In Leeds United’s eyes, March was a productive month. The club negotiated four games without losing and Garry Monk and Chris Wood were shortlisted for awards. One particular win, at home to Brighton, left the door to the play-offs wide open.
Two defeats in the first week of April and Monk now detects the external fear that the door might yet be slammed in his face. The change in impetus and the speed of it explains his commitment to ignoring the bigger picture all season. Had Monk started obsessing with the table at Christmas, he would never have stopped.
Leeds are a stone’s throw from qualifying for the play-offs and a team who look like making it still, even if they dare not lose to Preston North End tomorrow. Losses at Reading and Brentford in the past week allowed Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday back into their slipstream and Preston, in eighth, are counting on a visit to Elland Road to keep their season alive.
At Swansea City, Monk saw Football League promotions through the eyes of a footballer. This, in what is only his third year in management, is the first time he has watched the chase from the dug-out. He joked yesterday about digging out his boots – a quip which does not change the fact that Leeds are somewhat short of centre-backs – but said the experience was not different. “I feel the same,” he said, “and I feel the same as I have all season.”
His squad will not be immune to nerves but not more susceptible than other Championship teams either. Sheffield Wednesday dropped out of the play-offs last weekend before recovering sixth place in midweek. Huddersfield Town wobbled slightly either side of the international break but routed Norwich City on Wednesday. It is far from certain that Fulham have the legs or if Simon Grayson’s Preston can gatecrash the party. The permutations amount to the thrill of the chase.
“It’s exciting,” Monk said. “Winning matches, doing well, being successful and putting Leeds back on the map is exciting. It’s what we’re here for and it’s what I’m here for. It’s what the club needs and it’s what it wanted.
“All I know is I’m not focused on the outside or on what’s being said if you lose a game or win a game. You saw the talk after Brighton. Then you see the talk after the last two games. It becomes quite fickle. We have to stay focused on what’s got us to this point.
“Every team in this league has faced ups and downs. I guess we were on such a good run of extended form and then within four days it changed but that’s what the Championship can do to you.
“In the last two games, especially at Reading, we made it hard for ourselves by making mistakes. That’s something we talked about at the start of the season and managed to clear out of our game.
“We need more as a collective but I say that only in the sense of reflecting on the last two games. I don’t think we could have got much more against Brighton or much more in the seven games where we went unbeaten.
A four-day period doesn’t change much. We know what we’re capable of.Garry Monk
“For the sake of a four-day period it doesn’t change too much. We know what we’re capable of.”
Monk has made a habit of ensuring that pressure on his players is not intensified by anything he says publicly. There was one exception, far back in August, when he openly questioned the constitution of his squad after a lame defeat at home to Birmingham City but he never speculates about the likelihood of reaching the play-offs and has still not conceded that, with 69 points and six games remaining, the club should.
To justify his caution, he need only point to the coach who brings Preston to Elland Road tomorrow. Grayson, who Monk spoke highly of yesterday, had Leeds on the verge of the play-offs six years ago, sixth in the table with 64 points after 40 games. That squad – a celebrated mixture of attacking brilliance and defence brainstorms – held a four-point lead over Nottingham Forest, the team who against steep odds conspired to nudge Leeds into seventh in the last three weeks.
Monk insisted that in his time as a player, he maintained the game-at-time attitude which he has drummed into United to great effect. “For sure,” he said. “It’s important. That’s why I say it and that’s why I’ve done it like this all season.
“From my experience it works, especially with young players or inexperienced players. The most important bit is what happens on Saturday, not what happens in five or six weeks’ time. We want to stop this two-game run of losses. The only way we can do that is by focusing on this game alone, singling it out.”
His comments are not an over-estimation of Preston. North End have lost two matches in 15 and won the player-of-the-month award in February and March, first through Aiden McGeady and again this morning through Tom Barkhuizen. Barkhuizen, who scored five times in four appearances in March, was chosen from a shortlist which included Chris Wood.
Preston are the long shot in the fight for a top-six finish and Grayson admitted with nine fixtures to go that his side would need to win most if not all of them to qualify.
“They’ve got the opportunity,” Monk said. “It’s an important game for both teams.
“To me the players are focused and ready.
“There’s no-one more disappointed with the last two games than them and for me there’s not a stronger group. That let’s you know where they are in terms of their mindset and you’ll see it on Saturday. You’ll see the determination and the effort then.”