PAUL CONNOLLY insists lessons learned last season will ensure Leeds United go at least one better this time around in their quest to reach the Premier League.
The Elland Road club are handily placed for a tilt at promotion as the Championship approaches the halfway stage.
Simon Grayson’s side are sixth in the table with 35 points from 21 games, a return that is identical to the equivalent stage of last term with the only difference being that 12 months ago United sat a couple of places higher.
Leeds remained in the play-offs for the next four months only for a late season dip in form to ultimately see the club finish seventh, a draw at home to today’s opponents Reading on Good Friday coincidentally being the moment when Grayson’s men fell out of the top six.
Connolly, a regular for most of the 2010-11 campaign at right-back, remembers the frustration of just missing out and is adamant there will be no repeat in 2012.
He said: “It is going all right and very similar to last season in that we are in and around the play-offs going into Christmas. The circumstances might be a bit different in that we have been up there most of the season but our position and points tally is very similar.
“Hopefully, we can kick on more after Christmas. I think we will as there are a few things that are different this year compared to last.
“We have been in this league an extra year and also been together for another year. That is helping us as we know what to expect. I also think the experience of what happened last year is really helping us as a group.
“We came so close and it was so disappointing not to make it. Nottingham Forest came past us right at the end and that was a big blow.
“In a way, I do think we were a bit unlucky last season in the way we fell out of the play-offs. We don’t want to make the same mistake this time and that is what is driving us on.”
A look at the league table from this stage last year shows how promising a position Leeds are in.
Four of the teams who were in the top six going into the final Saturday before Christmas went on to finish in the play-offs or better.
Of the others, Leeds missed out by just three points while Coventry City, fifth a year ago, slumped to 18th by May 7.
For United, therefore, the incentive is clearly there to build on such a start as they prepare for a tough holiday period that includes meetings with four of the chasing pack – Reading’s visit today being followed by trips to Derby County and Barnsley before Burnley come to Elland Road on January 2.
Connolly believes Leeds have the mettle to prevail against their four rivals, pointing to how even below-par displays in recent weeks have ended with points being collected.
The 28-year-old, who arrived on a free transfer from Derby County in the summer of 2010, said: “There is a belief within the squad, we have shown that in the games at Watford and Burnley when maybe other teams wouldn’t have come back like that.”
United’s promising league position is something that during a difficult opening week of the season appeared highly unlikely.
A 3-1 defeat at Southampton in front of the live Sky cameras was followed by a slightly fortunate Carling Cup victory at home to League Two Bradford City.
So, when Middlesbrough then triumphed 1-0 at Elland Road on the second Saturday of the season as discontent on the terraces led to a couple of hundred supporters protesting against the club’s lack of transfer activity ahead of kick-off, it looked like 2011-12 could be a long campaign in LS11.
Connolly, however, was not one who shared such a pessimistic outlook.
He said: “There was maybe a bit of doom and gloom among the fans after Southampton. The players didn’t feel that as we realised it was just 90 minutes out of a 46-game season.
“But I think the supporters were a bit anxious because of how we had been played off the park. They were thinking ‘hey ho, what’s going to happen’. But we saw it as a one-off.
“I knew what sort of players we had here so I wasn’t worried at all. And that belief has been justified by our results. Now, we just need to kick on.”
United have faced all but Reading and Derby County in the Championship this season and Connolly believes United are a match for anyone.
He said: “We have more or less played every team now as well and there is nothing to fear. There have been a couple of surprises, including Forest who I never expected to be down where they are.
“Southampton also surprised me on the opening day. I thought they played really well and deserved to beat us. It was a bad day for us but they proved what a good team they could be.
“I think what has happened since has underlined that with Southampton still being up there. They will be pleased with how it has gone but so are we. The league is wide open.”