Even after a lifetime of supporting Leeds I’m surprised by us. I struggle to truly find disappointment when I’m so numb to it after so many years of failure, yet the club still manages to get past my hardy defences. Leeds facing Norwich at home was crushing to me, because it felt like the playoff final we’d crumbled under the pressure of. The 2006 and 2008 finals are still surprisingly fresh in my memory and the notion of 1st playing 2nd felt so similar. The opportunity to assert yourselves over your closest competitors – it often feels like a gladiatorial battle to the death.
But – as we all know – one sunny day doesn’t make a Summer. A single loss – however significant – doesn’t typify your season. So when Leeds responded to the Norwich result with a 7 points from the next available 9, it looked like a blip that may have hurt temporarily, but ultimately wouldn’t damage our season much. The QPR game rolled around (having been rearranged due to cup fixtures) and sat as our game-in-hand. A win would have sent Leeds top again, yet the crushing disappointment of losing such a winnable game (deservedly, too, I’m not suggesting we should have won) was yet again ringing in my ears.
They talk about great sides as ones that take their chances. You don’t necessarily play well every game but you relentlessly pick up points. QPR was a huge chance missed and one that gave voice to growing doubts we all tried to ignore. The performance against Bolton had been poor, while the one against Swansea was excellent. But where Norwich were bulldozing sides like Bolton and QPR, Leeds were struggling to overcome them – or losing the game entirely. We stopped looking like a side deserving of promotion.
But deserving promotion is a complicated argument to present. No club has a divine right to escape the Championship. It’s easy to call Leeds, Forest, Villa, Wednesday (and so on) “big clubs” because of their attendances, history, heritage, reputation, and so on. But big crowds and global fanbases don’t win you points – performances do. The fact that our performances were inconsistent and we simply seemed unable to destroy others the way Norwich were – it easily amplified the worry that we simply aren’t “there” in terms of quality. League standing aside.
The West Brom game was one I approached with a sense of concern. Only a few short days after a weary and lacklustre disappointment against QPR, yet a lovely long week of rest for our opposition. The Baggies themselves having dwelled over a disappointing loss against rivals Sheffield United (with WBA needing to turn-over Leeds, Norwich and the Blades to close the points gap between the playoff places and the automatic spots), it seemed like a game both sides needed to assert themselves over. It seemed unlikely that Leeds could find their vigour so soon after being so devoid of it at Loftus Road, while WBA (recently the top scorers in the Championship, until Norwich took over) were THE form side when it comes to away fixtures. 4 consecutive away wins added buoyancy to an otherwise lacklustre set of home results – but this was a game perfect for them, and poorly timed for us.
Yet, Leeds responded to the disappointment of QPR and the media claims of fatigue with a performance so positive that I struggle to think of anything better in recent years. I won’t repeat a play-by-play of the game because you’ve watched the videos a hundred times and read a dozen gleaming match reports. But from a Pablo shot that cannoned into the top corner within the first 17 seconds of the game (from WBA’s kick off) to Alioski scoring a tap-in with the last kick of the game, Leeds utterly and completely dominated the game. A 4-0 win presented an important statement to the league but more crucially to themselves.
Phil Hay had tweeted prior to the game that Leeds simply weren’t the kind of side to “do” anyone 3/4-0 like some of our peers – but an efficient 1-0 or 2-1 matters just as much. He’s right of course, but the significance of completely and utterly humiliating the side below you in the table means that we roll into a set of fixtures that includes Sheffield United with a newfound sense of belief. Clean sheets have been hard to come by and doubly so against sides as good as West Brom. But to sprint and snarl to a deserved and relentless victory against a side themselves chasing promotion has given Leeds a renewed sense of faith in itself.
Bristol City await – and they sit right alongside Leeds in the form table – and are 4th in the form table for home games. So Leeds must again buck the statistical trend to secure another important result. The last time Leeds played Bristol away from home things were very different indeed. The goals came from Lasogga and a brace from Saiz (both now departed). In fact, 6 of the starting 11 are no longer at the club and 4 of the 7 man bench are also gone. The result pushed Leeds up into 4th though our fortunes are very different now.
After the Sheffield derby last night resulted in a favourable draw, Leeds are in 2nd place with a 2 point gap again. At this time of year and in this position, all our games are must-wins. We have Bristol, Reading, Sheffield United and Millwall to play this month. Hard games, all of them. But West Brom showed that if Leeds find their flow (and they’ve struggled to reliably do so) they can absolutely batter anyone.