PAUL HECKINGBOTTOM insists there were enough positives in Leeds United’s derby defeat on his bow as head coach to suggest a place in the top six is still attainable.
Two goals from Billy Sharp, taking his league tally to 201, were enough to seal a league double for Sheffield United over their West Riding rivals.
It nudged the Blades up a place to eighth as Leeds slipped to 11th, eight points adrift of the play-off places.
Despite that, Heckingbottom was sufficiently encouraged to believe his new charges can turn around their season.
The new Leeds chief said: “As games run out you get further and further away. That is fact. But the beauty is we are playing lots of teams above us so when we are winning we will be taking points off teams we are trying to catch.
“That is the beauty of this run (of games). People tell me how difficult this run is, but you can flip it and look at it a different way.”
Midfielder Adam Forshaw, who won promotion with Middlesbrough a couple of years ago, shares Heckingbottom’s faith that the play-offs are still within reach.
“Definitely,” said the midfielder, ahead of a five-game run for Leeds that includes fixtures against Bristol City, Derby County, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Boro.
“There are 15 games left, there are still plenty of points to play for. We have got some really talented players, good young players mixed with good experience as well. So, the ability is definitely there.
“If we can get a little bit of momentum going and pick up some wins then let’s see where that takes us.”
Leeds levelled the derby at Bramall Lane early in the second half through Pierre-Michel Lasogga. Pablo Hernandez, hugely impressive after coming off the bench to replace Kemar Roofe, created the goal, while further plusses for Heckingbottom came via the towering displays of central defensive pair Matthew Pennington and Pontus Jansson.
He added: “I asked the players after the game, what was the difference in the second half? They said, ‘We played on the front foot, we were more positive, we had more energy’.
“So, that is a starting point. Now your commitment is to the details we are going to give you because that is what will make you win games.
“We need to play with more freedom. There was a bit of apprehension out there. I could sense it, but that lifted in the second half.
That is the beauty of this run (of games). People tell me how difficult this run is, but you can flip it and look at it a different way.Leeds United manager, Paul Heckingbottom
“It is my job to give them that freedom and take the pressure off. The last thing you want is anyone playing within themselves. You can do that by lifting the fear factor and changing expectations.”
Blades manager Chris Wilder, meanwhile, was delighted with his side completing a league double over Leeds that cut the deficit to Bristol City in the final play-off place to just three points.
It was only their third win in 13 league outings, but the perfect response to the previous week’s 3-0 defeat at runaway leaders Wolves.
“We talked long and hard after the Wolves game,” said the Blades chief. “The players were feeling a little bit flat, maybe because of the disappointment of the Villa game, too (when the Blades lost 1-0 in stoppage-time to a sublime strike from Robert Snodgrass).
“We could have said, ‘Come on, we need to play a lot better than this’. But, instead, we drew a line under it, said we have got 16 games left and we need to win a certain number. Then we stuck the teams up.
“I don’t think there has been a hell of a lot wrong, you can see the attitude of the group is first-class because, when Billy scored, everyone was over to him. All we said was that if we want to keep our season going then we have to start producing results.
“This was a difficult game for us. I know Paul well and he has had an outstanding start to his managerial career. I am sure he will be a big success at Leeds, as he is a good football man. I know what he brings and what he will bring to the football club.
Sharp’s double came on his first league start of the year, Wilder informing the Blades captain on the bus home from Molineux that he would be recalled after a spell on the bench.
“He has been unfortunate that he has not played,” added the United chief. “James (Wilson) has come in and Leon (Clarke) has been scoring goals.
“But you have got to play your way into this team, there are no gimmes and Billy understands that. We need to change it up but the ball is always in the court of the players.
“I am not going to leave players out who are playing outstandingly well. The players will always decide. It is up to them.
“Billy’s all-round game was brilliant. His finishing was, obviously, there but his other work was quality too. I thought Billy was brilliant off the ball.”