Much more of this and talk of the play-offs will start to gain some traction at Elland Road. Time ticks on and from nowhere, Leeds United are in the improbable position of wishing the season was 10 games younger.
There was a stage very recently where the club were anxious to see the back of it; desperate to come through the other side of a campaign which was trying its best to relegate them. Against their own expectations, they are eating through the Championship and eating through some fancied clubs. Middlesbrough came under their spell on Saturday, beaten 1-0 at The Riverside.
The victory required some frantic bailing of water and stoic resistance to the kitchen sink but at full-time it was hard not to think that in the weeks around Christmas, at the height of their festive depression, Leeds would have lost this game and lost it by a street. “The lads have a successful team feel about them,” a glowing Neil Redfearn said. As a way of defining their present state, he couldn’t have put it better.
There is cohesion and understanding about the line-up he is trusting in; enough to see them through a day like Saturday when Boro produced 27 attempts on goal and failed to convert one. Boro’s position near the top of the league is not a mystery – they attack at pace and exploit gaps brilliantly, a quick and aggressive team – but August was the last time a Championship side got the better of them at The Riverside. Leeds were worth their win on the basis of that record alone.
United owed the result, their fifth victory in six games, to goalkeeper Marco Silvestri and, in front of him, the brick wall that is Sol Bamba. Redfearn has not abandoned the Massimo Cellino model completely but the compromise he banked on at the start of January – the balanced blend of old and new – has given the club a viable plan going forward. By rights, this period ought to ensure that when next season starts, Redfearn is at the centre of it.
This season has 14 fixtures left; too few, realistically, to make a top-six finish possible. Leeds’ head coach laughed afterwards when asked if the year might end too soon – “no, not really,” he joked, looking like a man who had toiled through miles of mud to get here – but he knows now that his squad are safe and that United will easily clear 50 points.
“It’s a tall ask (to make the play-offs),” Redfearn said. “But while there’s points to play for there’s no reason why we can’t aim high. That was the message before this game – let’s squeeze as much out of the season as we can.
“This run has taken some pressure off us. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always a pressure but in the Championship at this time of year it usually concertinas up between the teams outside the play-offs and the teams fighting relegation. It’s happening again.”
The telling factor on Saturday – and the fly in Boro’s ointment – was the timing of the winning goal, scored by Alex Mowatt in the third minute and before Aitor Karanka’s side had the opportunity to bed in and turn the screw.
Tomas Mejias, the goalkeeper who sold Billy Sharp his winner during Boro’s defeat at Elland Road in August, aimed a risky throw at Grant Leadbitter who failed to gather possession and watched Lewis Cook sprint away down the right. George Friend tried to cover as Cook pulled the ball back but Mowatt met it with a slick strike which deflected into the far corner of Mejias’ net.
Boro soaked the concession up and came at Silvestri in waves. Before long, the Italian’s saves were mounting up: a two-handed parry from Kike and a better reaction to deny Jelle Vossen. When Vossen’s tap-in squeezed underneath him on 21 minutes, Giuseppe Bellusci was in the right place to hoof a slow-rolling ball off the goalline.
Vossen tested Silvestri again before half-time and the goalkeeper’s fingertips flicked a deflected hit from Kike over the crossbar on the half-hour. It was apparent that Boro were having one of those days, though less so when Bamba glanced Luke Murphy’s corner wide from six yards out in first-half injury-time, an opportunity he should have buried.
“Middlesbrough are a good side, a very good side,” Redfearn said. “If you look at them, they’ve got to be the favourites to go up. They’re complete. But I thought that at every turn there was a Leeds United player in the way. It was a gutsy performance from us.
“Silvestri was probably the best player on the pitch which goes some way to saying how well Middlesbrough played but it was difficult for them and we made it difficult for them.”
Silvestri received the man-of-the-match award but it was Bamba who kept United’s ducks in a line, marshalling players, appearing everywhere and weighing in with a brilliant covering tackle on Kike midway through the second half.
As he left The Riverside, the centre-back had a copy of Sol Campbell’s autobiography under his arm.
The comparison on Saturday was almost fitting, even if Bamba didn’t want to draw it himself. “He used to be a very good player and I looked up to him,” Bamba said. “I’m not at that level yet but I try to be. Him and (Lilian) Thuram, for me, are two of the best defenders.” United are perfectly happy with their equivalent.
Redfearn acknowledged Bamba’s role but argued all the same that Leeds produced “the better chances.” Scott Wootton had one of them, driving a header against Boro’s bar as Murphy hooked another corner into the box early in the second half, but Silvestri’s reactions were still on repeat. Kike brought a diving save from him with a curling finish and Vossen did likewise. The keeper’s body kept out another Kike shot on 50 minutes after the striker turned Bellusci inside out.
Lee Tomlin’s introduction from the bench was soon followed by that of Patrick Bamford. Boro’s head coach Karanka made six changes to his starting line-up, as tends to be his way, but without the desired impact. “I don’t know how we lost this game,” he said afterwards. “But football is about goals and football is about points. We lost.”
Having chipped away so hard and for so long, Boro’s shoulders sagged in the last 15 minutes. A head injury to Vossen with all three substitutes used left them a player short and 10 minutes of stoppage-time slipped away. Wootton could have snatched a second Leeds goal and Austin too, but their chances went begging. It was a game when most chances did.
The final whistle with 100 minutes on the clock sealed another creditable home-and-away double, following on from that inflicted on Bournemouth. The last time Leeds did that to Boro, in 1989, Howard Wilkinson took them out of Division Two. As the table stands it’s a meaningless omen. But at least the club can start to think that way again.