The play-offs may be beyond Leeds United and relegation is no longer a threat, but they’ll be doing their best to put a spanner in the works of Forest’s own push for the top-six places. Phil Hay reports.
LEEDS United and Nottingham Forest are in the same boat; well aware that time is against them. The play-offs are virtually beyond Leeds now and Forest need two points a game to have any chance of sneaking in there.
Saturday’s game at Elland Road might be win or bust for Dougie Freedman’s squad. Nine points back with 10 games to go is one bad weekend away from curtains.
United’s head coach, Neil Redfearn, still gives Forest a chance of a top-six finish but he will leave the final table to speak for itself. “Clubs finish where they deserve to finish,” he said.
The Leeds boss would take a top-10 place in May, though anything above the Championship’s relegation places would have suited him at Christmas.
His record as coach this season – 26 games in charge, 41 points taken – is not so far from play-off form, begging the question of where United would be had Redfearn held the reins from the outset.
It’s rhetorical and the 49-year-old is philosophical about the harsh reality of the club’s campaign.
“Hindsight’s great and it’s the easiest thing to go on about what might have been,” he said. “Perhaps it could have been different but we’ve had a tough season.
“That’s the truth. It’s been hard, it’s been a struggle in parts so to talk about what we could have achieved isn’t really right.
“In the circumstances the achievement for us it that we’ve come through the other side. We’re in a position where we could possibly finish top 10 and we’re in a position where the team’s starting to take shape.
“Considering everything that’s gone on, that sounds like progress to me.
“The fact that the games are running out now is one of those things.
“To have a go at the play-offs or promotion, you’ve got to be right from the start. It’s not unheard of for clubs to come from nowhere and sneak into the top six but that’s not the norm.
“At the moment you’ve got five sides neck-and-neck at the top of the league and that’s because most of them, if not all of them, have had a decent amount of stability.”
Forest have more parallels with Leeds than the teams at the upper end of the division. Their foreign owners, the Al-Hasawi family, incurred plenty of public criticism earlier in the season and they, like United, were one of three Championship clubs hit with a Financial Fair Play (FFP) transfer embargo in January.
The Al-Hasawis gave up on Stuart Pearce at the end of that transfer window and immediately appointed Freedman as manager, a change which kept Forest’s year alive.
They are, however, on 53 points, nine points from the play-offs and a long way from 70. There is no knowing how many will be needed to for a top-six finish or a place in the top two. Bournemouth, the league leaders, hold 66 points. Derby County, Watford and Middlesbrough are behind them on goal difference alone.
“Forest have got a shout,” Redfearn said. “It’s a long shot but I’m convinced we’re going to see some surprises and some wobbles at both ends of the table.
“Someone who thinks they’re safe from relegation might just find the league creeping up on them.
“And at the top it’s so tight with all those clubs on 60-odd points.
“So many of them have got to play each other too. You’ll get dropped points and teams losing ground. A side with an easier run might get themselves in there.
“Us and Forest are in similar situations.
“The priority is to make sure that if we’re in the Championship next season, we’re going into it with a plan and momentum.
“We had to change things massively halfway through the season – change the system, change the team – and if we hadn’t done that then we’d have been in a lot of trouble. I can’t deny that. But we’re better now.”
Leeds will have their share of absentees again this weekend. Sam Byram missed last Saturday’s win over Wigan Athletic with a bruised foot and United will assess his condition over the next 48 hours.
“There’s a bit of tendon damage there,” Redfearn said. “It’s nothing major but it’s something we have to keep an eye on.”
Rudy Austin, who has been absent with a thigh strain since Leeds’ 3-2 defeat to Watford, has resumed light training but is a doubt for the visit of Forest to Elland Road.
Tommaso Bianchi and Granddi Ngoyi will not be available but centre-back Liam Cooper has overcome a hip injury and trained with the rest of Redfearn’s squad this week. Casper Sloth should also be fit to play after a groin strain.
“It’s been quite a punishing period,” Redfearn said.
“We’ve had back-to-back games and they’ve come at a time when the injuries are mounting up. We’re having to go easy on the players in training.
“Rudy’s running again and he looks fine but thigh strains are awkward.
“Running’s one thing, kicking a ball is another. For his sake as well as ours I don’t want to put him in a situation where he does something more serious. It wouldn’t be fair.”
Austin is one of a number of central midfielders who have been nursing injuries in the past month.
Bianchi underwent knee surgery three weeks ago and is still recovering. Ngoyi joined Leeds from Palermo in January but aggravated a thigh strain almost immediately. The Frenchman is in line to make a short appearance for Leeds’ Under-21s against Forest tomorrow.
Ngoyi is yet to play for United’s senior side but Redfearn said: “From what I’ve seen of him in training this week, he looks good. He’s a strong lad and he’s got good touch.
“If we can get him fit then I think he’s got a role to play.”