve got to give ourselves the best chance possible.”
Dallas sees United’s prospects for the entire season in the same light; less worthy of thought than the game immediately in front of them. Rosler played down United’s chances of promotion this week, drawing criticism in the process, but his caution seemed understandable given the club’s league position, three points above the relegation places.
“We’ve got to start putting a run together, building momentum and picking up points,” Dallas said.
“We can only take one game at a time and that’s Brighton but we know ourselves that the results haven’t been good enough.
“If we put a run together and build momentum then anything’s possible but first and foremost we’ve got to concentrate on this game. Get three points on the board which would be our first home win. Then we’d kick on from there.”