When Leeds beat Brighton on March 18th, they had made a comfortable cushion for themselves. Not only had they beaten one of the best teams in the league and seemed to be coming into form at just the right time for a promotion push, but they found themselves eight points above seventh place and comfortably in the play-off places.
Comfortable positions aren’t a luxury the Championship usually affords you, though, and that was Leeds’ last victory.
Since then, defeats to Reading and Brentford have seen Garry Monk’s side stutter in their bid to finish in the play-off spots and return to the Premier League for the first time since 2004. Two defeats on the bounce have left them looking down instead of up, and midweek victories for Sheffield Wednesday and Preston will give the Whites that awful feeling of hot air breathing down their necks.
“Leeds are undoubtedly going through a mini sticky patch at the wrong time of the season,” Sam Rourke, editor-in-chief of Football League World, tells me. “Their next two games are crucial: Preston and Newcastle. And that’s far from easy – a loss against Preston and there will be cause to be genuinely worried if you’re a Whites fan.”
They say the Championship is the hardest league in the world, and it’s certainly one of the longest. Good form at crucial times is vital, but when the wagon starts to rock, stopping the wheels from falling off can be difficult – something Monk has been finding out over the last few games, in particular.
“A major worry for Leeds is the six-game ban that Liam Cooper received for stamping on Reece Oxford in the defeat to Reading,” says Rourke. “Leeds only have Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley as their main recognised centre-backs, so an injury to one of them could have damaging repercussions.”
Cooper’s red card did more than just seal defeat against a play-off rival, it ruled him out for the guts of the rest of the season. Losing a player at this stage quite clearly isn’t part of the plan, and only amplifies the pressure going into the final games. He’ll only come back if his team make the top six in his absence.
For Monk, though, the stakes of the run-in get very high very quickly. After consecutive defeats, the last side anyone would want to face is Newcastle United, but it’s actually the game before that – against Preston North End at Elland Road – that should cause Monk the greatest concern.
The return of former Leeds boss Simon Grayson may add an extra air of caution, too.
The Preston boss was the last man to win promotion with Leeds United, taking them from League One back into the Championship in 2010. In their first season back in the second tier, a poor run of form in April saw the Whites drop out of the play-off places and finish seventh, three points away from gaining a shot at promotion. The next season, Grayson was sacked with the club only four points below the play-off places with 18 games still to go – the club have failed to come that close to achieving a play-off spot again ever since.
Leeds could do without the omen that Grayson will bring back to Elland Road this weekend, but the problem their former boss poses them is much greater than just bad chi.
“The job Grayson has done at Preston has been nothing short of sensational,” says Rourke “With one of the lowest budgets in the whole of the league, he has turned potential relegation fodder into genuine contenders for the top six.”
Preston come into this game unbeaten in their last five matches, but the group of players that Grayson has at his disposal are more than the sum of their parts, as form and good scouting have come to the fore.
“He has been incredibly shrewd with his money,” Rourke adds. “And the signings of Daryl Horgan, Aiden McGeady (on loan), Ben Pearson and Tom Barkhuizen in particular have been excellent.”
But the one thing more dangerous than a team on form is a team chasing a target. Starting the season tipped to go down, Preston could finish it with an unlikely promotion to the top tier for the first time since 1961.
The gap between them and the play-off places is only five points, which should serve as a line on the horizon, but the fact that their run-in involves the chance to beat their rivals directly should act as extra motivation.
“Preston face three of the top six in their last six Championship fixtures, with massive clashes against Leeds United and Huddersfield Town their next two fixtures in the league.” said Rourke. “If they can get at least 4 points from these games, then they have a serious chance of sneaking into the play-off zone.”
Leeds can view these next two games as place in purgatory as their position in the playoffs hangs in the balance. But it could well be a figure from their past that comes back to haunt them this weekend.