DENTED. But not derailed.
So says Wolverhampton Wanderers boss Paul Lambert who has backed Garry Monk to rally his wounded Leeds United troops and still seal a place in the Championship play-offs.
Yet the 47-year-old Molineux chief says the Whites will only achieve their objective if the club’s players are to stand up and be counted, admitting “big players will handle it” when it comes to the pressure-cooker situation of sealing a place in the top six.
On the face of it, Lambert and his Easter Monday visitors looked to present Leeds with the ideal opposition to garner three more crucial points in their quest to finish in the play-offs places.
The Molineux outfit arrived at Elland Road a comfortable eight points clear of the Championship drop zone yet hardly in flying form following back-to-back losses at Bristol City and at home to Brighton.
But there was good reason why former Norwich City, Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers boss Lambert was presented the Championship manager of the month award and five straight victories throughout March and April mean Wanderers have now won six of their last eight games.
It may be, in time, that defeat to the Molineux outfit might be viewed in a different light, rather like when United were shocked by Cardiff City in February.
Neil Warnock’s Bluebirds ended United’s run of six straight wins at Elland Road but went on to prove the victory was absolutely no fluke by winning their next two games and losing just one of their next seven.
Former Celtic midfielder Lambert will now be hoping that his Wolves side can do something similar, en route to turning his Midlands outfit into play-offs pushers next term.
Wolves will play no part in this season’s shake up – a fact that has been abundantly clear for some time – but Lambert can still see the side his men conquered on Easter Monday ending up with a place in the Premier League in six weeks’ time.
Defeat to Wolves jettisoned Leeds down from fifth to seventh in one foul swoop – but only behind sixth-placed Fulham on goal difference – and Lambert told the YEP: “I think it’s really tight to call.
“I think they are well in the mix, really in the mix, and without knowing their run in – to come here and get results is really difficult with the crowd that it has got behind it.
“It could go right to the wire.
“If you asked me do I think they can still do it? Absolutely they still get in it.
“And then once you are in the play-offs then you roll the dice really and hopefully you get through it.
“They are not out of it.
“Okay, we have put a dent in it, not derailed it, but I am pretty sure that Garry is experienced enough to get them back on it.”
Saturday’s trip to Burton Albion will present the opportunity to do just that with Leeds visiting a team battling relegation but whose situation improved markedly with Easter Monday’s 2-0 success at Birmingham City whose manager Gianfranco Zola resigned from in the aftermath of that defeat.
With Fulham facing a tall order at third-placed Huddersfield Town on Saturday, a Whites’ victory at the Pirelli could suddenly paint United’s play-off plight in a rather more appealing light.
But before a final day trip to nearly relegated Wigan Athletic, United will then need to rediscover their Elland Road best for the club’s final home game of the season the following weekend against inconsistent, but undeniably capable, Norwich City who sit eighth but too far behind the top six to make an impact on the play-offs. Elland Road could be a bag of nerves but Lambert says there is no excuse for nerves or feelings of anxiousness extending to those players who want to make a name for themselves at the top.
“Big players will handle it,” said Lambert, asked if he felt nerves played a part in United’s defeat to Wolves.
“When you have been to the top level and you have won big titles, big players can handle it.
“You have got to handle a crowd and Leeds have certainly got a crowd behind them.
“They are a brilliant football club and the history behind it and I think when you play here it’s a bit similar to our own place in that you have got to have players that can handle the supporters.
“The more the season draws in and you start to look over your shoulder at other results, then it becomes nervy so the ones that are not at the top who know 100 per cent that they are in the play-offs, it can be a nervy few weeks for them.
“We know what it’s like when the expectancy level is on you and you have got to try and get a result - the difference being Leeds being at home and the position they are in.
“To try and stay in that play-off area, it can be nervy and you have got to be able to have players that can handle it.
“In the big games with big crowds, when you play in front of a crowd, the players have got to be able to handle it and you have got to have the right players to handle it.
“If you don’t have the kind of player to handle it then it will be difficult for you.”
Lambert also felt his side were well worthy of the three points at Elland Road, declaring: “I thought we were excellent.
“I thought the first half set the tone of the game and I felt we should have been two or three up in the first half.
“Our performance level was extremely high and that set the tone of the game.
“We were coming to a really hard place, to a team that is going really well and with the crowd behind it but I thought we played really well.
“And you know you are going to come here and have to defend at some stage.
“There were a lot of crossed balls and a lot of direct play and you have to defend – it’s part of the game.
“You know it’s coming but the defending is part of the game and there is no right or wrong way to play football.
“It’s about putting it in the net the best you can and keeping it out and we have done that.”
Leeds must now do exactly that at Burton on Saturday, and at least know that three more wins will guarantee a place in the play-offs considering that fifth-placed Sheffield Wednesday host Fulham on the final day.
And Lambert is confident that United have the right man at the helm to produce the perfect response.
“Garry has done it before and I think Garry is a terrific manager,” said Lambert.
“I am pretty sure he will try and keep them level headed and they will kick on in the next few games.”