LEEDS UNITED might be snookered outside the play-offs but, if they frame themselves and pot two wins from their remaining games, the Whites will be back on cue – if the rest falter. Phil Hay reports.
Garry Monk was spotted at the Crucible Theatre on Monday, an appropriate night out for a manager whose players are trapped behind the black. It is Leeds United’s job to work the angles now as the club try to play their way out of a three-point deficit in the space of two games.
Monk and Pontus Jansson, his one-of-a-kind centre-back, were in agreement yesterday about the possibility of Leeds overturning that gap but opinion was divided about how this season will be viewed if it ends with the club trailing below the Championship’s top six.
“If we don’t reach the play-offs then I won’t see the season as successful,” Jansson said. “I came here to take Leeds to the play-offs and that was my goal since the first day. If we don’t get there then I’m going to feel a bit sad, of course.”
Monk shares the closing sentiment but will see the situation differently if Leeds’ last two matches, at home to Norwich City tomorrow and away at Wigan Athletic next week, fail to repair the damage done since the international break last month. “Whatever happens, in my opinion it’s impossible to see anything as a failure this season,” said United’s head coach. “It can’t be seen as a failure and I definitely won’t see it like that.”
The 38-year-old remembers that when he took the job at Elland Road in June, Leeds were asking him to start from scratch; their seventh manager or head coach in two years. The club, keenly aware of public disillusionment, promised refunds on season-ticket payments if they finished outside the play-offs – a potential liability of more than £1m – but did not lay that initiative on Monk’s shoulders or specifically ask him to make the top six. In his view, the success of this season is the chance of promotion which, as yet, has not quite gone.
“The players have come so far in such a short space of time and they’ve put things in place that this club will be able to build on in the future,” Monk said. “That was the objective. The objective was to connect the club together again, to bring the fans back, to give them a team to be proud of and to elevate these players to a better place than they’d been in before.
“Of course, after this recent period we’ve had there’s the feeling of disappointment and hurt; still with that chance but not quite in our hands anymore. It is difficult because you see it in the players and you want it for them so badly but overall it’s been a fantastic season and it’s not over yet.”
Jansson, whose loan from Torino in August was a defining deal in Monk’s first transfer window, has been instrumental in “connecting the club” or reconnecting Leeds with a fanbase who 12 months ago were in the habit of being disappointed by everyone. The Sweden international is not without his flaws but after Monk’s press conference at Thorp Arch yesterday, Jansson whipped up the penultimate weekend with some straight talking. “I’m not sitting here and talking s***,” he said. “We’re going to be promoted and we’re going to the play-offs. That’s the thought in my mind.”
The defender was at a loss to explain exactly why Leeds had gone from a rousing 2-0 win over champions-elect Brighton before the international break to a damaging streak of four points from six games after it; from an eight-point cushion over Fulham in seventh to a three-point deficit behind them, handicapped further by an inferior goal difference.
Whatever happens, in my opinion it’s impossible to see anything as a failure this season.Leeds United manager, Garry Monk
“It’s been a long season,” Jansson said. “I can’t talk for the other guys but for me, playing 35 games is tough. Maybe there’s a bit of pressure, maybe there are other reasons too. It’s difficult to say right now. We can only think about that after the season ends.”
Jansson suggested, however, that the club had made the mistake of thinking about protecting a play-off place in the aftermath of their win over Brighton, rather than concentrating on attacking the division’s top two.
“That’s maybe the only thing we’ve done wrong,” he said. “We talked like we needed so many points to be in the play-offs but if I’m being honest, after the Brighton game we should have reached for the top two instead. Don’t talk how many points we need for being in the play-offs.
“I went with the international team (Sweden) directly after that game but there was some talk about needing so many points to be in the play-offs and that’s the dangerous part of it. We should take it game-by-game, like before. That’s maybe the bad part of this season but that’s football and that’s how it is.”
After losing to Burton Albion last weekend, Leeds’ first port of call tomorrow is to beat Norwich any which way. Anything less than that is likely to make more complex permutations irrelevant. Jansson has kept himself in the frame, despite operating under the threat of a three-match ban for the past two months.
Jansson was booked for the 13th time in February and received his 14th caution of the season at Newcastle United on Good Friday. One more yellow card would incur an immediate suspension.
The 26-year-old admitted he was ready to “take one” deliberately had Leeds been on course to earn three points from their 1-0 defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers last week, timing a ban to end before the play-offs start.
Despite the scoreline he appeared to be doing his best to incur a booking for dissent from referee Jeremy Simpson in injury-time, though the official’s surprising leniency suggested that he had been warned not to let Jansson have his way.
“In the game against Wolves, there was maybe a little plan to take one if we won,” Jansson said: “I think the referee also knew that I was looking for one. He didn’t do it so that was good of him.
“I’ve had a lot of stupid, stupid yellow cards and now I have to take it easy. When I have a 50-50 situation I have to play a little bit more clever than normal. I have to take it easy against Norwich – if I can.”