FOR the second year in a row, Leeds United brought the curtain down with a game against Derby County but the circumstances surrounding the two fixtures could not have been any more contrasting.
Where 12 months ago defeat at Pride Park had left many supporters fearing the worst regarding where United were heading, now there is a belief that the club is on the up.
The talk after Tuesday’s entertaining 2-2 draw with the Rams at Elland Road was of the play-offs.
While this may still seem a long shot right now considering how much ground has to be made up, the fact that the top six is even being mentioned says everything about the transformation Steve Evans has brought about since being the surprise choice to succeed Uwe Rosler in October.
Sol Bamba, United’s captain, arrived at Elland Road early last year so has seen for himself the strides that have been made by Leeds since that nadir of defeat at Derby on the penultimate day of 2014 that left the Yorkshire club just one point clear of the relegation zone.
“I arrived at the start of 2015 and there has been a lot of imnprovement,” said the 30-year-old defender to The Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s home game with struggling Milton Keynes Dons. “If I am honest, I thought we took some steps back when Uwe Rosler left.
“It felt like we had taken two steps forward but then four back. We were starting all over again. But, at the minute, we are looking good and I think people can see the improvement.
“Something is building here. I think you can see that in our last 10 performances. There is definitely something there. But we need to keep going and get the consistency that teams need in this league.
“We are six games unbeaten but that is only a start. We need to keep it going and keep performing without any pressure. Just enjoy football, that is what the game should be abaout.”
The smiles do seem to be back on faces at Elland Road.
As Bamba was about to start this interview, head coach Evans walked past and some good natured joshing – mainly about the defender being nutmegged for the first Derby goal earlier this week – quickly broke out between the pair.
It suggested a close bond between captain and boss, and pointed towards a togetherness at the club that was maybe not evident during the struggles of the first half of 2014-15.
“When I came to Leeds, the dressing room was not that bad,” replied the former Ivory Coast international when asked if things had, indeed, become more harmonious behind the scenes. “A few things were being said outside (the club) but I thought it was okay.
“Maybe there was a problem of communication with a lot of the Italian lads and the English on the side. I was fortunate that I spoke both languages and that helped me put people together. No-one wanted to play in League One. But we managed to keep the club up and we started the season with a better mood.
“No-one wanted the same season as last time. We started well but then the gaffer left and that made things difficult. But now things are starting to change again. December was a good month, as we went six games unbeaten.
“We have to keep our feet on the ground. When we go on a run, this is such a big club that people can start to dream. There is a long way to go. But we are moving in the right direction.”
Bamba’s return to the side against Derby after a spell out injured was eventful. Culpable for the first goal of the night by Jeff Hendrick when nut-megged far too easily, the United captain netted his first goal of the season shortly before half-time to bring the game level.
“The mood was mixed in the dressing room after Derby,” he added. “It had been a good performance so we were pleased with that but we also thought we should have had more than one point.
“Derby are a top team but when we went in front through Chris Wood I thought it was going to be the same as the game down there. He scored an unbelievable goal that day. Unfortunately, we could not hold on.
“But we now have a belief about our play. A few additions in January would help, too. At the minute, if I am honest, we are a bit short. But add one or two in the transfer window and we could end up right in the mix.”