Ian Holloway, the current Queens Park Rangers manager, can take credit for being one of the few people to tip Leeds United for the play-offs before a ball was kicked in anger in the Championship.
“They’re my dark horses for the season,” he said in August, describing Garry Monk as Massimo Cellino’s “best ever signing.”
A few days later Leeds took an ugly beating at Loftus Road, losing 3-0 on the opening weekend and setting a demoralising tone. Monk’s first game as head coach still ranks as his worst and the long drive home from sunny west London was spent fearing the worst. The club are used to their campaigns fading to nothing before Easter. There are few years in which they have been written off after 90 minutes.
QPR, who were under the management of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink back then, come to Elland Road tomorrow for a game between two teams who have contradicted many of the assumptions made on August 7. While Leeds chase promotion, QPR can finish in the top half of the division at best. Hasselbaink was sacked in November and Holloway, in his second stint at Loftus Road, went through a sequence of seven straight defeats before the turn of the year. Only recently has his squad settled down.
For Monk, August seems as far away as it does for anyone else; the vitriol from a livid away end, the flap from Rob Green which conceded the first goal in the fourth minute and the general rolling of eyes when defender Kyle Bartley spoke afterwards of a text message from his father reminding him that Reading lost their first game of the 2005-06 before going on to win the Championship. The message was prescient, as it now turns out.
Certain factors counted against Monk, even allowing for criticism of a nervous and feeble display.
His recruitment was incomplete, injuries were a problem and the likes of Pontus Jansson, Liam Bridcutt and Luke Ayling were still to sign up. Pablo Hernandez had joined from Qatar but a delay in securing international clearance forced him to sit in the directors box at Loftus Road. Moreover, Monk was two months into the job and waiting – confidently, he insists – for his methods to sink in and “click”.
“I knew that in training and on a daily basis we were working in a good way,” Monk said. “The things we were giving the players to do they were taking on board.
“They were getting used to our way. We were still in that transitional period where we were trying to finalise the squad. They’re not excuses but all of those things contributed to the start of the season.
“I was very confident in the group. I could see them taking on information and doing better each and every day. I knew there would come a point where it turned.
“Of course you need that one performance or that one result to click. It gives the clarity to the players, to see the work they’ve been doing transferred into a game. It works and they know they’re capable of delivering.
“I knew that game would come sooner rather than later and of course it had to because you have to get results. But I never doubted it and I’m sure I said that at the time. It was all about working hard, staying focused on what we were doing and getting the rewards of that hard work as soon as possible.”
From August to March and from a worrying start to fourth in the Championship table, the rewards have been tangible.
Monk said QPR’s visit to Elland Road tomorrow is “an opportunity to show how far we’ve come since the first game of the season. We were all disappointed and we knew we were better than what we showed.”
His argument that Leeds needed time to adjust to his management is borne out by the consistency of Monk’s tactics and formation and the success with which United’s players have acclimatised to both.
A 2-1 win over Blackburn in September is seen as the night when Leeds turned the corner; the night that saved Monk’s job and stopped him joining the statistical breakdown of recent sackings at Leeds.
Monk, however, felt a 2-0 victory at Sheffield Wednesday the previous month was the first time when the penny dropped.
“It was probably Sheffield Wednesday when things became clear,” he said. “I’d say that was the first one. In some of the earlier games – Fulham (the 1-1 draw at Elland Road) and even elements of the QPR game – there were things we’d worked on that I could see.
“It didn’t click as a whole performance and we had a few that weren’t complete performances. The first complete one was Sheffield Wednesday and from there I don’t think we’ve looked back. Even in the ups and down, we’ve stayed consistent and improved.
“But as soon as I saw the way they were working in pre-season I thought ‘this group have a good chance of doing well’.”
Managers at Leeds are not immune to bad starts. Even Monk’s was somewhere up the scale from Steve Evans’ first home game in charge being blighted by a concession to Blackburn after 16 seconds and another on six minutes but the mood after Leeds’ defeat at QPR was mutinous.
“Of course (you want a good start as manager) but it wasn’t hard for me personally,” Monk said. “My mentality is more about the players and the group.
“I wanted them to get off to a good start and to feel it all straight away.”
He added: “Behind the scenes I could feel it. I could see them thinking they were improving. You just want that one performance or that one result to take the pressure off them. It’s not a problem for me but for them to be able to breathe and perform, we needed the performance which came at Sheffield Wednesday. It was just about bringing it all together.
“I’ve said before that no-one’s immune to pressure but I’m one of those characters who, the more pressure there is the more I enjoy it and relish it. It motivates me even more but I had to translate that mentality into the group, which we did. We’re never looking back, always looking forward and moving on.”
The only pressure on Leeds now is an expectation that they will finish off the season as their form indicates; by reaching the play-offs at least. A win tomorrow would put the club on 68 points, a handful of results away from qualification. Holloway saw this coming but it took Leeds far longer to share his sense of confidence.
“He’s a good guy and I like him a lot,” Monk said. “He’s a clever guy too. Tactically when I’ve managed or played against his teams they’ve always been difficult games. I’m expecting the same this weekend but what a great opportunity to show the contrast between where we were then and where we are now.”
There is almost no comparison.