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Middlesbrough v Leeds United: Here and now is the priority for Heckingbottom

Paul Heckingbottom: Leeds United head coach hoping to build momentum in top-six chase.
Paul Heckingbottom: Leeds United head coach hoping to build momentum in top-six chase.
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HEAD COACH Paul Heckingbottom admits Leeds United’s transfer plans for the summer must remain on the back burner amid a run of fixtures that is likely to go a long way towards deciding the club’s play-off fate.

The Elland Road club head to Middlesbrough tonight for a televised fixture that is, as of this morning, expected to go ahead despite the Arctic weather that has left Teesside shivering in recent days.

Buoyed by claiming a first win of 2018 last weekend, United are desperate to build some momentum ahead of hosting runaway leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday night.

Then come clashes with Reading and Sheffield Wednesday, two teams enduring disappointing seasons after featuring in last May’s play-offs, as Heckingbottom’s men look to make up lost ground on the top six.

“The manner of the performance against Brentford (in last weekend’s 1-0 win) showed a lot of what we have been working on,” said the Leeds chief.

“I want us to be a lot more resilient without the ball and to know how to win games by nullifying the opposition, as well as being good with the ball.

Middlesbrough manager Tony Pulis

Middlesbrough manager Tony Pulis

“When I look back at results, Leeds have won lots of games by playing well, but lost lots of games by playing poorly and being easy to play against. We want to maintain the element of us being good with the ball, but being able to control games when the opposition has got it.

“The players have responded well since we came in and I do think they feel a little bit more settled now.

“It is always new and strange when a new man comes in. They want to impress, but everyone has been more relaxed and that was before (last) Saturday’s game. Hopefully that win can be the first of many.”

Asked about the importance of building some momentum before the next international break midway through the month, Heckingbottom replied: “That is where the bar is.

You look at the majority of the teams in the Championship and they have been in the Premier League. Leeds’ supporters will be no different to our supporters.

Boro boss Tony Pulis

“We want to be up there and we want to be above these sides. To get there you have to improve.

“Each game we have played has been a barometer of where we are at and things we want to improve on. When we come out of this run we will know how far away we are.”

Heckingbottom arrived after the January transfer window had closed. It means the Leeds chief has to work with the players already at the club, assessing any strengths and weaknesses as he goes along with a view to making improvements in the summer.

Those thoughts, though, remain in the background due to the priority being to reduce further the six-point gap that separates Leeds from Sheffield United in the final play-offs place.

“It is definitely at the back of your mind,” said Heckingbottom when asked about the next transfer window. “However, three weeks in we are still looking at these players and pushing these players. We know what we want our performances to look like and we are working towards that.

“You are always assessing players, whether it is your own or players at other clubs who could be potential signings.

“That won’t change, but the priority is these games in front of us and these players in the building because they are ours. They will get our full care and attention.”

Boro are as keen as Heckingbottom for tonight’s game to go ahead. Meetings took place yesterday with the police, safety officers and transport chiefs after several days of snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Public safety in the surrounding area remains the major concern, though last night indications were that the game –United’s 16th in front of the live Sky cameras this season – will go ahead.

Tony Pulis’s men will move into the top six if Boro can avenge the 2-1 loss at Elland Road in November when Thomas Christiansen and Garry Monk were in the two dugouts.

“You look at the majority of the teams in the Championship,” said the Riverside chief, “and they have been in the Premier League. Leeds’s supporters will be no different to our supporters, or to 15 other teams for that matter, in seeing themselves as Premier League clubs.

“Our players have to realise it, accept it and grow with it. The demands are to win games and to do that you have to be not just good players, but mentally tough as well.”

Adam Forshaw could face the club he left to join Leeds in January after missing the Brentford clash due to the birth of his son. Pablo Hernandez and Kemar Roofe, however, are doubts with the injuries that caused the duo to miss the 1-0 win over the Bees.

Asked if putting pressure on the play-off chasing pack was the target tonight, Heckingbottom replied: “No, we are not thinking that way at all. It sounds boring, but it is literally just about this being the next game.

“Whoever is in front of us we prepare for that and try to win it. While people are asking me about this season and the play-offs that is great because we want to be playing for things as long as possible. But it is just the team in front of us – and can we beat them?”

Last six games: Middlesbrough DLWLWD Leeds United DLLDDW.

Referee: D England (South Yorkshire).

Last time: Middlesbrough 3 Leeds United 0; September 27, 2015; Championship.