Patrick Bamford denied that a loss of form was creating doubt in Leeds United’s dressing room but admitted the season had reached a critical stage ahead of his return to Middlesbrough tomorrow.
Bamford looks set to make his first league start of the season against the club who sold him to Leeds for £7m in July and the striker claimed confidence at Elland Road not been damaged by a 3-1 loss to Norwich City last weekend.
The defeat in a top-of-the-table fixture was Leeds’ fourth in sixth Championship games, their first spell of questionable results under head coach Marcelo Bielsa.
Bamford, though, said second-placed United were not “doubting ourselves” and called for the club to regain their impetus in a post-Christmas period which the striker expects to be crucial.
His previous spells at Boro - one on loan from Chelsea and another as a permanent signing - led to two appearances in the Championship play-offs and Bamford said the ability to stay on course after a busy festive run was key to securing automatic promotion.
Leeds are joint top of the table alongside Norwich but Middlesbrough, who hold fifth place, have a game in hand and the chance to move to within four points of United tomorrow.
“Everyone prepares themselves for the Christmas period and they set that out as a tough period because there are a lot of games in a short period of time,” Bamford said. “But it’s actually the period between January and March which is probably the toughest.
“You’ve set yourself up, you’ve got all pumped up for Christmas and then there’s a bit of a lull. It’s about the team who have the mental toughness to get promoted because it is a long slog.
“Even the teams who get promoted are going to go through a tough patch. They’re going to go through a point in the season where they start doubting themselves or have a few bad results or injuries, something which knocks them off their game.
“To be honest, I don’t think as as squad we’re doubting ourselves. We know that it would be unrealistic to say we’d go unbeaten throughout the whole year. The main thing for us is to bounce back. When we lost at West Brom (in November) we went on a run. The important thing is to get back on it.”
Bamford’s first year at Leeds has been badly affected by two knee injuries but he made his comeback from the second as a substitute against Norwich, heading home a consolation in added time.
The goal was only his second in the Championship for United and Bamford admitted to feeling anxious about his return having previously taken three months to overcome a ligament injury suffered in September.
“One of the big worries when you’ve been out injured for a long time is ‘can I still do it? Can I get back to where I was and can I still do the things I could do?’” Bamford said.
“I was worried I’d be too concerned about my knee and worried about doing things because I was panicking about it but once I got back into training I forgot about the knee.
“The physios were getting a bit annoyed with me because I was doing things without thinking and putting my knee at risk but you’re playing football and we all started doing it because we love the sport. Once you’re back out playing, you’re like a kid again playing in the park.”
Bamford’s last appearance at The Riverside brought him a hat-trick in Middlesbrough’s 3-0 win over Leeds in March, a result which contributed to the downfall of former United boss Paul Heckingbottom.
A flurry of strikes from the forward helped Boro finish last season in the top six but Tony Pulis allowed him to leave before the start of this term after Leeds tabled a £7m offer.
“I think I owe the Leeds fans three goals,” Bamford joked. “But I've got a lot of love for that club (Middlesbrough) and I haven't got a bad word to say about them.”