Leeds United: Ex-captain warns of ‘lottery of play-offs’

Richard Naylor in action against Millwall in 2009.
Richard Naylor in action against Millwall in 2009.
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At this stage in 2009, Leeds United were moving like a train. Richard Naylor is at a loss to explain how promotion came to slip through their grasp. The last Leeds squad to qualify for the play-offs did so at a canter: with 11 straight victories at home, a manager whose win-rate sat at 70 per cent and a squad who were openly confident of smashing the ceiling above them.

“That’s basically why they call the play-offs a lottery,” Naylor says. “All those results you’ve had beforehand – they don’t count for much when it’s all or nothing. A season like that teaches you that automatic promotion’s the way to go.”

Former Leeds United manager Simon Grayson.

Former Leeds United manager Simon Grayson.

For Leeds, it was nothing in the end: defeat to Millwall in the League One play-offs semi-finals, killed off by a sweep of Jimmy Abdou’s right foot in front of Elland Road’s Kop. Leeds were beaten to the punch when it mattered by Millwall but their consistency in the process of qualifying for the play-offs was an example of how to round a regular season off.

The club were so ruthless in their performances that Naylor – a loan signing from Ipswich Town midway through the 2008-09 term – maintained a perfect record at Elland Road until the play-offs. He did not play in a losing side at Elland Road for fully 13 months. Simon Grayson’s squad were beaten once in their last 15 games, a solitary blemish away to champions Leicester City which came down to a 90th-minute goal. Having wobbled around the time of Gary McAllister’s sacking at Christmas, Leeds earned a top-six finish with a cushion of 10 points.

Naylor, who joined Leeds while captain Frazer Richardson was injured and immediately took the armband, felt impetus oozing as Garry Monk’s players do now.

“History tells you that someone usually sneaks into the play-offs,” he says. “When I first moved up from Ipswich, the club were a little way off. They’d had the situation with Gary McAllister and the results were a bit patchy.

Luciano Becchio in play-off action for Leeds United against MIllwall in 2009.

Luciano Becchio in play-off action for Leeds United against MIllwall in 2009.

“I’d gone through the play-offs before at Ipswich and at the back of my head I wanted to have the impact of going into Leeds and taking them up. They’re my club, it’s where I was born and I put a lot of weight on my shoulders in that respect. Before long we were on a roll and in a frame of mind where I never expected to lose, especially at home. I didn’t play in one defeat at Elland Road that season. People talk about the importance of going into the play-offs in form. Well, that was us.”

The play-off semi-final against Millwall would give Naylor one of his lasting memories, the goal from Luciano Becchio which opened the vale and ignited the second leg at Elland Road, but the season was less controlled than Grayson made it look. Five straight defeats, including one in the FA Cup to non-league Histon, and a torn hamstring suffered by Jermaine Beckford brought down McAllister on December 21. Grayson stepped in and Naylor was one of his earliest signings but Grayson himself had to go through the torment of a 2-0 defeat at Hereford United in mid-February – a night when Leeds’ away following dramatically lost patience – before his side finally clicked.

Naylor remembers the dressing-room inquest at Edgar Street – “Grayson spoke, Snods (Glynn Snodin, Grayson’s assistant) had his say, a few of the senior lads had words. We basically agreed that is couldn’t happen again” – but always felt free of the “baggage” created by Histon and McAllister’s sacking, events before his time at Elland Road.

“(Hereford) wasn’t a great night but to look at the results after that, it was probably a turning point,” he says. United’s 1-0 defeat at Leicester City on Easter Monday was their only loss from Hereford onwards.

“There was a bit of baggage from what had happened previously but I don’t remember any negativity, only excitement about what might happen. There was pressure, though. I felt it because I was an old man compared to some of the lads in the team: Fabian Delph, Ben Parker, Jonny Howson. Snoddy (Robert Snodgrass) had come down from Scotland and Becks (Jermaine Beckford) had only had a few years in the Football League. They didn’t have my experience but when you’re young, you don’t let opportunities worry you so much. They were talented kids so their chance was going to come again but I couldn’t think like that. I’ve got a lot of friends who are Leeds fans and I knew they were all desperate for (promotion). I was desperate for it too.”

