Everyone in football knows prizes aren’t won in November and that they can be lost before the leaves fall but Phil Hay reckons Leeds United head coach Garry Monk is more aware of that than most.
Each game as it comes has been football’s mantra since the day league tables were formed and Garry Monk, a disciple of that mindset, is practising what he preaches.
Leeds United’s players were told in a team meeting last week to straight-bat questions about their League Cup quarter-final at Liverpool until the tie was upon them. On Saturday he applied the same rules to any mention of the play-offs. “There’s no talking about league tables or points,” he said. Or not inside his dressing room anyway.
Monk sowed the seeds of short-term focus when he first held court with his squad in pre-season and regardless of United’s compelling form, he did not see the end of October as an appropriate stage to start thinking about who might finish where in the Championship. But after 15 league games United’s head coach is sitting on the best start made in all but one of the club’s Championship campaigns since their relegation from the Premiership in 2004.
The one exception to the rule, Kevin Blackwell 11 years ago, took his side to the play-offs.
The 2005-06 season was a peak term by Leeds’ standards. It is, after nine full Championship seasons, the only time when the club have been in the top six at this stage of proceedings and the only year in which the club went on to finish inside the top six. Blackwell’s team took 26 points from their first 15 games, compared to Leeds’ current tally of 23, but United have rarely been better placed ahead of the run-up to Christmas.
Prizes aren’t won in October, as Monk reminded everyone over the weekend, but they can easily be lost before the leaves start to fall.
Monk is in precisely the same ballpark as two previous coaches in Simon Grayson and Brian McDermott, both of whom amassed 23 points from the same number of fixtures in 2010-11 and 2013-14 respectively. The results under Grayson was a precursor to one of the finest periods Leeds have had in the Championship, taking the club to second place at Christmas and keeping them in the play-off positions for more than half of the season.
Between a failure to adequately invest in the January transfer window and two critical results over the Easter weekend, United contrived to finish seventh and three points behind Nottingham Forest in sixth. “One day this club will be back in the Premiership,” a deflated Grayson said. “When, I don’t know.”
His players were at least in keen contention as the season drew to a close. Where McDermott is concerned, his full year in charge was an anomaly – the only campaign where the club’s final placing has been vastly different to their league position after 15 matches. McDermott’s Leeds were steady and in-form by November, lying eighth and about to edge into the play-offs.
He admitted privately around Christmas that he expected his squad, with a handful of January additions, to finish inside the top six at least.
In the months that followed, and as McDermott lost control and authority amid Massimo Cellino’s fraught takeover of United, his players bombed to 15th. Fourteen defeats from their last 24 games bucked the trend of a league which starts taking a firm shape through November and December.
“I invested everything in the job and at Christmas things were looking good,” McDermott told the YEP earlier this year. “The three months after that were horrible.”
There were others who did not have the luxury of a honeymoon period. In 2006, with Blackwell gone and Dennis Wise appointed in place of him, Leeds held 13 points after 15 matches. No manager since 2004 has been cursed with a worse start. Between them, David Hockaday, Darko Milanic and Neil Redfearn took United to 16 points in 2014-15 but most of those were accrued during Redfearn’s unbeaten period as caretaker. As a benchmark against last season, when Uwe Rosler and Steve Evans came and went from Elland Road, Monk’s squad are seven points and nine places better off.
Monk often talks about his tenure as head coach being in its infancy, and it clearly is, but his players have covered more early ground than many other squads in this league.
It is clear, still, that the two months ahead will test United’s durability and their chances of remaining in touch with the top six. Leeds’ last game before the international break is at Carrow Road on Saturday and for all that Norwich are under pressure, United have won there once in 11 previous attempts.
Newcastle United at home on the other side of the break is a meeting with the Championship leaders and an event like few others at Elland Road. Leeds announced yesterday that tickets for the televised fixture have sold out and the club intend to make a similar drive with sales for the forthcoming visit of Aston Villa. Leeds will play Villa twice in December and are also due to travel away to second-placed Brighton before Christmas. For Monk’s squad, it will be a key examination before the transfer window. In the interim, Monk will ask for strict attention on matters in hand, even though some of his players have their eyes on a big prize.
“Our main objective is promotion,” Kemar Roofe said last month, “but there’s no point looking at the table until the end of the season. We’ll focus on what we’re doing in-house.”
That work so far compares favourably with previous attempts to master this league.