Garry Monk’s immediate reaction was to talk about Leeds United dropping on “the wrong side of critical moments”; an error by his goalkeeper and a penalty decision which went against him. With more time to reflect, November’s 2-0 defeat to Newcastle United began to feel like a fair result.
There were, undoubtedly, decisive points in the game and none greater than Rob Green teeing up the opening goal for Dwight Gayle by palming the ball to the striker’s feet. A strong appeal for handball against Jack Colback was ignored by referee Graham Scott but, as the dust settled, Monk reflected on the way in which the occasion constrained his squad.
Elland Road sold out on that Sunday afternoon, the first time in almost six years that the stadium had housed a capacity crowd. Sky’s decision to televise the game did not affect the take-up of tickets, just as a live broadcast of tomorrow’s return fixture between the clubs has failed to prevent a sell-out of St James’ Park. “In the first game we played the occasion a bit too much,” Monk said. He is confident that an attendance of 52,000 at Newcastle will not have the same effect.
His players had hit a patch of good form before Newcastle’s visit to Elland Road but were not the settled, hardened team that Monk is able to rely on now. The meeting with Newcastle produced United’s first attendance in excess of 30,000 this season and two Gayle goals won it comfortably but Leeds have acclimatised to that environment and quickly embraced atmospheres like it.
“I don’t think we showed them too much respect but I don’t think we put ourselves in a position to show what we were capable of,” Monk said. “We were playing very well at that point but it was our first really big game in terms of crowd size and expectation and the way it was built up.
“At that stage it was the first time a lot of our players had played in front of such a big crowd or in that type of atmosphere. Because of the circumstances, it was all new – to the fans as well for a period – and we didn’t do ourselves enough justice. Maybe we didn’t have our full focus on the football. Maybe all the build-up contributed to us not performing to our level but the players have learned from that.
“We want to go up there and make sure we don’t make the same mistake. When we focus, that’s when the players produce their best football and that’s what we’ll need to do at St James’ Park. I don’t envisage it (the atmosphere) being a problem. We’re hoping our football will be enough for us and you’ll see a very focused approach.”
Newcastle were and are the biggest scalp in the Championship; favourites for the title when the season began and still in firm contention for it. Lying second with a 10-point advantage over Huddersfield Town, Monk said Rafael Benitez’s side had “the objective to get automatic promotion and, in my opinion, they’ll achieve that.”
The top two slipped away from Leeds after the last international break but the play-offs are there for the taking; “in our hands,” as Monk put it yesterday. Neither side can tie up anything tomorrow but, in the first league meeting between them at St James’ Park for well over a decade, the game’s profile precedes it, bringing together two clubs who are punching below their preferred weight.
“It’s great but we’re not going there to take part in all that,” Monk said. “We’re there to take part in the football.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure on us. Our objective at the start of the season was to improve all the football matters here and put foundations in place for the club to build on. We’ve done that. Now we’ve got a new objective, which is to get into a play-off spot or maintain a play-off spot.
“We were never expected to be in this position and with our main objective achieved, it’s time to see where these last five games take us. Our bonus objective is to get a play-off place. Everything’s in our hands and we want to keep it that way.”
Green apologised for his mistake in the first game between the clubs, admitting his decision to try and catch a high ball beneath his crossbar had forced him to drop it to Gayle before he carried it over the goalline. Green’s reliability was under scrutiny back then but Monk has not had cause to take issue with his goalkeeper’s form for months.
“He doesn’t have to put anything right,” Monk said. “Throughout the course of a season every player makes mistakes. Often they lead to a goal. That’s generally how it goes.”
Green, however, is unlikely to face the threat of Gayle tomorrow after the forward pulled a hamstring in Newcastle’s defeat to Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday. Benitez, who has Daryl Murphy and Aleksandar Mitrovic at his disposal, is once again without his leading scorer, a player who rivalled Chris Wood for the Championship’s player-of-the-year award.
“They’ve got a good enough and talented enough squad to deal with a number of injuries,” Monk said. “Whoever plays for them is going to be a very high calibre player for the Championship. Each of them brings their own problems but ones we’re preparing for. Our players will be prepared.”
Monk might quietly hope that a huge crowd at St James’ Park will work for Leeds in the way that a sell-out at Elland Road worked for Newcastle in November. Newcastle are dominant at home but not impenetrable. Five visiting clubs have won on Tyneside, suggesting that the atmosphere could work for Leeds.
“Possibly, but we’re not looking at it like that,” he said. “Our players have gained a lot of experience of playing in front of big crowds now and they’re used to that environment so we’re confident about going up there. The key will be our performance. The way you make it difficult for teams with big crowds is to put a performance on.”