Leeds United replicating Sheffield United’s route to the Premier League
Just over 13 months ago, the post-match mood in the away dressing room at Villa Park was, – in the words of Blades goalkeeper Dean Henderson – ‘rough’ and ‘interesting’ after the visitors inexplicably let slip a 3-0 lead with eight minutes to go to draw 3-3 on February 8, 2019.
A frank exchange of views took place and after everyone had their say, Chris Wilder was handed the emphatic response he was after from his promotion-chasers, with the Blades chief admitting that it provided the ‘springboard’ for a run that ultimately helped ensure that the club ended their top-flight exile.
After that wretched denouement at Aston Villa, Wilder’s side went on an outstanding seven-match unbeaten run, which saw them register six victories and keep seven successive clean sheets as they did not concede a goal for 10-and-a-half hours.
Fast-forward to today and Leeds have shown similar character, fortitude and resolution following another sombre occasion in the Midlands on February 8.
Leeds lost 2-0 to Nottingham Forest on a night when their prospects of promotion were seriously questioned.
It represented a ‘kick up the backside’ as utility man Stuart Dallas called it and perhaps a useful one at that.
As with the Blades, the Whites’ answer to any critics has been defiant and unequivocal.
After the loss at the City Ground, Leeds’ initial response arrived by way of a strong display in a 1-1 draw against a promotion rival in Brentford, which would have yielded victory but for a comedy error from Kiko Casilla.
Since that night – when Brentford head coach Thomas Frank ill-advisedly spoke of Leeds coming to their bogey ground of Griffin Park in fear ahead of the game – Bielsa’s side have won their last five games without letting in a goal – extending to eight-and-a-half hours of football.
The upshot is that Leeds have reaffirmed their credentials in the most comprehensive fashion and reside in top spot again with a seven-point buffer over third-placed Fulham.
Dallas, named in Northern Ireland’s squad for their Euro 2020 play-off semi-final against Bosnia and Herzegovina, said: “It is a great run. But we knew within the group how good we were and are.
“There is no team that can go the whole season without having a dip in form.
“We have had that dip in form and lost the points that we were ahead. It was probably a kick up the backside that we needed.
“We know there was stuff said. That didn’t hurt, but our form hurt us to be losing the points we were. That showed we care.
“We regrouped and went again and have put a run together now.”
The barbs from outside and from Frank may not have hurt, but they served a useful purpose as a motivational tool in a key juncture in the season of Leeds.
It enabled Leeds to adopt a siege mentality of sorts, much in the same way as Wilder’s side closed ranks to impressive effect just over a year ago.
“After Forest, we went to Brentford and a lot of things were said about us in the press, which were disrespectful towards us maybe, continued Dallas.
“As a group of players, we stuck together and continued to believe in what we were doing.
“Thankfully, we have come out and put a good run together.”
This time last month, Leeds headed south to Brentford with a few festering wounds after a sobering start to the new year which had seen the club win just once in six league matches.
The chant of ‘Leeds are falling apart’ and memes were starting to do the rounds among supporters of several fellow clubs who were revelling in taking great delight in their form faltering for a third successive season.
A stirring chorus of that very song, in the most ironic manner possible, by the Elland Road faithful in Saturday’s authoritative 2-0 derby victory over Huddersfield Town was firm evidence that all is well once again in the world of Leeds.
For United’s players, there is no time for such indulgence, even accounting for the rude health that Leeds now find themselves in, regarding form and league position.
Questioned on the club being in an imposing position once again after casting aside their blip at the start of 2020, Dallas issued a warning.
Busy preparing for Sunday’s trip to Cardiff, who first planted a few seeds of doubt in the minds of Leeds after a dramatic second-half rally from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 in the reverse fixture on December 14, Dallas countered: “You could be in a better position. You could be further away.
“But we are happy where we are. We go to Cardiff next week and if they win, they could be in the play-offs. It is massive.
“People talk about a favourable run of fixtures that we have had, but I do not buy that.”