The finest hour-and-a-half of Ronaldo Vieira’s career came on a Friday evening under the lights of Elland Road, and night games have grown to be his fixtures of choice.
“I actually do (prefer them),” he said. “I don’t know why but I do. The atmosphere always seems to be brilliant. Under the lights is good.”
The atmosphere should not let him down tonight as Leeds United and Sheffield United step into a sell-out ground for a Yorkshire derby with a healthy plot.
The scenario was not so different when Vieira amazed Steve McClaren by bullying Derby County in January – a meeting of fifth and seventh on that particular Friday – and the proximity of Leeds and Sheffield United in the Championship is close enough for Thomas Christiansen to mark it down as a six-pointer, even in October.
Leeds are fourth with 23 points, four behind Sheffield United in third. Both have punched above their weight, at least on the basis of pre-season predictions, and Yorkshire honour is at stake, albeit at a stage where bragging rights are perhaps the most distant aspect of the contest. There is a sense of promotion hanging in the air and a recognition that both clubs are right in the thick of the hunt.
Speaking yesterday, Vieira was in two minds about the significance of the derby. It was, he admitted, the sort of match that Leeds should be winning if promotion was attainable but nonetheless a meeting at a fairly early stage of the season.
Part of the reason why the 19-year-old felt relaxed about the three losses which preceded Leeds’ win at Bristol City last weekend was because the table is in a state of relative infancy.
“It was early when we were winning games and it was still early when we lost three games,” he said. “There’s a long season to go and a long way to go to where we want to be.
“This game will be very important but it is just another three points. We’re still at the start of the season really. We’ve got to win games like this to be able to get to where we want to go but we need to go out there and not think about that too much.”
The club’s previous Yorkshire derby, away at Sheffield Wednesday on October 1, was as bad a day as Leeds have experienced in Christiansen’s invigorating spell as head coach.
Sheffield United had been to Hillsborough the previous weekend, winning 4-2 and helping the knives come out for Wednesday manager Carlos Carvalhal. Given a chance to turn the screw on Carvalhal further, Leeds gave him a leg up by making fundamental errors and losing 3-0.
Christiansen spoke afterwards about his players being “soft” but Vieira claimed Leeds’ poor run of four losses from five games had helped to harden the squad. Was there any danger of a repeat of the Hillsborough performance this evening?
“No chance,” Vieira said. “After the three (successive) defeats everyone knew we had to be tougher.”
There was evidence of more backbone and conviction last weekend as Vieira made his first league start of the season and Leeds took apart a Bristol City side who were unbeaten at home.
“Playing three in midfield gave us an extra boost,” Vieira said. “The players up front had the freedom to go forward and do their thing. When we lose games we get frustrated, especially three in a row, but we try to take it game by game. After one game, forget about it. After the next game, forget about it. After three, yeah it started getting a bit more frustrating but still, forget about it and think about the next game. That’s what we did at Bristol. Now that’s gone too so just focus on (Sheffield United).
“They’ve been unbelievable so far, I think, but it’s just another team for us to try and do our thing against. They’ve been doing great but Bristol were doing great as well. We went there, played our football and won the game. We’ll try to do the same thing.”
Vieira is managing tendonitis in one knee but, four days on from the win at Ashton Gate, Christiansen was happy to use him as a substitute in Tuesday’s Carabao Cup defeat to Leicester City. He is expected to start at Elland Road this evening, though Christiansen suggested that he could break from tradition and play a three-man defence to match up to Sheffield United’s long-established and successful system.
“What we’ve been working on, we’ve worked on before and we’ll be ready to deal with what they do,” Vieira said. “My knee’s all good, no pain at all. Well, still a little bit but it’s always there. It feels good. I wouldn’t say it’s been an issue for me. It’s just a matter of managing it – doing things before and after training so it settles down.”
Vieira came of age during his performance against Derby in January, a masterclass of midfield dominance from a player who few in the Championship knew much about. His form in his first year as a professional spawned his own song on the terraces and attracted the attention of England’s youth coaches, despite Vieira previously indicating that he would opt to play for Portugal if given the choice.
Tonight is another test for him, a proper Championship fixture with blood and thunder, passion aplenty and ambition oozing from both squads. Sheffield United would move to the top of the league with a win and, like Leeds, are trying to stay inside the door to automatic promotion.
“I think we’ve got a good enough squad to be able to do that,” Vieira said. “So far we’ve shown it. I’m always excited in every game. I get nervous but I don’t really feel it. When I get out there I just enjoy myself. Sometimes I smile when I’m playing because it’s all new for me. I’m happy and it all shows how hard work pays off.”