Leeds can hold their nerve in big screen test

A YEAR on from the collapse in form that almost cost Leeds United promotion, Simon Grayson insists the experience can only bolster the club’s push for the Premier League.

The Elland Road club host Nottingham Forest tomorrow in a fixture that, thanks to the two teams sitting fifth and sixth in the table, could have huge ramifications in the promotion race.

On the corresponding weekend of 2010, United’s low point of the campaign came courtesy of Swindon Town romping to a 3-0 win in West Yorkshire. It was a fourth straight defeat for Grayson’s men, who, as a result, slipped out of the top two for the first time since August.

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Leeds, to their credit, responded admirably by winning five of their final seven games and clinching a return to the Championship.

Twelve months on, Grayson is looking for a similarly strong end to the season – starting with victory over Forest tomorrow in front of the live BBC cameras.

He said: “I don’t think the two can be compared but what we maybe can do is learn from what happened last year.

“To be honest, I wasn’t aware it was this weekend (when we lost to Swindon) until you just mentioned it,” added Grayson to the Yorkshire Post. “But if that means we do what we did last year and get promoted, so be it.

“The main thing is we turned it around (after Swindon). People tend to forget the form we showed during those last seven games.

“We won five of them. And at Charlton (on the penultimate weekend) we could have sealed the draw if I hadn’t decided to go for it in the closing stages at 0-0.

“We had six up front and two at the back because we knew a win would get us promoted. In the end, they nicked it in the last minute but, under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t have happened.

“So, we finished strongly last season when it came to the crunch. That was particularly the case at Elland Road, when we won the last three.”

The visit of Forest is the first of four remaining games at Elland Road, Leeds also being due to take on promotion rivals Watford, Reading and Burnley in the closing weeks.

Those fixtures are likely to go a long way towards deciding whether United can cap what has been a hugely entertaining season by finishing in the top six, something Grayson believes is the very least his team deserve. He said: “I don’t have a points target, as if you do that you can fall short. The main thing is to get enough points to secure a play-off place, and after that, hopefully the top two.

“Second-placed Norwich are in a nice position but everyone is still gunning for them. QPR are probably too far out of reach due to the number of games left but Norwich are still catchable.

“I am sure Paul Lambert realises that. His focus will be on getting across that finishing line. We proved that a little bit last year.

“The nature of the division is that teams can go on a good run and then, suddenly, have a bad result. That is why no-one can be ruled out of getting in the top six, right down to the teams in 12th, 13th and 14th.”

On his own team, the United manager added: “We have a group of players who came through some real pressure situations last year when we got promoted. There was a more pressure on us to get out of League One, mainly because we had been down there so long.

“This year, our sole target was to still be in the Championship for 2011-12. As a result, the pressure is off us.

“There is more pressure on teams like Forest, Cardiff City and the others because of where they were last year. They also started the season as favourites for the division.

“They probably need to get in the Premier League more than we do. The gulf in terms of finances is huge and can make your club for many, many years to come. So, as others have spent more than us in terms of transfer fees and budgets maybe the pressure is on them to go up.”

Jonny Howson is a doubt with the hamstring injury that saw the United captain pull out of England Under-21s duty earlier this week but, otherwise, manager Grayson says his squad are feeling fresh.

He said: “It has been a good international break. A lot of managers will have felt the same as it has given us a chance to refresh a few minds and bodies. At Leeds, we had a few away on international duty. Fortunately, they have all come back fit and well.

“It is disappointing at times that players can go away and not have any time on the pitch. But also, just the experience of training with international players on a daily basis means they will have benefited.”