LIAM BRIDCUTT’S three-and-a-half year stint with Brighton & Hove Albion taught him plenty about the pressures that accompany a run-in.
His first year on the south coast brought a League One title success, the midfielder’s satisfaction being added to by it being one of his rare goals in a dramatic 4-3 victory over Dagenham & Redbridge in mid-April that clinched promotion.
The following season, Brighton were in the Championship play-off places with five games remaining only to fall away. Gus Poyet’s side then made amends for that late collapse in what proved to be Bridcutt’s final full campaign at the Amex by reaching the 2013 play-offs, although further heartache awaited courtesy of defeat in the semi-finals to Crystal Palace.
A little under four years on and the 27-year-old, now captaining Leeds United, is looking to put that experience to good use as his old club head to Elland Road for a tea-time encounter that is likely to have big ramifications for both the automatic promotion scrap and the hunt for a play-off place.
“Anything can happen in the Championship,” he said when asked about the possible twists and turns of the final few weeks. “But, as captain, I just say before every game: ‘Go out and play with a smile on your face’. For me, there is nothing worse at this stage of the season then either fighting relegation or having nothing to play for.
“This is why you become a footballer, to be fighting at the top of the table and having that opportunity to go and progress in your career.”
United’s promotion push has taken most by surprise. For the previous five seasons, the club had been the very epitome of mid-table mediocrity and a revolving door policy when it came to the hiring and firing of managers hardly suggested that was about to change any time soon.
Today’s visitors to Elland Road, in contrast, were strongly fancied to challenge again after only missing out on automatic promotion last time around on the final day. Defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the play-offs then only added to the sense of dejection that Chris Hughton worked hard over the summer to turn into a determination to go one better in 2016-17.
So far, so good on that score with Brighton having spent most of the past five months exchanging blows – and pole position – with Newcastle United.
A few weeks ago, the Seagulls looked near certainties to finish in the top two but Huddersfield Town’s stunning form has led to a few doubts creeping in.
Bridcutt feels those concerns mean the pressure is on his old club this tea-time rather than Leeds, even allowing for the fact Fulham are ready to pounce if the Yorkshire club falters.
“We have all seen Brighton throughout the season and we all know that they are a good team,” said the former Chelsea trainee.
“But I think the pressure is more on them than us, really.
“They are aiming for automatic promotion and, with Huddersfield chipping away and getting some good results, I think they are going to be more worried about us then we are of them.”
If I can lead this club to the Premier League, it would be a massive achievement for me and it would be an amazing feeling for me.Leeds United captain, Liam Bridcutt
Bridcutt, twice voted ‘Player of the Year’ at the Amex before moving to Sunderland for £2.5m in January, 2014, was absent for a large chunk of this season through injury.
Sixteen games, in fact, were missed by the Leeds captain due to a fractured foot, the last of which was December’s 2-0 loss to Brighton in front of the live Sky cameras.
Kalvin Phillips’s dismissal midway through the first half for handball undoubtedly hindered Garry Monk’s side that Friday night and Bridcutt admits there is a score to settle at Elland Road.
“It is always in the back of your mind when you lose to a team previously and you always like to get one back really,” he admitted ahead of the televised game.
“Having said that, every game we go into we need to clear our minds and just focus on the task in hand. We can’t let the emotions and other things get hold of our game.”
Barring a late-season collapse, Leeds are destined for their fifth tilt at the play-offs since the promotion deciders were introduced 30 years ago.
All four of those previous attempts to win promotion ended in dejection, the tone being set in that very first year when Billy Bremner’s men were leading 1-0 in the final replay with just seven minutes of extra-time remaining only for Charlton Athletic to hit back through a double from Peter Shirtliff.
Defeats in the 2006 Championship decider and the League One final two years later were similarly disappointing, as was the 2009 semi-final loss to Millwall.
A chance to make up for all that heartache potentially lays ahead in May and Bridcutt’s experience could be crucial.
“In the play-offs, it is literally down to holding your nerve and your emotions, really,” he added.
“If you can do that, then obviously the performance comes along with it.
“It is down to nerves and holding your own, really.”
Leeds, of course, still need to secure that play-off place. Fulham sit five points behind fourth-placed United with nine games remaining after being held to a 2-2 draw by Blackburn Rovers in midweek.
With today’s game being the first of a double-header either side of the international break that sees Monk’s side head to Reading on April 1, work still needs to be done.
Bridcutt added: “At this stage in the season, what we have achieved has been incredible in terms of our performances and how much the club has changed over the last year, really.
“And a lot of that is down to the manager and the players, in terms of our mentality and what we want to do.
“If I can lead this club to the Premier League, it would be a massive achievement for me and it would be an amazing feeling for me.”