A RIVALRY that has been contested almost exclusively in the top flight will resume tonight with Leeds United head coach Garry Monk urging supporters to enjoy the Yorkshire club’s pursuit of a Premier League return.
Twelve victories in their last 17 league outings have propelled Leeds into the promotion race. Monk’s men head to Aston Villa tonight knowing that another three points will mean a move up to third, a standing the club last enjoyed more six years ago when Simon Grayson was at the helm.
Since then, the Elland Road faithful have endured some trying times but there can be no doubting the feel-good factor that Monk and his players have brought back to the Yorkshire club.
Tonight will bring a trip to Villa Park, a venue Leeds last visited as a Premier League club in 2004 and one where Monk is anticipating a stern test from Steve Bruce’s revitalised side.
“We have beaten Villa at home but this will be a totally different game,” said the United head coach, who will be without Eunan O’Kane once again through injury. “It is a big stadium and a new experience for some of the lads so we have to go there focused.
“Teams that come down from the Premier League, they are expected in the following season to bounce straight back. They have the budget, the ammunition and the experience in the squad to do that. But it is not always that easy. Their agenda will be to get promoted straight back out.”
All but three of the past meetings between Leeds and Villa have taken place in either the Premier League or old First Division. It is an indication of the duo’s illustrious histories and why both are desperate to secure a return to the elite.
Leeds are better placed at the halfway stage of the season, sitting five places and seven points above Villa. Bruce, however, has made a big impact since succeeding Roberto Di Matteo last month and tonight Villa are chasing a sixth straight win on home soil.
Ross McCormack, fresh from scoring in the Boxing Day win over Burton Albion, is eagerly looking forward to facing a club where he spent four years before leaving for Fulham in a £11m deal.
“Leeds is one of the clubs that is really close to my heart,” said the Scot, whose strike against the Brewers was his first goal since mid-September.
“It will be a good game, I am sure.”
As for McCormack’s former club, the trip to Villa Park offers another chance for a talented group of youngsters to further showcase their play-off ambitions in front of the live Sky audience. “It is great to see a young group improving and getting smarter and better,” said head coach Monk. “But, really, everyone should just enjoy it. This club has suffered for quite a long while now.
“I believed it as a player and I still believe it as a manager – that all you want to see, as a supporter, is a team that gives 100 per cent. Of course, you want to see a team win games and win in style but, first and foremost, the fans want to see a team that fights for that shirt.
“Whatever will happen will happen (in terms of how the season pans out). Of course, we are going to fight to put this club back where we feel it belongs. It is always the ambition of this club to get back to the Premier League. and everyone is ambitious. But with the suffering the club has had over a number of years now, they (fans) should just enjoy it.
“We will have ups and downs along the way but, seeing a team who want to give 100 per cent is, I think, why you pay your money and why you support a club. We should all enjoy this team.”
Meanwhile, Derby have confirmed plans for a friendly against Leeds during the next international break in March as part of an on-going row over TV rights with the Football League.
Both Massimo Cellino and Rams owner Mel Morris have been critical of the existing deal with Sky Sports in the past, with the latter having publicly questioned whether the clubs get the best deal. A date has yet to be set for the game but Derby chief executive Sam Rush said: “Outside the parameters of normal broadcasting restrictions, it will be an opportunity amongst other things for both clubs to demonstrate the extent of the potential revenue opportunities that exist.”
Last six games: Aston Villa WLWLWW, Leeds United WLWLWW.
Referee: R East (Wiltshire).
Last time: Aston Villa 2 Leeds United 0; February 7, 2004; Premier League.