LIAM COOPER last night insisted Leeds United “don’t fear anyone” in the club’s quest to buck recent Championship history and force their way into the play-off reckoning.
A haul of 10 points from the last four games has nudged Steve Evans’s side up to 13th in the table and to within touching distance of the top six.
“We have just got to prepare for each game as if it was the most important of our lives.”Leeds United’s Liam Cooper.
United’s head coach moved to play down talk of a possible promotion push in the new year in the wake of Sunday’s victory over Preston North End but, following the upturn in form this month, there is a tangible sense of optimism at Elland Road that momentum is building towards a possible gate-crashing of the play-offs.
Whether that is a realistic target for a side sitting 13th remains to be seen.
To pull it off, Evans’s men will have to overcome the recent convention of the second tier that suggests any team hoping to extend their season beyond 46 games must be already in and around the top six at this stage.
Only three of the 64 clubs that have qualified for the play-offs since the turn of the Millennium have been occupying a place in the bottom half of the Championship table at Christmas.
Birmingham City in 2011-12 were the most recent after heading into the festive season in 14th place, the same standing occupied by Preston in 2004-05.
A year earlier, Crystal Palace were sitting 19th at this stage, but went on to claim sixth place.
“Never say never,” said Cooper, United’s stand-in captain while Sol Bamba remains on the sidelines with injury, when asked if the play-offs can be a realistic target for the Yorkshire club.
“We have just got to prepare for each game as if it was the most important of our lives, which is something we have managed to do in the last few games and the results speak for themselves.
“The manager keeps saying, ‘Put a few wins together and then teams above you will start looking down and thinking Leeds are coming’. Let’s hope we can do that.
“To take 10 points out of 12, it is quite good. It is a nice feeling (to be five points adrift of the play-off spots), but I was always confident in the squad and the players that we have got.
“I know if we approach games properly, we do things right and we listen to the staff, we will take anyone in this league – as we have proved in the last few games. It is just a great feeling at the minute, the place is buzzing.
“A few months ago we were getting written off, we were in a relegation battle. But we have proved a lot of people wrong and a lot of teams in the league as well.
“They will be looking down and looking at us coming for them.”
United’s credentials as a team capable of making an impact during the second half of the season will be given a serious examination in a televised double-header over the holiday period.
Evans and his side head to in-form Nottingham Forest on December 27 before hosting high-flying Derby two days later.
Even allowing for the recent upturn in form, both fixtures represent a stern test for the Yorkshire club, but Cooper is adamant that Leeds will take on the Midlands duo in buoyant mood.
“We don’t fear anyone,” said the 24-year-old Hull-born defender. “Obviously, we have beaten some very good teams in the last few weeks. If we play our game and the football we can play – we passed the ball very well in the first half against Preston, for instance – then I think we can beat anyone. We have just got to make sure we are on our game and not worry too much about the other teams. We have had some positive results, the lads are pulling in the right direction and we have just got to keep going.”
The double-header against Forest and Derby is understandably focusing minds right now, but Evans also has to have one eye on the upcoming transfer window.
Sam Byram, back in the starting line-up for the last two games, will inevitably be the subject of speculation, while sources have told The Yorkshire Post that Bournemouth are very keen on Lewis Cook.
For the Leeds head coach, however, it is incomings that are uppermost in the mind as he looks for the reinforcements he feels are required to keep the club moving upwards.
“With a bit of luck,” said Evans, “one or two new bodies might pop in on the first (of January).
“I drove down to Nottingham Forest on Saturday and I am glad Mr (Massimo) Cellino (the club’s president) was paying the bill because I spent the whole time on the phone to him, talking about updates and conversations he’d had with clubs and representatives.
“They seem to be on track and because I know the managers at those clubs I know those conversations are happening.
“I can’t go away from my agreement with the president, which was to let him believe that we have a chance (of the play-offs).
“But he is certainly putting ducks in a row. And there won’t be any leaving – apart from those who we don’t see going forward with us in the future.”