There is no longer any denial at Leeds United about how far short the club have fallen in the Championship and promises of a busy transfer window are already being made. But the sluggish pace of the table above them brings the depressing realisation of how little was needed to keep them in the hunt for the play-offs.
Leeds trail near the foot of the form table, as they have for a while since Christmas, but the Championship is summed up by the fact that their squad were within nine points of sixth place over the weekend despite recording two wins in this calendar year. As inadequate as United have looked in that period, it would not have taken much to keep their season alive.
Derby County, before yesterday’s success at Preston, last won a game on the first weekend of February. They remain fifth. Middlesbrough picked up gradually under Tony Pulis but Bristol City, in seventh, boast three wins from 16 matches and amongst the group of teams chasing the last two play-off positions, only Millwall are producing the traditional late surge. Leeds will not be alone in contemplating a missed opportunity when the campaign wraps up next month.
Paul Heckingbottom, United’s head coach, has never denied that 12th place – the club’s current standing – is a fair representation of their performance over 39 games and the focus on recruitment for another year in the Championship is an admission that the play-offs slipped away from Leeds long before the Easter weekend. It was, regardless, galling to see the fight for sixth place so wide open after their Good Friday defeat of Bolton Wanderers.
Heckingbottom admitted that a good chance was going begging, for the league in general.
“You could have that same question asked in however many press conferences to however many managers,” he said. “It just shows how competitive this league is.
“There’ll be lots of teams thinking they’ve underachieved. There’ll be lots thinking they’ve overachieved. But it’s such a tough and level playing field, how different every team is but how closely matched they all are. That makes it an intriguing league and a frustrating one at the same time.”
Tonight Leeds play a Fulham side who are not only a benchmark for play-off qualification but an example of some of the slicker football seen in the Championship. Slavisa Jokanovic’s side are doing what they did last season: negating a slow start with a burst of victories and an unbeaten run which goes back to the middle of December. Bristol City were the last Championship side to win at Craven Cottage, back on October 31.
Little by little their class has told, helped by the rapid development of their teenage winger, Ryan Sessegnon, and the January signing of Aleksandar Mitrovic on loan from Newcastle United. Fulham went big on Mitrovic and have reaped the reward of nine goals in 10 appearances. Their results might not yield automatic promotion but another appearance in the play-offs is almost guaranteed.
This evening, Heckingbottom is faced with the dilemma of whether to attempt to contain a team who play expansively or to fight fire with fire despite Fulham’s very obvious ability to counter-attack at pace. The Leeds boss insisted he preferred the second option.
“With the make-up of our squad and the type of players we have, we’ve got to go there really positive and look to hurt them,” he said.
“I don’t think I could pick a team to sit back or be defensive minded. We have to be positive when we’ve got the ball, work our socks off to stop them and control where they play their passes.
“There are plenty of teams before us who’ve said that, gone down there and come unstuck. They can be a really tough team to play against and a demoralising team to play against, with how they play. But they’re not unbeatable. We have to prepare as best we can for what they’re going to throw at us but also be really positive in what we do.”
Leeds’ record against the current top six is mediocre and, in some respects, an example of why the gap to the play-offs grew to such an extent. Fulham fought out a goalless draw at Elland Road in August and Aston Villa were also restricted to a point at United’s stadium but in 10 matches against the top six clubs, Leeds have registered one win and five points.
Last Friday they proved too strong for Bolton, claiming a 2-1 victory at Elland Road, but Bolton hold the Championship’s worst away record. A victory at Fulham would be a far bigger statement and a result unlike any Leeds have produced this term.
“Any team in the league who go there and get a result would be delighted and we’re no different,” Heckingbottom said. “They’re in a patch of form now, which they’ve been in since the turn of the year, where they’ve been the best team in the league.
“We can go there with that mindset: this is a real scalp if we take it. They’re a really good side and I like watching them. But I’d like beating them more.”
Friday’s win over Bolton was Heckingbottom’s second as head coach, in his ninth game in charge. While Leeds have little left to play for, he was counting on the fixture list to keep his players honest, in games against sides with more at stake. Sunderland come to Elland Road this weekend and trips to Preston North End and Villa follow.
“We’re playing against teams who are all fighting for points for different reasons,” Heckingbottom said. “We can use that to our advantage and for motivation. We can go and upset teams, demoralise teams, and we’ve got to have that sort of mindset. The last thing we want to do is float through the remainder of the season.”