Strike duo ready for shoot-out to capture golden boot

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AS Ross McCormack surveys this season, the Leeds United striker has plenty to be pleased about.

Not only has the 25-year-old made up for a hugely frustrating first 12 months at Elland Road by netting 15 goals but, for the second time in four years, he is in with a shout of claiming the Championship’s golden boot.

Only Southampton’s Ricky Lambert has netted more times than McCormack this term and as the division’s two hot-shots prepare to go head-to-head this evening in front of the live Sky cameras, the Leeds striker has his rival firmly in his sights.

“The most goals I have scored in a season before are the 23 I got for Cardiff,” says the Scottish international to the Yorkshire Post about his scoring exploits for Cardiff City during the 2008-09 season which prompted Hull City, then of the Premier League, to make an unsuccessful £3m bid the following summer.

“It was enough to finish second behind Sylvain Ebanks-Blake of Wolves that year. He got 25 and it was disappointing to be pipped into second place.

“When I was a kid, I was always the top scorer and any striker will tell you that is what they want to be.

“It would be great if I could go one better this season. It isn’t, though, the be-all-and-end all. As long as a striker gets a ratio of one in two then that is decent.

“I have scored 15 league goals in 29 starts so, on a personal level, that is pleasing. But it would be nice to get a few more and maybe even get that bit closer to Ricky Lambert.”

At the moment, four goals separate the respective league tallies of McCormack and Lambert. But it is a gap that the Leeds man feels should be a lot closer.

“I look back at the last few weeks,” he says, “and I can’t help but think I should have more. Against Bristol City (when Leeds won 3-0 and McCormack netted a late strike) I had three ruled out that should have stood.

“They were all given offside but the decisions were wrong. Having those chalked off was frustrating, as was last week at Portsmouth when my shot hit the crossbar and bounced down over the line (before bouncing out and being put in by Robert Snodgrass, who was subsequently ruled offside).

“It was definitely in. I could see that at the time and the replays proved it. I was so sure I was almost on the halfway line celebrating before I realised play had been pulled back.

“If those had counted, I would be level with Ricky Lambert. But there is nothing I can do. I just have to hope things will even out over the season.

“Also, I am sure there are goals that Ricky thinks he should have. Maybe he has been given offside when he wasn’t and had goals chalked off. Every striker in the league probably has, to be fair.

“You can’t take anything away from Ricky. Nineteen goals in the league is unbelievable.

“That is why he is there (at the top of the Championship scoring charts) on merit because he has scored a lot of important goals for a team who are top of the league. He is definitely someone we need to watch closely this weekend.”

McCormack may trail Lambert in terms of league goals this season but he can take solace from the fact that while seven of the Saints man’s 19 have come from the penalty spot, all of his own have come in open play.

Such a record underlines just how integral a part of the United team the former Cardiff striker has become this season.

It is in stark contrast to last term when he had to wait until the final weekend of April to break his scoring duck for Leeds.

McCormack said: “Personally. the season has been pretty good – especially compared to last year. I couldn’t get a run in the team because of the form of the others.

“We had a front four (of Luciano Becchio, Max Gradel, Robert Snodgrass and Jonny Howson) who were all doing brilliantly and that meant I couldn’t get in.

“But my confidence never dipped. I was still scoring a lot of goals for the reserves, four here and a hat-trick there. I knew not being in the team wasn’t a problem on my part, more that the front four were doing so well.

“That was why I didn’t get down about things. I knew I just had to keep going and believe things would change – that was what the manager (Simon Grayson) said whenever we chatted about me not being in the team.

“He said this year was going to be a big one for me if I knuckled down and he was right.

“I had a great start in terms of scoring goals before my form dipped a bit as I went a few games without scoring.

“Since then, though, I have scored a few goals and am back to where I think I should be. Having said that, I still feel there is more to come. I do feel I am not playing as well as I can do. But I do think it will come. I have been playing well but when things are going well in my career I always look back to a time at Motherwell when things were probably at their peak.

“I don’t know why I always go back to then but I do feel that was the best football of my career.

“It wasn’t necessarily goal-scoring but more my all-round play, such as my touch, dribbling and movement. It all seemed to click then. That is why I feel there is still more to come from me. The goals have been pleasing but a lot of those have been down to the other players doing their jobs really well and me finishing them off.”

The televised visit of Southampton kicks off a tough fortnight for Leeds that will include encounters with Hull City (KC Stadium on Tuesday), Middlesbrough (Riverside tomorrow week) and West Ham (home, March 17), all clubs sitting above them in the table.

As Warnock explains on the front of today’s Sports Weekend, this quartet of games is likely to go a long way to deciding United’s fate.

McCormack said: “We are four points behind the play-offs. A few of those above us have games in hand but they have to win them. I have been there before with Cardiff. We were joint third with six games to go but didn’t even make the play-offs due to losing (6-0) to Preston on the last day. So, you can’t take anything for granted.

“The new manager has lifted the mood and everyone is laughing again. The place has been given a lift and we all believe we can now push on and force our way back into the play-offs.”