Despite three successive wins, a play-off place is virtually out of reach for Leeds United but there are other targets for head coach Steve Evans to aim for during the Championship run-in. Phil Hay reports.
Championship sides have a sixth sense for knowing if qualification for the play-offs is on or off. In 2011 – one year when Leeds United genuinely threatened to make the top six – the club conceded defeat by arranging for building work on Elland Road’s East Stand to start in the week before their last league game.
They could do the same this season without severe risk of embarrassment but Steve Evans has Leeds on course for their highest Championship finish since Simon Grayson’s squad stumbled into seventh five years ago. The play-offs slipped through Grayson’s fingers in the closing weeks of that campaign, the cost of an untimely run of five games without a win in April. Evans would need a miracle to take his side so close before this season concludes.
After last weekend’s win at Blackburn, United’s head coach did not give the impression of a coach who thought the top six was beckoning him and his players, even on the back of three victories in a row. “The only thing for us is to concentrate on is the Huddersfield game on Saturday,” he said. “We’ll keep the focus on that.
“If we win that, then we can have a sit down and see where everyone else is in comparison to us. We’ve had a good week but we don’t want a good week. We want a good season.”
The statistics weigh against Leeds and weigh against them heavily. A maximum return from their last 10 fixtures would leave the club with a final tally of 77 points; enough for a top-six finish in a typical season but only three or four above the average requirement. In 2010-11, Grayson side amassed 72 but were three points behind sixth-placed Nottingham Forest with an inferior goal difference. Wolverhampton Wanderers fell short with 78 last year, as did Derby County on 77, and Leicester City are the only side in more than two decades to qualify with fewer than 70.
For Evans, the target of a top-10 finish – the aim Leeds and his predecessor, Uwe Rosler, set themselves at the very start of the season – is his most achievable. The club have what could be classed as a good run-in: two of their final 10 matches against sides in the Championship’s top six and four against teams in the bottom half of the table. Huddersfield Town come to Elland Road on Saturday with relegation threatening them and Leeds on a run of four straight wins against their West Yorkshire neighbours. A 3-0 win at the John Smith’s Stadium in November remains the biggest victory of Evans’s tenure as United head coach.
With 47 points from 36 games, Leeds are heading for a final haul of around 61. It will not threaten the play-offs and it might fall short of the top 10 but it would match the tallies produced by Neil Warnock and Brian McDermott and exceed the figure which the club, with Neil Redfearn as head coach, finished with last season. United have the chance this Saturday to register four straight league wins for the first time since November, 2009. They have not won four successive competitive fixtures since knocking Manchester United out of the FA Cup on January 3, 2010.
The pressure on Leeds as Evans chases the top 10 will come from their packed schedule in April. United head into the season’s last international break after Saturday’s derby against Huddersfield, unusually inactive over the Easter weekend, but next month throws up eight games in 28 days, a sequence congested by the rearrangement of their trip to Birmingham City. Leeds were due to visit St Andrews in February but their extended involvement in the FA Cup led to a postponement. That game now falls four days after a clash with champions-elect Burnley at Turf Moor.
For Evans, the biggest opportunity afforded to him by three wins in a row is the chance to close out the season without the strain of overwhelming pressure. Next month, he will become the longest-serving head coach under Massimo Cellino at Leeds, a fact which reflects Cellino’s ruthless streak but also underlines Evans’s powers of survival. The 53-year-old rode a wave of attacks on him after United’s 4-0 defeat to Brighton, saying: “I take criticism when the team don’t deliver but in the last three games they have.”
It is possible that in spite of hopeful talk of the play-offs, Evans will use the 10 games in front of him as a window for experimentation. He plans to blood young goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell before the end of the season and on Saturday he gave Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Botaka hope of more involvement before the season ends. Neither player has started a first-team fixture since October.
On the subject of Evans’s long-term future, Cellino is yet to blink. Evans expects the offer of a contract for next season to come once Leeds are mathematically safe from relegation but despite their run of three victories, the club are closer to the bottom three than they are the top six.
In October, when Cellino sacked Rosler and appointed Evans in place of him, the Italian implied that he would pay more heed to results under Evans than he would the basic league position. “I don’t expect promotion this season but everyone dreams of going to the Premier League,” Cellino said.
“If you say you can’t do it then you are telling the players they are not good enough. That is my view. The players are good players. Results were not good enough. That is all.”
LEEDS UNITED - THE LAST TEN HURDLES TO OVERCOME
Leeds United begin their last 10 games of the season at home to Huddersfield Town this Saturday – a derby which sends them into the international break and sets the scene for a tough run of eight matches in 28 days:
Saturday, March 19: v Huddersfield Town, at Elland Road, 3pm
Saturday, April 2: v Rotherham United, at the New York Stadium, 3pm
Tuesday, April 5: v Queens Park Rangers, at Elland Road, 7.45pm
Saturday, April 9: v Burnley, at Turf Moor, 12.30pm
Tuesday, April 12: v Birmingham City, at St Andrews, 7.45pm
Saturday, April 16: v Reading, at Elland Road, 3pm
Tuesday, April 19: v Wolverhampton Wanderers, at Elland Road, 7.45pm
Saturday, April 23: v Hull City, at the KC Stadium, 3pm
Saturday, April 30: v Charlton Athletic, at Elland Road, 3pm
Saturday, May 7: v Preston North End, at Deepdale, 12.30pm