IF LEEDS UNITED had to cherry-pick a prefered away destination, then a trip to Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium would figure close to the top of the list.
With just one loss in 13 outings since Boro’s stadium by the River Tees opened in August 1995, treks up the A1 have, more often than not, been thoroughly pleasing ones for the United hordes.
Saturday’s 1-0 victory at the Riverside may have shredded the nerves of the 2,690 visiting fans in attendance and many more United followers watching the televised action unfold, but given the elation and ecstatic scenes at the final whistle, it was worth the pain.
Here’s five observations from United’s fifth win in their last six matches.
1: Sol Bamba is looking different class.
After joining Leeds, the word from the Leicester press, with the Foxes being his previous club in English football, was that Bamba was an affable character and decent enough defender, but one who ‘took risks’ at times. A footballing centre-back who had a tendancy to overdo it at times. What we have witnessed so far is that Bamba seems the redoubtable and imposing centre-half that Leeds have lacked for a good while. The smart money is on Neil Redfearn and Steve Thompson having told Bamba to keep it simple, win his headers and tackles and clear his lines - as a defender, you are there to defend. He is following that advice to the letter. Leeds have looked markedly more organised at the back since his arrival and he is clearly a communicator. Maybe over thirty, but still has a yard of pace and his positional sense and timing represented a true masterclass at the Riverside. An outstanding performance.
2: Leeds’ fitness and organisation is commendable.
For all Boro’s pressure and the fact that they laid siege on the United goal in the first half and for spells on the restart, Leeds finished the game the stronger and not just because the Teessiders ended the game with ten men after Jelle Vossen was stretchered off with Aitor Karanka having used his three substitutes. The likes of Rudy Austin were still bombing forward deep into stoppage time and Leeds, despite having to withstand considerable pressure, possessed menace on the counter. Leeds have found a successful way of playing away from home and the work that Redfearn has done at Thorp Arch has obviously been painstaking, but he is now getting his rewards.
3: The team ethic and spirit is mightily impressive.
Rewind to the Derby County game on December 30 when Leeds looked disjointed and a team of individuals in a sorry show when the Rams hardly had to break sweat to achieve a comfortable win. From that adversity, Leeds have drawn strength with the likes of Luke Murphy and Steve Morison brought in from the cold and doing their bit for the collective cause. Leeds look an honest, together and thoroughly organised side all of a sudden and while they may have been a little fortutious to triumph on Teesside, as the old adage goes, the harder you work, the luckier you become. All this against a side renowned for their work-rate and organisation in Boro. It was the sort of performance when every Leeds player was willing to help their mate out, there were countless last-ditch challenges and blocks and the team spirit was palpable.
4: Steve Morison’s goal drought may continue, but he is playing a vital role.
Yes, Morison may not have netted for Leeds since hitting a brace against Crystal Palace in March 2013, but he is proving a vital component to the team. He kept Boro’s centre-halves occupied on Saturday and worked his socks off for the team and chased back continually with his industry appreciated by the visiting supporters. Got through plenty of work and is vital to the way Leeds are playing at the moment. Once he does score, you suspect he will be mobbed by his team-mates, no-one deserves a goal more than him.
5: Winning at Boro is a massive confidence booster - but play-off talk is a little premature.
Speaking about the prospect of Leeds amounting a surprise play-off push, it was perhaps Sol Bamba who got it on the button. Realistic? No. Mathematically possible? Yes, while adding the caveat that it is ‘a little too soon’ to be talking about it. But one thing is for sure, not too many sides at the top will want to play United in their current form. Becoming the first side to triumph in 13 matches at Middlesbrough, who were previously unbeaten at home since being beaten by Reading on August 30, is the sort of result that resonates across the Championship - as did the victory over Bournemouth. Leeds need to continue to enjoy the ride and show the same traits and they will get their rewards. Next season is most likely the time, let’s not get too giddy though.. As Bamba also alluded, games at home sides at the top don’t carry too much pressure, a bit more expectation will be on for the game with Brighton. But Leeds head south with a spring in their step and are top of the Championship form table in the past six games.