AMID the war of words that, at times, threatened to engulf last season’s games between Leeds United and Reading, one particular critique stood out.
Not, it should be said, Jaap Stam’s rather prickly: “It’s not my cup of tea”, when asked about United’s style of play following a 2-0 victory for the Yorkshire club that saw the Royals enjoy 77 per cent of possession.
Nor was it his dismissal of the Elland Road supporters who had been chanting: ‘Boring, boring Reading’, as his two centre-backs passed the ball between themselves ad infinitum, the former Manchester United defender’s barb being: “You can tell something about how they are as human beings, to be fair. It is a way of thinking.”
Neither was it then Leeds head coach Garry Monk saying: “I felt a bit embarrassed for him”, in response to Stam’s post-match comments following that December tussle in West Yorkshire.
No, what stood out among all this name-calling and back-biting was the pre-match verdict of Yann Kermorgant ahead of the return at the Madejski in April. Namely, that if Chris Wood did not score or got injured, Monk’s Leeds had “No plan B”.
At the time, United were above the Royals in the table and eight points clear of Fulham in seventh place. Brighton & Hove Albion had also just been beaten 2-0 at Elland Road, Wood scoring both goals, so Kermorgant’s verdict on a big rival could have been taken as little more than an attempt at mind games.
A month later, however, and the striker’s words had taken on a prescient feel with Leeds’s promotion challenge having collapsed in such a spectacular fashion that not only did Monk’s men trail Reading by 10 points come the season’s end, but Fulham had also grabbed sixth place with a game to spare.
Without anyone able to offer proper support to 27-goal Wood in the scoring stakes – his tally in the league was 21 more than anyone else at Elland Road in 2016-17 – United’s play-off dream withered away, just as Kermorgant had forecast.
A summer overhaul at Elland Road that included Wood departing to the Premier League for £15m and a host of attack-minded arrivals means the goals have been shared around much more this time around – and that is just how Kemar Roofe, with six to his name already, likes it.
“There are more people scoring this season from different parts of the pitch and positions,” said the 24-year-old, who netted just three times last term, but still finished as the club’s joint fifth-highest scorer in the Championship with Pontus Jansson.
That is what is good about this season. We have got good variety. We are attacking a lot more this season and with a lot more freedom.Leeds Unitred’s Kemar Roofe
“That is what is good about this season. We have got good variety. We are attacking a lot more this season and with a lot more freedom. We all seem to be linking up well together and I am enjoying it.”
Leeds fans, too, have been enjoying this campaign. Or, at least, they were until a recent run of three defeats in four outings that culminated in a horror show in front of the live Sky cameras when losing to Sheffield Wednesday on the first day of the month.
After starting brightly, United conceded a sloppy goal and then proceeded to fall apart. But for a wrongly ruled out ‘goal’ for offside and an incredible miss by Steven Fletcher, the margin of defeat would have been a lot greater.
This loss has prompted plenty of hard work on the training ground at Thorp Arch during the international break, as Roofe revealed.
“We have been trying to put it right,” added the £3m signing from Oxford United in 2016. “A break (after a defeat) works both ways. Obviously, it is frustrating because you want to get back out and you would like a midweek game to change things.
“But, on the other hand, it gives you time to reflect and to miss football. You have got more drive.”
Pressed on what head coach Thomas Christiansen had been focusing on during the break, Roofe replied: “Maybe the aerial battles, picking up the second balls, and defensive shape as well. The gaffer touched on it this morning.
“We had a good start to the game (at Hillsborough), but, as soon as the goal went in, we dropped off.”
Tellingly, all three of those recent defeats came on the road. Christiansen’s side, again set to be roared on by a bumper crowd today, are unbeaten at Elland Road in seven league and Cup outings and Roofe admits it will be good to be back on home soil.
“We want this to be a fortress,” he added. “We have to make it difficult for any away team to come and take anything from us.
“It is hard to explain the feeling, but you get an extra buzz from the crowd. In previous years, they have had such high expectations, but we are, hopefully, bringing it back.”
Following the war of words that surrounded last season’s games with Reading and the presence of a former Manchester United stalwart in the away dugout, the atmosphere is likely to be on the lively side again this afternoon.
The home fans will be hoping to see United extend what has become an extended hangover for Reading from last May’s play-off final defeat on penalties to Huddersfield Town.
In the wake of having their Premier League dreams shattered in the most heart-breaking of fashion, the Royals have taken just nine points from the opening 10 games and sit fifth bottom. Roofe, though, is steeling himself for a tough test.
“You could have said that about Villa (not too long ago) and yet they are not far off it now,” said the Leeds man when asked if this was a good time to face the Royals. “One week you can win, the next week you can lose two on the bounce and drop down. That is the Championship. We just have to focus on ourselves.
“Our target is to go one better than last season. The end goal is promotion, whether it is automatic or up through the play-offs.”