A YEAR ago, Leeds United beat Middlesbrough to ensure they would head into Christmas just a couple of points adrift of the play-off places in eighth place.
The previous day, the Yorkshire club had passed into new ownership courtesy of GFH Capital buying out Ken Bates and there was a tangible buzz among supporters, a section of whom had, on a weekly basis, made clear their disdain for the previous regime.
It was not, though, destined to last and for much of the next 10 months that feel-good factor was conspicuous at Elland Road by its absence.
Now, however, the excitement is back amid talk of another takeover, led by current managing director David Haigh, and manager Brian McDermott being handed sufficient transfer funds in January to try to entice back former Player of the Year Max Gradel.
A crowd of more than 30,000 for today’s visit of Barnsley will be further tangible proof that Leeds fans have started to believe in their club once again.
For Danny Pugh, who first played for United in 2004 and has won an unexpected recall to the team in recent weeks, the shift in mood has been obvious and he admits each game cannot come round fast enough right now for McDermott’s team.
“There is a really good atmosphere around the club and the city,” said the 31-year-old when speaking to the Yorkshire Post yesterday.
“The lads can feel it and they share in the belief that the fans seem to have. There is a real sense of belief and it is great to be involved in that.
“Maybe last season there were things happening and people pulling in different directions. It certainly seemed that way at times. But now, everyone inside the club is pulling the same way.
“There is a real collective spirit and I think that has played a big part in turning our season around. That is the impression I get, from the players and manager through to the supporters and those in change of the club.
“There is a really good feeling about the club and we are taking that out on to the pitch.”
For Pugh, the turnaround in his own fortunes has been one that even he was not expecting.
Frozen out by Neil Warnock last season and then loaned out to Sheffield Wednesday for five months, the 31-year-old’s prospects looked no brighter when the current campaign got under way.
He did not make the squad in any of United’s early games and there seemed little hope of things changing, even when McDermott made a point of praising both Pugh and Michael Brown to the media for the exemplary manner in which they had been training despite not being in the team.
Injuries, however, eventually earned Pugh a recall ahead of last month’s trip to Charlton Athletic and it is an opportunity that the one-time Manchester United trainee has grasped with both hands.
“It has been a good few weeks for me,” said Pugh, who providing he shakes off a knock will today make his seventh appearance of the season.
“Results have gone our way, apart from the Blackburn game – which I thought we were unlucky to lose. And, of course, I have been back in the team.
“If I am honest, I probably didn’t see my return to the team coming. I had been out in the cold for so long that it didn’t seem there would be any way back. I wasn’t travelling with the team or anything like that and that usually says a lot.
“To be fair, though, the manager had always said a chance was likely to come along. And that I needed to be ready when it did.
“Being that little bit older now, I realised that could be the case. Thankfully for me, that has happened and I have been able to play a few games.
“Browny was probably in the same boat as me. All we could do was keep our heads down and make sure we’d be ready if a chance did come along.
“You have to keep yourself in the best shape and then hope for the best. The older you get, the more you probably want to play. You don’t want to miss out.”
Pugh, United’s first signing of the post-Premier League era when he moved to Elland Road as a makeweight in the transfer that took Alan Smith to Old Trafford, admits it would be wonderful to play a part in helping United this season end a 10-year exile from the top flight. Experience, however, has taught him not to get too carried away.
“My two stints at Leeds have certainly been eventful,” laughed the utility player, “but I don’t think you can compare the two.
“Back in 2004, every day seemed to bring a new player to the club, or so it seemed at the time.
“I got the impression some weeks that the fans didn’t even know who was playing, that was how fast things were changing and how chaotic it got.
“Back then, everyone was as determined as we are now to do well. But, for whatever reason, that sense of belief and togetherness seemed to get lost as we went along and, as a club, we lost our way. It got a bit messy, in the end.
“It couldn’t be more different to now. What the manager has done now is bring real stability to Leeds United and everyone is reaping the rewards of that.”
Pugh may have gone almost exactly a year without playing for Leeds before making his return in the 4-2 win at Charlton on November 9, but he did make 16 appearances for Wednesday last term in a loan spell he thoroughly enjoyed.
“I can’t say anything bad about Sheffield Wednesday,” he said. “They were brilliant to me. I had to get out of Leeds and play some games. I think that was obvious to anyone.
“I really enjoyed it, even though from the moment I arrived the club was in a real dogfight to avoid relegation.
“Every game was a huge battle but we managed to put a good run of results together and Wednesday stayed up. I really enjoyed it and would have been interested in staying.
“There was a bit of talk in the summer and a few rumours, but nothing concrete. It was the same when rumours surfaced about other clubs being interested.
“Of course, I am glad about that now even though I’ll admit that, at times last summer and in the early weeks of this season, I felt my time in Leeds was probably up.”