Former United midfielder Shaun Derry, who played in the 2006 Play Off final, still keeps an eye on his former club and is impressed by how they are progressing under Garry Monk Phil Hay reports.
When it comes to next month’s FA Cup tie between Leeds United and Cambridge United, Shaun Derry will give away as little as possible.
But on the subject of chasing the Championship play-offs the Cambridge manager can happily talk. Derry always keeps an eye on Leeds – he found time to take in their 2-0 win over Aston Villa on Saturday having just knocked Coventry out of the FA Cup – and the gathering momentum at Elland Road reminds him of his best year there.
Derry was part of the last Leeds squad to finish inside the Championship’s top six at the end of the 2005-06 season. The club’s former midfielder can see similarities between the scenario Kevin Blackwell dealt with and the situation in front of Garry Monk today. As Leeds put Villa away on Saturday, a short time after Cambridge reached the FA Cup’s third round, Derry felt potential rising. “They were so quick in transition and ruthless on the break,” he said. “When the time came to win that game they put Villa to the sword. I’d be very optimistic.”
Monk’s players have chipped away at the Championship during the first 19 games of this season, steadying themselves after a limp, standing start and cutting through the field. The year under Blackwell was slightly different. Leeds were top six or seven from a very early stage and held a play-off position for most of it. Reading annihilated the division and won the title with 106 points, a record which still stands, but it annoys Derry even now that Sheffield United got away and finished second.
As Derry recalls, United’s success in claiming a play-off position was made easier by the fact that Blackwell’s side spent most of the season fighting for automatic promotion. Glances over their shoulder were not habitual. Monk’s squad will find themselves in the same position if they win at Brighton on Friday night, cutting the gap to second place to four points and opening the door to the top two.
“Until the last month or so it never felt like we were going for the play-offs,” Derry said. “To be honest, I was really disappointed to be in the play-offs. It still disappoints me now looking back. Reading, they were miles out in front and on their own but we could have caught Sheffield United. There were points in that season where second place was on but it always felt like we were one result behind them – never right on them or even in front of them.
“When it came to making the play-offs, that probably helped. I don’t remember thinking about the possibility of teams below us catching us and knocking us out of the top six. The whole time we were concentrating on grabbing onto Sheffield United and Neil Warnock. It got to the start of April and by that stage, second place had gone but we’d been fighting for so long that a play-off place was already ours.
“It’s a big ask for any team but if this squad at Leeds can keep an eye on second, it’ll help them to keep looking up. That was how it worked for us. Once we were in the top six we didn’t worry about dropping out again.”
Blackwell’s side were eventually brought down during an infamous play-off final against Watford in Cardiff, a game which Derry describes as “disastrous”, and the 39-year-old still thinks that an excessive reliance on Rob Hulse as a goalscorer and United’s main centre-forward held Leeds back from a top-two finish.
Hulse scored 12 league goals – a figure matched by David Healy and only one better than Robbie Blake’s tally – but Blake failed to score after March 4 and Healy’s strikes dried up in the second half of the season. It was Hulse’s second-half effort at Preston North End which turned a compelling play-off semi-final Leeds’ way and sent Blackwell’s squad to the Millennium Stadium.
Monk can almost relate to that, with Chris Wood established as his lone striker and Leeds’ top scorer with 13 goals. Of the guaranteed names on Monk’s teamsheet, Wood is definitely one. The lack of natural cover for him is likely to be addressed when the January transfer window opens.
“It’s fair to say that we depended so much on Rob as a centre-forward,” Derry said. “It wasn’t like no-one else was scoring but we were at our best with him in the team. We just never found a way of getting someone to play alongside him and come up with those critical 15, 20 goals we needed to get past Sheffield United. Goals win you games and it’s wins that make the difference between automatic and the play-offs.” Sheffield United outscored Blackwell’s squad by a margin of 19.
“When you look back now you’d call it a very good season. It always seemed as if we were heading for the play-offs at worst. But the ending, the play-off final, was disastrous. And sadly that’s what I really remember.”
The crowds at Elland Road in 2005-06 were distinctly up and down and never remarkable. Leeds’ game against Sheffield United towards the end of October – televised on Sky and staged on a Friday night – pulled in an attendance of under 24,000. The last home fixture before the play-offs, a meeting with champions Reading, drew a crowd of 24,535. At no stage did Leeds clear 30,000 or touch on the attendances seen at the club’s recent matches against Villa and Newcastle.
“That was one thing that struck me on Saturday (during the win over Villa),” Derry said. “Elland Road is starting to fill up again. It’s starting to look full. That makes a big difference. I always found that Elland Road with 20,000 in it felt a bit empty. Other grounds would be packed to the rafters but in Elland Road the empty seats stood out. With 35,000 in there it’s a different place to play altogether and, in my opinion, a hell of a lot harder for visiting players.
“The performance against Villa would give me real hope of Leeds doing something this season. When they broke on Villa they were pretty ruthless and they’ve got lots of pace in that side. Pace is such a big factor in football these days.”