JAAP STAM’S two previous visits to Leeds United as a player came when more than 40,000 were packed into Elland Road and the atmosphere was as hostile as it gets.
Manchester United’s visits tended to be like that, and particularly as Leeds were emerging as a major rival in the fight for honours during the Dutch defender’s stint at Old Trafford.
More than 15 years on from a 1-1 draw that was followed four days later by David O’Leary’s United taking on Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, Stam will make his return to West Yorkshire and, while the numbers in the stands will be down on those days around the turn of the millennium, the Reading manager will know his side are in for a potentially tough night against a rejuvenated club.
Leeds head coach Garry Monk is proud of that last point, not least because it means Elland Road is again becoming a place where visiting teams are wary to tread thanks to United having taken 16 points from their last seven home games, and knocked both Blackburn Rovers and Norwich City out of the League Cup.
“I talked when I came in about the need to create a different atmosphere and a connection at Elland Road between the fans, the club and the staff,” said the 37-year-old.
“I said we needed to unite things. Step by step, we have gently managed to do that and it is great. The players really enjoy playing at Elland Road, we are getting bigger crowds and the fans are enjoying themselves.
“We want to use that, as we are expecting another good crowd against Reading. These are two important games before we have a small break, ahead of taking on Preston (on Boxing Day). They are really important.”
Leeds beat Aston Villa on their last home outing, the only defeat suffered by the Midlands club since Steve Bruce’s arrival nine games ago.
Against a visiting side carrying plenty of attacking threat, Monk’s men produced the sort of display that anyone with genuine aspirations of a top-six finish must have in their armoury.
Willing to be patient in a cagey first half, United were resolute at the back and then, once ahead through Kemar Roofe’s 68th-minute goal, in no mood to surrender their advantage.
A setback followed last Friday at Brighton & Hove Albion, but Leeds will host the Royals tonight still occupying a play-off place and knowing that back-to-back home games inside four days offer a golden opportunity to underline further those growing promotion aspirations.
“It is two home games now and we have to try and maximise the points out of them,” said Monk, whose men host Brentford on Saturday. “But these are two very good sides.
“Reading are an excellent side. There has not been much talk about Reading, but we noticed them a long time ago and expectation will be growing.
“Jaap Stam’s gone there and done a wonderful job with them. They are performing to a high level so, again, it is going to be a difficult test. But we talked about making Elland Road a fearsome place to come to and that has been growing. We want to go out and put the Brighton result right.
“We felt we didn’t do ourselves justice down there. We made too many mistakes individually. Everyone was frustrated, there was disappointment, but that is a good sign. We have set a high standard.”
Liam Bridcutt could make a surprise return for the hosts tonight as injuries and the suspension of Kalvin Phillips, dismissed at the Amex last Friday, have stretched Monk’s squad to the limit.
Eunan O’Kane, who has missed the last two games with a groin complaint, is also out to leave United with a shortage of potential partners for 18-year-old Ronaldo Vieira in central midfield.
Bridcutt has not featured since September due to injury and, in ideal circumstances, it is unlikely that the club captain would be rushed back just a couple of weeks after returning to training with the first team.
But, against the third-placed Royals, Monk knows Leeds cannot afford any weak links.
“Liam has come back in really good condition and probably ahead of where we thought he would be,” said the United chief, who expects to be without Pablo Hernandez until at least Boxing Day.
As for Stam, he is relishing the chance to lock horns with a club against whom, in four league meetings between 1998 and 2001, he helped earn the Red Devils 10 points.
“At Elland Road, it will be a big crowd. There will be lots of pressure on them as well because they need to win their games as well as us,” he said.
“We will go over there with a good feeling after our win over Sheffield Wednesday, we want to go and get a result over there.”
Last six games: Leeds United WLWLWL Reading WWWWLW.
Referee: G Eltringham (Tyne & Wear).
Last time: Leeds United 3 Reading 2; April 16, 2016; Championship.