The club’s lull through the winter cut them a long way adrift of Leicester. Despite a near flawless finish, including the concession of just four goals in their final 11 home fixtures, Grayson’s side did not have the legs to beat Peterborough to second place either. Monk’s side are in an similar position in the Championship: a good distance clear of seventh but eight points beneath the top two with games running out.

“There came a point where we knew the play-offs were coming,” Naylor says. “We weren’t going to finish below the top six and we were struggling to catch the top two. You’re in between and I think that lets you play with a bit of freedom.

“Towards the end it was quite a strange experience because in the last few weeks you’re just ticking games off. We won easily on the last day (a 3-0 win over Northampton Town at Elland Road) but deep down we were all waiting for the real business to start. All you were doing was getting those games out of the way.”

Leeds completed their traditional lap of the pitch after the Northampton win but were back at Thorp Arch 24 hours later to prepare for the first leg of their play-off semi-final away at Millwall the following Saturday. Antipathy has existed between Leeds and Millwall for years but in those League One days, an absorbing rivalry developed on the pitch. There was rarely much between United and a side who bore all the hallmarks of Kenny Jackett’s ultra-consistent management. Earlier that season Leeds had lost at the Den under McAllister but beat Millwall 2-0 at Elland Road under Grayson. They were a difficult side to play against,” Naylor says. “Every game against them was intense.

“I can’t pretend I didn’t feel confident because I did, but it wasn’t a case of underestimating them. Quite the opposite really.”

The first leg in Bermondsey underlined Naylor’s theory that “tiny things can decide the play-offs”. On that day, his loss of footing in the second half allowed Neil Harris to head home the only goal.

“Sam Sodje played them onside and one of their geezers tore down the right and crossed the ball just behind me,” he says.

I couldn’t adjust my feet quickly enough and I slipped. Ninety-nine times out of a 100 you’d get a touch to that and head it away. Harris was waiting to stick it away.”

Sam Sodje, Naylor’s partner in centre-defence, gave a brave interview in the aftermath of that defeat in which he guaranteed Leeds’ progression to the final and predicted that Millwall would cave in during the second leg. Andy Frampton, the Millwall defender, said simply that the noise of a sold-out Elland Road would “help us raise our game.”

Millwall rode their luck on a tense Thursday night as Beckford, who had spent all week practicing penalties and pinging them into the top corner of the nets at Thorp Arch, missed one in the second half with a scuffed shot which David Forde saved. The reprieve was brief. With 53 minutes gone, Parker ran the ball out of his half, exchanged passes with Andy Robinson on the left wing and squared a pass for Becchio to slide beyond Forde, levelling the tie at 1-1. On a galling night, Becchio served up one of the most memorable goals Elland Road has seen in years.

“Talking about it still makes the hair on my neck stands up,” Naylor says. “I’d been in play-off finals at Wembley in front of crowds of 80,000 but I’d never heard noise like that. It’s something that’s stayed with me. We battered them that night and when Luciano scores you think the tide’s turned. We should have finished them off but we let them off the hook and the sucker-punch came.”

Abdou scored it 16 minutes from time, unmarked inside the six-yard box after David Martin’s cross drew a knockdown from Lewis Grabban. Leeds could not raise themselves to recover from that or avert a 2-1 aggregate defeat.

“That’s when you feel the pressure,” Naylor says. “You’ve had a great season, you’ve slogged all the way through and then suddenly you’ve got 10 minutes to save it all. It was massive dejection at the end of it, really massive.”

Twelve months later the chance came again and Leeds, still under Grayson’s management, took a top-two finish by a whisker from Millwall. Naylor, who retired in 2012 and now coaches Hull City’s Under-18s, believes fitness and the odd stroke of luck are all that lie between Monk’s squad and promotion via the play-offs, assuming that a top-two finish is beyond them.

“It’s never a bad thing taking form into the play-offs,” Naylor says, “but keeping everyone fit is probably a bigger deal. If that’s where Leeds end up, something as small as a little injury to Chris Wood at the wrong time could be the difference.

“Previous results don’t help you in the play-offs but big players do. I’ll be hoping they get there and hoping they do it.”