WHEN this season got under way in August, the general outlook at Leeds United and Nottingham Forest could not have been more contrasting.
Stuart Pearce, after Brian Clough as big a legend as can be found at the City Ground, had taken charge in the summer, smashed the club’s transfer record and all the talk was of a push for the Premier League.
As for Leeds, a sense of unease pervaded on the back of Dave Hockaday’s appointment and an influx of players from abroad who supporters knew little about.
Initially, both sentiments proved well placed as Forest, with £5.5m summer arrival Britt Assombalonga on board, prospered and Leeds bombed so badly that Hockaday was gone before the end of August.
Then, though, Pearce’s men floundered as United’s fortunes took a dramatic upturn and now, as a tumultuous season enters the final 10 games, there is much in common between the Championship’s only former European Cup finalists.
Leeds and Forest, despite stirring recent runs, are unlikely to gatecrash the play-offs but there is a tangible sense of optimism among followers of both clubs as to what next term may bring.
“We are in a good vein of form,” said United’s head coach Neil Redfearn to The Yorkshire Post ahead of a clash that is expected to attract a 30,000-plus crowd to Elland Road.
“We have got a Championship feel about us. We are playing the division and we understand the level far better. We are dealing with sides and we are harder to play against, harder to beat.
“Forest under Dougie (Freedman) have been on a good run, too. Dougie has done well. He did well at Palace and got it going for a spell at Bolton. He knows the level and he has gone in at Forest and got them playing well.
“They are going to play with a bit more confidence. They looked like they lacked a bit, or maybe a bit of belief at the City Ground. Although they went in front (against Leeds in December’s 1-1 draw), I always felt that if we stayed in the game we could get something.
“In the end, we could have got all three points. Forest have turned the corner and they have had a change of manager. Dougie has got them playing to their full potential.”
Like United, Forest have claimed seven league wins since the turn of the year. However, where Redfearn’s men have played 10 times in 2015, the Midlands club have had another couple of games.
Freedman, a former Leeds loanee, has been in charge for all but four of those dozen matches and there can be no denying the lift he has given Forest.
“You can see that from the results they have had,” said Redfearn. “They have got a good squad, some Championship experience and players who have played at this level for a while.
“I wouldn’t expect any different. To be fair, we think the same way. We want to finish as high as we can. Forest are within reach of us and we can catch them.
“If we apply ourselves like we can and win on Saturday then we will be within three points of them. We want to claw ourselves as high up the division as we can. Being higher up just looks better, and it feels better going into next season.
“It is going to be a difficult game but we are in a much better position so we can try to enjoy these games now. We can pit our wits against sides. We’ve done a lot of graft to get to this position but we don’t want to stop. We want a good end to the season.”
Central to Leeds going into tomorrow’s game looking down on the bottom three from a position of mid-table security is Redfearn.
In a four-match spell as caretaker in the autumn following Hockaday’s sacking, the former Academy chief collected 10 points. Then, after Darko Milanic had taken three points from a mercifully short six-game reign, Redfearn returned to steady matters and, since the turn of the year, lead United to a run of results and performances that suggest 2015-16 could be one to savour at Elland Road.
What such a transformation deserves is a longer-term contract and it is surely a surprise that such a deal is not already in place.
“The president is away so things are on hold as regards that, I would imagine,” said Redfearn. “I just keep doing what I have been asked to do. It is going well and you just want to do as well as you can for the club.
“It was important that we stay in this division because at one point it was looking a little bit tricky but we have got ourselves in a good position. Everyone has mucked in and we have all got to take credit for that. I just want to look forward to these games. We will take it from there.
“The club would have to answer that question. I have enjoyed myself, it is a tremendous privilege because the band of people is exclusive. Not many people have managed this football club.
“I am proud of what the boys have achieved by getting themselves out of trouble. As for me, I have just got to bat on and enjoy what I am doing.”