FOR the past few years, Boxing Day for Michael Tonge has invariably been spent kicking his heels in frustration.
Last year, for instance, he failed to be selected in the 18-man Stoke City squad that drew 0-0 with Aston Villa while the preceding two Christmases also saw the midfield player without a game due to Preston North End, where he had twice been farmed out on loan by Tony Pulis, suffering a double festive postponement.
Tonge has, in fact, to go back to 2007 for his last Boxing Day action when he was part of the Sheffield United side that drew 1-1 with Blackpool at Bramall Lane.
It is, the Manchester-born midfielder admits, too long a time without a game on what is invariably a highlight of the season and this year is going to be no different with Tonge again set to be a frustrated spectator come Wednesday.
That is because the 29-year-old Stoke man’s loan spell at Leeds United ended in the wake of the hard-fought 2-1 win over Middlesbrough, meaning he will be back at a club where he has no prospect of playing as Neil Warnock’s side head to Nottingham Forest.
“Boxing Day is going to be pretty boring, if I am honest,” Tonge told the Yorkshire Post after his emergency 93-day loan stay, which has brought 22 appearances in a Leeds shirt and five goals, came to an end.
“I am gutted I won’t be with the lads at Forest.
“A few of them have been saying, ‘Oh, it’ll be nice for you to have Christmas off’. But I don’t think like that as I want to keep playing.
“I have missed a couple of years of my career and I don’t want to miss any more time.
“That is why it is so frustrating and I wish my loan could have run until January.
“But they are the rules with 93-day loans and we have to deal with it. I haven’t spoken to anyone at Stoke. When you go on loan, you concentrate on that while they have their own stuff to get on with.
“I have to go back in on Monday, but I don’t know what Tony Pulis has got the lads doing over Christmas.
“We will just have to see what happens, but I am desperate to come back (to Leeds) in January.”
Tonge’s desire to stay is understandable with United now firmly on a roll with five wins from their last six games.
He also has a good relationship with Warnock, as was evident when the smiling Leeds chief interrupted Tonge’s interview with the Yorkshire Post to say: “The manager has resurrected my career.... again – go on Tongey, you tell him that.”
Most importantly, though, the former Blades player is someone who has grown in both stature and influence across his 93 days at Elland Road.
The win over Boro may not have been his best game, but the desire and determination he again brought to the centre of midfield played a part in Leeds claiming all three points against one of the Championship’s better teams.
For long periods in an entertaining contest, Tony Mowbray’s men showed just why they have been in and around the top two for so long.
Slickly moving the ball on a greasy surface at pace, Boro were unfortunate to only go in level at the break.
Lukas Jutkiewicz, a handful of a striker whom Leeds never truly got to grips with, put the visitors ahead just before the half-hour with a deflected shot after having seen his initial effort blocked by Paddy Kenny.
Leeds, who had earlier been denied the opening goal as a stunning save from Jason Steele kept out Sam Byram’s textbook downward header, equalised on the stroke of half-time courtesy of a wonderful strike on the turn from Luciano Becchio that flew into the net off the inside of a post.
Boro then again set about United in the opening exchanges of the second half as Jutkiewicz shot into the side-netting before then seeing a drilled effort turned on to a post by Kenny.
In between, Marvin Emnes forced a hurried clearance from Tom Lees that squirmed just inches past a post and the Teessiders were forced to pay for that trio of misses 17 minutes from time.
Then, Becchio powered onto a corner from El-Hadji Diouf and Richard Smallwood inadvertently diverted the ball beyond Steele with the slightest of touches.
Boro were understandably dejected to lose a game in which, even at the climax, they kept creating chances.
But Jonathan Woodgate, returning to the club where it all began for the one-time England international, insists Mowbray’s men have shown enough in the first half of the season to suggest that a return to the Premier League is achievable.
The central defender said: “We are a good team and we are going to go up. All the lads think that. The manager has done a great job.
“He had to slash the wage bill and sell a lot of players. He then brought in free transfers or players for £400,00 or so, and he has made a huge difference.
“Against Leeds, concentration let us down from a set-piece and that isn’t good enough. We also didn’t put the ball in the net (enough). But we have a great team spirit and I know we will pick ourselves up to win our next match.
“People say we are doing well, but I think we should be top. I don’t want to finish third or fourth. We want to go up, that is our aim. We want to be first.”
His manager Mowbray said: “We had a host of chances and missed them.
“We were through one-on-one two or three times and threatened the goal more than enough to have got something out of the game, but give Leeds credit.
“They worked hard and defended well without putting us under much pressure. They had a tough game against Chelsea on Wednesday and sent just about the same players out against us. They got a result so good luck to them.
“Becchio’s first goal was a great one. To turn and hit the ball as well as that showed great technique, but our own finishing needed to be more clinical.”