No head coach at Leeds United is bigger than the club or bigger than its owner. Of that unwritten rule, Garry Monk will not fall foul. He hovered in his technical area as full-time came in Sheffield, bringing his first league win in the job. Before long he slipped into the tunnel, leaving his players to it.
His prerogative at the end of a classy defeat of Sheffield Wednesday was to invade the pitch and make a point: make a point to the away end, to Massimo Cellino or to the media who speculated about the safety of his job last week; to anyone at the end of a stressful fortnight. Monk declined to play that game. “It makes no difference to me, the stuff about myself,” he said. “I’m just pleased for the players.”
Who knows if Monk was in any real danger after one point from three previous games? The suggestion was preposterous so early in the season but plausible given United’s history under Cellino. All that could be said on Saturday was that results like that posted at Hillsborough will wrap him in barbed wire. “Outside nonsense” was what Monk called stories about his future and their relevance wilted as Marcus Antonsson and Chris Wood pierced Wednesday’s hide without reply in the second half.
“My focus is on football and on my team,” Monk said. “That’s all I care about.
“I don’t focus on outside nonsense. It means nothing to me. That’ll always be the way for as long as I’m at Leeds. I’ve got a year’s contract and my aim is to get this team in a year’s time in a much better place than they were when I took over.
“We’re not the team we want to be yet and I understand that results matter in the meantime but as I’ve said to the players, it’s going to take time. It’s small steps but we’re getting there.
“You’ve seen with a settled team what Sheffield Wednesday have done. That’s what we want to achieve. We want to be elevated to that level but it takes time and it’s important that we recognise that – everyone. We do inside the club. It’s important that people outside the club do too.”
Cellino has taken umbrage in the past with coaches whose public profile grew too big for his liking but Monk is keeping himself on the right side of that line. There were riotous celebrations in the Leppings Lane End, both when Wood and Antonsson struck in front of it and when Wednesday’s flailing pursuit of a draw ended, but Monk was not interested in making the occasion being about him. “The players deserved that,” he said. “All of them.
“We’re winners and we want to win games. I don’t like losing or drawing. We’re here to win. But the be-all and end-all for me is seeing a team who want to improve and I’m blessed to have that. We’re at the start of our journey here. I keep saying that but it’s the truth.”
Antonsson scored on 65 minutes, guiding a diving header home after Hadi Sacko and Luke Ayling cut into the left side of Wednesday’s defence. Wood’s deft tap-in in the 85th minute, scored on the run as substitute Kemar Roofe swung a low cross in from the flank, put Wednesday out of their obvious misery. Last season’s beaten play-off finalists have run into trouble early on and their coach, Carlos Carvalhal, was dangerously close to blaming fixture congestion afterwards. “I don’t like excuses but the balance of this team is not 100 per cent,” Carvalhal said. A settled, proficient team on paper looked far less joined-up on the pitch.
Tactically, Monk contributed to that. United’s boss set out to attack the wings, deciding beforehand that the centre of midfield would be hard to break through, even with the return of Liam Bridcutt. Sacko – Leeds’ wild-card signing from Sporting Lisbon and a veritable road-runner – murdered left-back Daniel Pudil throughout and gradually sorted out his final ball, a problem for him in the first half. It was his inch-perfect cross which Antonsson dispatched from a few yards out.
“We looked really dangerous,” Monk said. “I knew with the way they were set-up centrally it would be difficult to play through the middle so we attacked them in the wide areas and down the sides.
“Defensively we were excellent, tactically we were very good and offensively we were dangerous. We played in a certain way because we knew we could hurt them. We had the best opportunities in the game for sure and we were the better team, playing against a very good side. They’re a benchmark for the league.”
There are better benchmarks in the Championship as it stands. Fernando Forestieri was back in Wednesday’s starting line-up after throwing his toys from the pram a week earlier but the Italian made nothing of two bad early errors from Leeds, moments which might have changed the tone. The first was a sitter, gifted to him after Liam Cooper headed Keiren Westwood’s lofted clearance against the back of Charlie Taylor, but Forestieri stabbed it wide. The second, with Forestieri clean through again, was headed off the line by Cooper. Almen Abdi also clipped the crossbar with a free-kick.
Carvalhal sent on Gary Hooper at half-time and the striker was equally culpable, smashing a point-blank shot against Rob Green’s legs in between United’s goals. It was a crucial save at a critical time and both Wednesday’s players and the Hillsborough crowd began to get the sinking feeling. Leeds were pro-active and aggressive, with pace out wide. Too often Carvalhal’s players were waiting for something to happen. On the right-hand side the combination of Jack Hunt and Ross Wallace bordered on hopeless.
“The only thing I can pick out as a negative is that towards the end we started to drop to deep,” Monk said. “But we had the result so that tends to happen.” Wednesday fed on that retreat for a time but were nowhere defensively when Wood feathered Roofe’s cross past Westwood.
There was no cup of the ear from Wood this time and no bad blood. He had taken a risk by goading the Kop at Elland Road during Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Fulham but amid good-spirited mayhem at the bottom of the away end, he embraced the crowd and punched the air. “Our goals were quality,” Monk said. “Our build-up play had quality and we arrived in their box with quality. Maybe it wasn’t as clinical as I would like but that’s me being hyper-critical.”
Football, as Monk said on Thursday, is all about perspective. Wood scored a second in two games and his sensitive celebration against Fulham looks like a point well made. One point from three matches becomes four from four and Monk’s rhetoric about progress holds more water. And a head coach whose future was under the microscope last week will hear no more about that for now.
“I’m a bit of a taskmaster,” Monk said. “I don’t like to sit back. I know how this league works and how it can bite you. We have to build on this and it’s only a small step. But it has to be pleasing.”