Head coach Steve Evans has already dispatched a few poor records in his short tenure at Elland Road, so restoring festive cheer for the Leeds United faithful is high on his Christmas shopping list. Phil Hay reports.
Steve Evans knows the history of Leeds United at Christmas; so much so that he felt the need to remind everyone of how uncharitable this time of year can be.
It was his decision to purposely point out that Leeds have not won a game between Christmas and new year since the days of League One in 2009. His comments invoked memories of Stockport County away and a dead-eye finish from Leigh Bromby in the finest period of Simon Grayson’s reign as manager.
United’s Christmases since then have been hard and barren but in his short spell as the club’s head coach, Evans has dispatched a few poor records. Leeds’ eight-month stretch without a home win ended under him. The club beat Cardiff City for the first time since 1984 last month and, prior to last Thursday, had not won at Wolverhampton Wanderers in fully 31 years.
Leeds’ long-term form in late December has been impervious to changes of staff and changes of strategy. Neil Warnock famously gave his players Christmas Day off in 2012 and was repaid with feeble performances against Nottingham Forest and Hull City. Evans had planned to call his squad into Thorp Arch yesterday as he set about preparing for tomorrow’s game at Forest but he relented at the last minute and cancelled training – a trade-off, apparently, for Sunday’s victory over Preston.
The club’s festive record matters less to him than the bigger picture of sustaining the impetus which Leeds have established this month. Three wins from four matches cut the gap to the Championship play-offs to five points last Sunday and Evans knows a strong Christmas will keep his players in the hunt for promotion. A bad run between now and the first weekend of January could easily cut them adrift again.
Nonetheless, United’s repeated failure to make much of the Christmas period took Evans by surprise. “Some players probably had too much turkey,” he joked. “It’s a time of the season where we’re not known for collecting points and we have to change the history.
“This club hasn’t won a Christmas-period fixture since 2009 at Stockport. When that record goes on for five years there’s something wrong. But then this club took nearly eight months to win a home match. I know some of that was over the summer period but it’s just not right. Can it be right that the Leeds United’s supporters haven’t seen their team win a holiday fixture since 2009?
“If we don’t turn up and perform (tomorrow) then it might be a statistic which continues in my time but it would be nice to break it at the first opportunity.”
Forest, tomorrow’s opponents and a club who Leeds routinely visit around Christmas, are in an similar position to United: sitting in mid-table but potentially set up to compete for a play-off place in the second half of the season.
The form of both teams prior to the mid-way stage has left them with ground to make up and little margin for error but Evans’ side are in form, with five wins from eight games. Dougie Freedman’s squad are unbeaten in five. Though Sky Sports drew criticism for choosing to televise tomorrow’s match and rearranging it in the process, a meeting of 13th and 15th could yet hold some significance.
Evans travelled to watch Forest beat MK Dons 2-1 last weekend and noted the quality of their performance.
“It was top-class,” Evans said. “They were energetic and they missed a host of chances to put the game away at 2-0. It was similar to us against Preston (on Sunday).
“You have to take your chances in the Championship or perhaps you’ll pay a price but Forest survived and so did we against Preston.”
Asked about Forest’s main threats, including on-loan Benfica striker Nelson Oliveira, Evans said: “There’s 10 players in red shirts and a goalkeeper who wears yellow. They’re a good side and they could have beaten MK Dons by five or six.
“I could talk about the front two, their midfield or the boy Henri Lansbury who could put the ball on a toadstool 70 yards away with one touch. They’re gifted but we’ve got gifted players too. There’ll be a fantastic Christmas atmosphere and we want to deliver.”
Evans has been openly critical of the rearrangement of fixtures which has seen all four of Leeds’ final matches of 2014 moved from their original dates. A 4.30pm kick-off in Nottingham tomorrow will be followed by a night game against Paul Clement’s Derby County at Elland Road on Tuesday. Evans indicated that while Leeds would be at full strength against Forest, changes to his line-up for the visit of Derby were inevitable.
United’s boss, regardless, has had his optimism replenished by Leeds’ results in the run-up to Christmas. The club could drop further down the Championship today as the rest of the division contest Boxing Day fixtures but Evans is allowing himself to feel that United are in the running for a target which seemed out of reach a month ago.
“We’ve gone to within five points of the play-offs,” Evans said, “and it doesn’t matter how many teams are in between. I said a few weeks about trying to get within six points (by January) and that looked, perhaps, a difficult challenge.
“We know how it is in the Championship. There are some terrific football clubs in there. We’re going to meet two from the east Midlands shortly – one away and one at home – and it’s always tough to get points against those two particular clubs.
“I think first and foremost we have to think about getting in the top half of the table. But I’m a coach who’s used to talking about promotion because I normally get it.”
Leeds United’s post Christmas results
December 26: Leeds United 3 Hartlepool United 1.
December 28: Stockport County 2 Leeds United 4.
December 26: Leicester City 2 Leeds United 2.
December 28: Leeds United 3 Portsmouth 3.
December 26: Derby County 1 Leeds United 0.
December 31: Barnsley 4 Leeds United 1.
December 26: Nottingham Forest 4 Leeds United 2.
December 29: Hull City 2 Leeds United 0.
December 26: Blackpool 1 Leeds United 1.
December 29: Nottingham Forest 2 Leeds United 1.
December 26: Leeds United 0 Wigan Athletic 2.
December 30: Derby County 2 Leeds United 0.