The League Cup kept Kemar Roofe ticking over in the first two months of this season; knockout competitions in the main did him no harm last season either.
In the space of five days in January he eliminated Swansea City from the FA Cup and put Oxford United within touching distance of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final.
The Swansea team who Roofe scored twice against were essentially Garry Monk’s, though Monk’s dismissal a month earlier had placed their squad in the hands of caretaker Alan Curtis. It was after that game that Oxford’s manager, Michael Appleton, began fielding questions about whether Roofe was destined for a transfer like the £3m move which took him to Leeds United in July. Curtis could only admit that “Oxford were the better team and they deserved to win.”
In the end, promotion mattered more to Oxford than progress in the FA Cup or their JPT run to Wembley, and Roofe’s League Two player-of-the-year award came down to his form in that competition, but he would happily take another run at Leeds. One victory over Norwich City this evening and United will find themselves at the sharp end of the EFL Cup.
Leeds rarely make waves in this particular tournament and they last reached the quarter-finals in 2012, during the same season when Monk won the League Cup as a player at Swansea. Neil Warnock was United’s manager at the time and a last-eight meeting with Chelsea – set alight by Luciano Becchio’s opening goal but quickly stifled by a Jamie Ashdown error and five Chelsea strikes – was the peak of Warnock’s short spell in charge.
Roofe has started all three previous ties this season, helping Leeds to stay in the hunt while keeping off the League Cup’s radar. Monk’s side beat Fleetwood on penalties in round one and overcame 11 changes to his line-up to win at Luton Town in round two. After a 1-0 victory over Blackburn Rovers in the following stage, United were one of only five lower-league clubs left in the tournament. They pulled another and avoided the Premier League’s big-hitters when Norwich were handed a fourth-round trip to Yorkshire.
“I’ve had some good runs before,” Roofe said. “Last season we were a League Two team who played against big teams and beat them. We held our own and did well.
“I’d love that to happen here. I think our main objective is promotion this season but we take every game seriously. Norwich are a good team. They’ve come down from the Premier League and they’ve still got the Premier League players who’ll still be thinking liking Premier League players. But it’s 11 versus 11. We’ll do our best.”
Leeds have the advantage of playing at Elland Road and were it not for an injury-time goal conceded to Wigan Athletic last Tuesday, Monk would be sitting on a run of five straight home wins. Leeds attracted a meagre crowd for their third-round victory against Blackburn, below 8,500 and the lowest at Elland Road in a major competition for 10 years, but the club have slashed ticket prices for tonight’s match. Adults season-ticket holders and members are being charged £10. Under-11s will be admitted for as little as £2.50.
There is, however, as much appeal in United’s form as there is in the price of entry. Saturday’s league win at Wolverhampton Wanderers – a third away victory of the term – extended a healthy run which now shows 16 points gained from the last eight matches. Much as Monk would not talk of it in these terms, an average of two points a game is promotion form or play-off form at the very least. Leeds are seven points behind fourth-placed Norwich, a club who Monk regards as favourites for the Championship title.
City were well on the way to the play-off final when they last appeared at Elland Road, winning 2-0 with the aid of a cultured Jonny Howson strike in April 2015. The former Leeds captain will play no part this evening after undergoing ankle surgery.
Roofe said he was aware of expectation growing at Leeds. “Of course you sense it,” the forward said. “But I’m not just talking about our own fans and people. It’s outside the club as well. People were writing us off before but there were so many new players here, all getting used to each other. We’ve done that now.”
Roofe is finally integrating himself into United’s league term but the debate over his best position appears to depend on who is judging him.
Many think the 23-year-old is suited to an out-and-out striker’s role. Others think he can cope with any central attacking role.
In Monk’s established system, Roofe has played more often than not out wide, occupying the left wing against Wigan on Tuesday and at Molineux on Saturday. His role against Wolves did not stop him coming within inches of a first-half goal and forcing home right-back Silvio to put through his own net 20 minutes from time. Silvio’s blunder was enough to hand Leeds a 1-0 win.
“Last season I played up front and down the middle,” Roofe said. “But I just want to play. For me it’s all about getting game time and getting used to everything – getting used to the tempo of the Championship and getting used to my team-mates. They need to get used to me too and when all that goes to plan, I’m sure it’ll be good.”