The Championship is quite some league. In terms of competition there’s almost nothing like it. You’ve got Leeds United on a great streak of form, winning game after game, and yet by 5pm this evening they could find themselves outside the play-off zone.
I guess that’s why Garry Monk’s so reluctant to start shouting the odds about where this season will go. At the end of Thursday’s draw with Aston Villa you came away with the feeling that Leeds have a great chance of the play-offs and a potential shot at the top two as well. I wouldn’t be ruling out automatic promotion and I very much doubt his players are.
But there’s a fine balance to be struck between ambition and realism and it has to be said that a top-six finish is by no means nailed on for anyone other than Brighton and Newcastle. Leeds have a massive opportunity and my gut feeling is that they’re going to reach the play-offs. I’m really confident in saying that despite how tight the division is. But as a manager who’s made the play-offs before, this is where the battle of endurance starts.
Leeds were unlucky at Villa. There wasn’t much doubt that in the second half they had the better chances and deserved to win. Okay, in the last few minutes it almost felt like both sides were trying their best to lose it but the game had thrown caution to the wind by then. It was almost like a cup final. But Garry was right in his assessment - the game should have been put to bed long before Villa scored their penalty.
I’ve watched the penalty incident a few times and I’m still not convinced. The ball hits Liam Cooper’s hand, that’s perfectly obvious, but it seemed to me that he took a knock in the back as the cross came towards him. I’m also a bit confused about the referee who evidently saw a foul and gave a free-kick before changing his mind and awarding a penalty.
If you look at the replays, he had a great angle from where he was standing and he didn’t seem to have a problem with Cooper until the linesman stepped in. His initial impression was pretty clear. But in saying that, the ball did hit Cooper’s hand. And let’s face it. If that’s your team attacking you’d scream for a penalty in those circumstances every time.
Despite the late equaliser, I was so impressed with the attitude of the players and their willingness to go to Villa Park and take the game to a very good team. I know Villa have had ups and downs but they’re unbeaten at home and they’ve got masses of talent available to them. The squad there should be capable of promotion this season. There’ll be some lingering frustration about the result but really, you have to take confidence from the fact that Leeds don’t seem intimidated by the opposition in the Championship. Newcastle are arguably the one side they’ve shown too much respect to. Much as they were beaten comfortably at Brighton, that match turned on an early red card and you don’t get much at The Amex with 11 players, never mind 10.
There’s spirit in the camp and spirit is something which has been severely lacking at Elland Road for some time. There were periods under certain managers, like Neil Redfearn, when things felt good but even then we were all aware of factions and issues in the dressing room. This squad seems to be free of any of that. They’re in it together and they’re playing for each other. As a former manager it’s very easy to see that. And that’s one of the reasons why I think a top six finish is definitely on. In the short term Garry’s squad need to keep ticking off fixtures in the way that they’ve been doing. This game-by-game attitude – which, in a league as hard as the Championship, is the only way you can think – is working well for them and you won’t see a change in Garry’s tone or his approach.
But clearly the club also need a good transfer window. They’re right in the mix and the month coming up could tip the balance in their favour.
First up, sign Pontus Jansson permanently. That has to happen. The option is there, it’s been spoken about repeatedly and Jansson should activate it by making his 20th appearance on Monday. Obviously he’s on loan to the end of the season but this is all about a statement of intent. He wants to get it done and if Leeds drag their heels or leave the option alone, it’ll feel like a bitter blow. I’d honestly worry that Jansson’s form would suffer. He’s the showman, the big link with the fans, but his defending has been superb and taking him permanently is a no-brainer.
His partnership with Kyle Bartley is getting better and better and I do think Bartley was missed at Villa. I’m not being unfair to Cooper but over 90 minutes Leeds probably gave away more chances than they usually do. Bartley’s very understated in comparison to Jansson but he does his job to perfection. For me I’d have him down as player of the season so far.
It’s actually quite remarkable to realise that at no stage of this season has Monk had a full squad to play with. Bartley was missing on Thursday and Eunan O’Kane was too. When you think that the bench against Villa contained Chris Wood, Pablo Hernandez and Ronaldo Vieira, you realise how good this squad would be at full strength but a couple of clever additions in the right areas next month would take Leeds up to the next level. And as a tight table proves, the one thing they can’t afford to do is stand still now.