Jacob Murphy could not have come across as more confident after Sheffield Wednesday’s derby victory. Leeds United’s Ben White was positive, too, but it sounded more like someone putting on a brave face after a 2-0 scoreline put the cat amongst the Elland Road pigeons.
Wednesday went into arguably their most difficult fixture of the season outside the play-off places, having lost three consecutive Championship matches plus top-scorer Steven Fletcher, injured in the FA Cup win at Brighton and Hove Albion.
Asked if he thought his side could still finish in the top six, winger Murphy – scorer of the all-important 87th-minute opener – was emphatic.
“We know we can,” he replied. “We know we’re on a journey to hopefully doing something special this season. That’s the view from everyone in the dressing room.
“On Christmas Day, we were third, a week later we were eighth. Now we’re back to sixth. It’s a tight league so it’s all about putting points on the board.”
The equation is more complicated. The Owls are under a Football League investigation over the way they sold Hillsborough and leased it back to owner Dejphon Chansiri to exploit a loophole in the “profit and sustainability” rules governing how much money Championship clubs can lose. The charge is unprecedented and will be contested, but sanctions range from a fine to a promotion-killing 21-point deduction.
The players are determined only to think about the on-field factors they can influence. The Owls dragged Leeds off the top of the table and to within 10 points of them and despite their inconsistency, Murphy has not given up on automatic promotion.
“As long as we’re in the promotion race, that’s all anyone can ask for but top two? Why not?” he said. “A lot of teams know Sheffield Wednesday is a tough, tough team to play against so I think we emphasised that on Saturday and, hopefully, we can take into the fixtures coming up.”
Three defeats between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day are a distant memory after Murphy and his team-mates rose to the challenge of manager Garry Monk criticising their mindset.
“It’s a relentless league, plenty of games, and one week isn’t going to define our season,” reasoned Murphy. “We’ve shown with a win against Brighton, then beating the top of the league team, that we can do damage.
“We’ve got tonnes of experience, tonnes of league games in the squad, so the boys have that bouncebackability which is going to put us in good stead.”
The Whites have won one of their last seven matches, and the cushion to the play-off places is being worn away.
Had they taken their first-half chances they would have won and that, rather than Leeds falling apart under the weight of expectation as the away fans gleefully sung about at full-time, is what Ben White focused on.
“I think we played well in the first half,” argued the centre-back who, along with Kalvin Phillips, was presumably why England manager Gareth Southgate took in his second Yorkshire game in as many days. “I think we deserved to get something from the game on our first-half display.
“We did well against Arsenal (in their FA Cup third-round defeat) and we have played like that before against a Championship side but it (the attention) is not as big because it’s not against a big side.”
Ability is not an issue for Leeds, but missed chances are. They need a replacement for Eddie Nketiah – recalled from his season-long loan by Arsenal – as soon as possible. “Patrick (Bamford) is an unbelievable goal-scorer so there’s no worry there,” insisted White, himself on loan from Brighton. “Our aim is to just take every game as it comes and just pick up as many points as we can until the end of the season.”