Leeds United: Second tier survival race starts to hot up

Neil Redfearn
Neil Redfearn
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United and their bottom six rivals are bringing in players in a bid to stave off relegation. Leon Wobschall looks at the January signings and those in past years which have worked – and those that haven’t.

IN THE perennial game that is Championship survival, the end of January represents the time when nervy supporters scan the fixture list with particular intensity – and not just for their own teams’ forthcoming engagements.

Relegation six-pointers start to loom large for those seeking to escape from the quicksand at the foot of the table – although for those clubs in the mire, some key strategic decisions arrive before then.

It’s the time when club hierarchy’s and management retreat to the equivalent of a ‘war bunker’ to hatch transfer plans before the winter transfer window slams shut. To stick or to twist, that is the question.

For Leeds United, business has been considerably hamstrung by an untimely transfer embargo for breaching Financial Fair Play rules, although limited room for manoeuvre has enabled them to sign players for a maximum of £600,000 per year in salary costs.

That avenue has been exploited to sign former Leicester City defender Sol Bamba, with his Palermo team-mate Granddi Ngoyi also following suit yesterday and possibly Catania striker Edgar Cani, set to join too.

An astute signing or two can make a real difference in a successful relegation battle. Just ask Barnsley fans about the merits of bringing in Chris O’Grady on deadline day in 2013 with the striker firing six goals and proving somewhat of a talisman in their Great Escape season of 2012-13.

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Back in 2011-12, Nottingham Forest, in the bottom three of the Championship at the end of January 2012, ended the campaign away from the drop zone, with the performances of Adlene Guedioura, signed in a shrewd beat-the-deadline move on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers, playing a significant role in Steve Cotterill’s side avoiding the ignominy of falling back into League One.

On the flip side, struggling sides can often get it wrong. Charlton may have just about survived last season, but their January acquisitions of the likes of Piotr Parzyszek, Loic Nego, Yohann Thuram-Ulien and Anil Koc didn’t have much to do with it and their names will be recalled for the wrong reasons by the Addicks faithful.

Of today’s relegation candidates, Millwall have wasted no time this calendar month in replenishing their squad with Paris Cowan-Hall, Stefan Maierhofer. Shaun Cummings, ex-Leeds man Dan Harding and Diego Fabbrini coming in.

Rotherham have also been busy, snapping up Conor Sammon, Danny Ward, Adam Hammill, Jack Barmby and Zeki Fryers, with possibly more to come.

Having not just the talent, but the stomach for the fight will be just as important for all those newcomers who check-in at relegation-threatened clubs before Monday night’s deadline.

Millwall’s new brigade will be afforded an early test of their mettle at home this evening to Reading, who like Leeds are too close to the bottom three for comfort.

If the third-from-bottom Lions require solace, a little is afforded them given that the two sides who have occupied the third and final relegation position at the end of January in 2013 and 2012 both stayed up – in the shape of Charlton and Barnsley.

For Ian Holloway’s wounded Lions, the smart money is on them having to vastly improve their home form to give themselves a chance of redemption.

Millwall, who have won just three out of 13 home league matches this term, still have to entertain a number of sides in the bottom half of the table, with Reading, Wigan Athletic, Huddersfield, Brighton, Fulham and Charlton among those due in at the New Den.

On their travels, Millwall must journey to the promotion-chasing duo of Middlesbrough and Brentford along with play-off candidates Wolves before season’s end – while also facing key trips to Leeds (February 14) and Rotherham United (February 28) next month.

For Steve Evans’ Millers, much like Millwall, turning the New York Stadium into a fortress represents their main hope of salvation.

Like the Lions, the South Yorkshire outfit have won just three times in 13 games so far in 2014-15 and they have a chance, in the same way as the Londoners, to lay down a marker tonight, against Bolton Wanderers.

The fourth-from-bottom Millers, who have not won in seven Championship matches on home soil since beating Leeds on October 17, face seminal encounters at the NYS before the end of the season, including six-pointers against two sides below them in Millwall and Wigan, who head across the Pennines on March 14.

Also on the roster at home in the generally definitive month of April are Brighton (April 6) and Reading (April 18).

Away from home, the Millers’ schedule looks imposing on paper, with treks to Boro, Watford, Wolves, Blackburn and much-improved Birmingham in the offing along with derby dates at Huddersfield (February 7) and Leeds, with the potential significance of that clash at Elland Road on the final day of the campaign on May 2 likely not to have been lost on both sets of supporters.

The predicament of Wigan, who suffered a bruising Roses loss to Huddersfield at the weekend, remains more dire than that of the Millers and Lions, not to mention Leeds.

The impending fixtures for the Latics, whose haul of two wins in 14 league games at the DW Stadium is pitiful, has not been kind with Malky Mackay’s side visiting Portman Road to face Ipswich this weekend before hosting current leaders Bournemouth the following Saturday (February 7).

Easter looks also looks a daunting double-header with games against Boro and Derby, with the Latics’ last two games of the season, at home to Wolves on April 25 and away to Brentford on May 2 also definitely bracketed under the label of tough.

But given the thoroughly unpredictable wheel of Championship fortune, the first rule is to expect the unexpected.