Leeds United will not be distracted by rivals this time - Luke Ayling

Riverside encounter: Middlesbrough's former Leeds player Adam Clayton challenges United's Pablo Hernandez.Riverside encounter: Middlesbrough's former Leeds player Adam Clayton challenges United's Pablo Hernandez.
Riverside encounter: Middlesbrough's former Leeds player Adam Clayton challenges United's Pablo Hernandez. | PA Wire
LEEDS UNITED defender Luke Ayling has stressed that the Whites’ calm and collected players were always confident that their recent winter blip would prove no more than a temporary aberration.

Less than three weeks after a loss to a direct promotion rival in Nottingham Forest – their second successive defeat at the start of February – Leeds end the calendar month with their top-two credentials reasserted by way of 10 points from the last available 12.

As it stands, Marcelo Bielsa’s second-placed Championship side are five points clear of Fulham, in third, with recent talk of their potential demise appearing to have been greatly exaggerated.

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While many supporters were metaphorically losing their heads, given a testing start to the new decade for Leeds, those within the inner sanctum of the dressing room were critically keeping theirs – with good reason given a second wonderfully consistent campaign under Bielsa.

Ayling, preparing for Saturday’s lunch-time derby at struggling Yorkshire rivals Hull City – where victory would temporarily move Leeds eight points clear of Fulham by the time they kick-off against Preston – said: “Us boys in the dressing room knew we could come out of that little spell.

“After that (Nottingham Forest) game it was a real low point for us. But we looked back at the game and I think we actually played better than what everyone thought.

“Our gaffer pretty much said that we played really well, so we took a lot of confidence from that. We came out at Brentford and probably played one of our best games of the season and should have got more than a point.

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“After that Forest game, it was all about starting afresh and going again. We have come out flying, so it is so far, so good.”

What Leeds have also learned, from the deep-seated pain of last season, is that fretting about what other teams do at the top of the table is a futile business.

In the run-in last term, plenty of emotional energy was invested in a juicy subplot at the top end of the table between Leeds and Sheffield United, both pitted in a frenzied battle to accompany Norwich to the top-flight.

A year on and Leeds are solely focusing on keeping their own house in order and not stressing about any developments elsewhere.

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That was evidenced in Ayling’s reaction to the fact that third-placed Fulham had secured a stoppage-time winner against Swansea City on Wednesday – with the news filtering through after the final whistle had blown in Leeds’s 1-0 win at Middlesbrough.

The 28-year-old said: “I sat in an ice bath and I looked at the Champions League results first.

“Then I got told that they (Fulham) had scored a ‘94th-minute’ winner. But us boys know where we are and we know if we keep winning, it is in our hands.

“We know that there are only so many games to go, so we have to come out every single game and fight for our lives. It is there for us so we have to make sure we keep this good form going.”

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Avoiding wasting unnecessary energy on other matters that they cannot control also served Leeds well earlier this month.

It arrived in the build-up to the club’s trip to promotion rivals Brentford on February 11, with Bees head coach Thomas Frank suggesting beforehand that Leeds would be fearing them and could not have picked a worse place to play than Griffin Park following a faltering run of results.

An unbeaten four-match sequence since may suggest that the unwise words of the Dane served as a useful motivational tool for Leeds.

But the truth is that relaxed Leeds were not irked in any way shape or form by Frank and took the comments with a liberal pinch of salt.

Ayling added: “The boys read it and saw it.

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“I do not think that there has been any time in the season where we have stopped fighting and running, so I do not think that can be put on us.

“We are a team that play 100 per cent every game. We saw what they said, but it is only words on a piece of paper and I think it was more to motivate his own players.”

That mature and intelligent mindset further points to the focus and sense of quiet resolve at Elland Road, something that perhaps only a huge disappointment such as events at the end of last season can bring.

For Leeds, it is all about deeds and not words, with three 1-0 wins and the concession of just one goal in four matches – and that was only caused by a dreadful faux pas from Kiko Casilla at Brentford – suggesting that they are ticking along nicely again.

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Much may still be made about Leeds’s modest conversion rate in front of goal, but the re-establishment of their defensive order – Bielsa’s side again boast the best goals against record in the Championship – is every bit as significant.

All told, Leeds have now not conceded a goal in over five-and-a-half hours with Casilla’s tally of 15 clean sheets being three more than his nearest rival, Forest keeper Brice Samba.

“Three clean sheets on the bounce is always nice. We went a lot of time without getting one and it can fill us with massive confidence,” said Ayling.

“We know that if we have a good base back there that the boys up top will take care of the rest.”