Steve Evans played down talk of the play-offs but admitted Leeds United’s season was “alive” as the club reached Christmas five points back from the Championship’s top six.
Evans watched his side produce a third victory in four games but said thoughts of a promotion bid at Elland Road were premature with the campaign close to the halfway stage.
An early red card shown to goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and a second-half own goal from Alan Browne ruined Simon Grayson’s return to Leeds as North End succumbed to a 1-0 defeat. United were 18th in the Championship table when Evans replaced Uwe Rosler as head coach in October and stuck in the same position a fortnight ago but the club moved level with 12th placed Queen Park Rangers last night, five points adrift of the league’s last play-off spot.
Evans has conceded openly that plans to strengthen his squad next month are dependent on him putting his squad in a position to compete for a top-six finish, but he voiced caution after Leeds came through late pressure from Preston to extend their unbeaten run to four matches. United’s head coach said: “What we’ve done is separate ourselves from the bottom end of the table. That was the first objective I set us.
“We can’t get carried away and say we’re in any competition to be in the play-offs but we’ve taken ourselves to within five points of that. It makes every point a good point and every three points a massive three points. “In summary I’d be happy and you’d always take a win over a draw or a defeat. My players deserve credit. You can’t always go out and play the way we did at Wolves or Charlton. There are going to be days, especially here at Elland Road, where we have to grind it out.
“It’s great to grind it out and let the supporters sit down for Christmas Day thinking their team are still alive in the Championship. We’ve given ourselves an opportunity to get involved in it.”
Evans said last Thursday’s 3-2 win at Wolverhampton Wanderers – a fixture which saw his players arrive back in Leeds at 3am – had taken its toll in a scrappy match against Preston. Grayson’s players were forced to compete for almost an hour with 10 men following Pickford’s dismissal for handball outside his box but Leeds struggled to put any serious pressure on his replacement, 17-year-old debutant Matt Hudson.
Evans said: “Preston had a couple of days extra to recover. It was always going to be difficult and we spoke about delivering a different performance, full of determination and grit.
“We became scrappy. Suddenly 10-yard passes were difficult to hit and when we brought the ball down we didn’t use it well enough. You always know 10 men will throw caution to the wind and do things you wouldn’t do at 0-0 but I really never felt we would concede.”
Evans voiced criticism of Leeds’ forthcoming schedule which involves three games in seven days between December 27 and January 2.
Leeds head to Nottingham Forest next weekend and Evans warned of a “tough game” to come after watching Forest beat MK Dons at the City Ground on Saturday.
“We have to be fresh and it’s my responsibility to make sure we’re ready for when we got to the City Ground,” he said.
“I went down there and saw a very impressive Forest performance – two teams slugging it out and Forest came out on top. It’s going to be a tough game.”