Worrying time of year as the battle to beat the drop begins

PRESSURE: Leeds United's head coach Neil Redfearn. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
PRESSURE: Leeds United's head coach Neil Redfearn. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
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FOR supporters of many of Yorkshire’s second-tier contingent over the past decade, the unmistakable strains of Auld Lang Syne have brought with it a fair amount of anxiety.

It is a sadly case of plus ça change this new year with the worrybeads adorned by Leeds United and Rotherham United fans and, to a slightly lesser extent, those of Huddersfield Town heading into 2015.

They have all been in good company, with the sight of White Rose teams toiling at the foot of the table at the start of a calendar year as commonplace as re-runs of Yorkshireman Ronnie Radford’s famous goal for Hereford United ahead of the FA Cup third-round weekend.

No Tyke outfit may currently reside in the bottom three, but that does not tell the story.

Leeds and the Millers remain precariously positioned just above the drop zone and would be wise to recall the experiences of Sheffield United, fourth from bottom after the New Year’s Day programme on 2011, but relegated at the end of 2010-11 campaign.

In every other season since 2004-05, at least one Broad Acres side has been in the relegation zone at the start of a new year or on New Year’s Eve – with a fair number staying there.

There have been great escapes, most notably by Barnsley and Huddersfield on ‘Survival Saturday’ at the John Smith’s Stadium on May 4, 2013.

The Owls have also shown a propensity to steer away from trouble after being in the relegation positions on January 1 in 2013, 2010 and 2006.

Then there was the captivating story of Doncaster Rovers in 2008-09 when Sean O’Driscoll’s side – after triumphing four times in their first 24 matches – rose from third-from-bottom on New Year’s Day 2009 to 14th by season’s end. Only champions Wolves won more games in the second half of that campaign.

But for those impressive highs, there have been plenty of lows.

Last season saw Rovers and Barnsley, after starting 2014 in relegation peril, both go down, albeit in contrasting fashion.

The former also failed to get out of the mire at the bottom and were relegated with a whimper in 2011-12, as were Rotherham (2004-05) and Leeds (2006-07).

The current plight of the Millers and the Whites is not quite as dire as it was in those torrid seasons, but the warning lights are flashing for the pair, with a potentially devilish quirk of the fixture computer seeing the pair meet at Elland Road for a final-day showdown on May 2.

Steve Evans’s Millers, after a mini-renaissance inspired by the shrewd acquisition of a number of loanees ahead of the emergency loan deadline, have endured a bone-jarring start to 2015 and end to 2014.

It remains to be seen if the wounds fester.

A 5-1 home cup trouncing to Bournemouth’s reserves on Saturday was bad enough, but now they must pick themselves up for their next New York Stadium clash on Saturday week, against what is likely to be Eddie Howe’s free-scoring first-team.

That said, the psychological effect of drawing a game they totally dominated and missed a penalty in at rock-bottom Blackpool on December 28 represented just as big a blow, with just two points from six taken against the Seasiders.

Tellingly, Evans admitted to never feeling as low this season as he did after his side criminally let points fritter away in a 1-1 away draw. Time will tell how costly the lost two points will be.

Before the home rematch with Bournemouth, the Millers visit another success story in Brentford, with the recent return of loanee Tom Lawrence, a catalyst in the Millers’ pre-Christmas rise, to Leicester City, another development that Evans could have done without.

But Evans has plenty of previous in successfully adopting a siege mentality at Rotherham.

The Millers have not blinked during Springtime in the last two seasons, culminating in promotion each time. So when the pressure is on at the business end, it will not be anything they have not experienced before.

For Leeds, whose squad make-up is largely continental and fresh-faced, a relegation dogfight would be uncharted waters.

Big tests arrive this month against Birmingham and Huddersfield, with February throwing in Millwall, Brighton and Reading for good measure.

The argument that an infusion of battle-hardened savvy is required to steer Leeds’s course away from trouble is a valid one, but not necessarily the right one.

It is worth noting that a largely experienced crop of Leeds players perished in 2006-07 after starting 2007 in the drop zone pile and staying there amid an acrimonious wreck of a season.

For Huddersfield, plenty of work is lodged in their in-tray before securing a fourth year of second-tier football, with January not kind in recent years.

Town were pounded 6-1 at Leicester on January 1, 2013, a month which also saw a 4-0 loss at Watford, Simon Grayson’s last game in charge before paying the price for a 12-match winless run.

Last January, Town bagged three points from 12 and currently have three fewer points after 24 games than they did last season and in 2012-13.

But solid Championship home form since September under Chris Powell, who has presided over five wins, three draws and two defeats is keeping the chill at bay at the moment and with key home games against Leeds, Rotherham, Reading and Fulham before season’s end, that status quo will need to remain.