Friday, 17 December 2010


WHEN the final whistle blew to seal Cardiff City's 4-0 victory at Elland Road on a cold Monday night at the end of October, it seemed to offer a sobering guide as to Leeds United's prospects for the rest of the season.
Such was the ease with which the second-placed Bluebirds had picked holes in the home defence with their neat passing style that both the fans traipsing away into the cold Yorkshire night and the viewers who had been watching on Sky at home were left with the conclusion that Simon Grayson's side were set for a testing few months in their attempts to re-adjust to life in the Championship.

The manner of the defeat, which was United's fourth in five games and their third on the bounce at home, had been so comprehensive that any hopes of gatecrashing the top end of the second tier in the weeks and months to come looked forlorn at best. 
A little under two months later, however, and an eight-game unbeaten run means that the 12-point gap that existed between Leeds and the second automatic promotion place in the aftermath of that October 25 defeat to Cardiff has been slashed to just two.

It is a remarkable turnaround, though one that will be tested to the full this weekend when leaders Queens Park Rangers visit Elland Road for a game that seems set to attract a 30,000-plus crowd despite taking place on a Saturday that traditionally sees gates slump across the country due to being the last before Christmas.

Rangers have, undoubtedly, been the standout team in the Championship this season with just one defeat to their name – a record made all the more impressive by the next lowest tally of defeats being 16th placed Nottingham Forest with four, while no-one in the top eight has been beaten less than six times in the opening 21 games.

One team, though, unlikely to be daunted by such an imperious record are Leeds, whose recent upturn in form includes taking seven points off three sides currently residing in the top 10 – Norwich, Coventry and Burnley – with Grayson admitting the manner of last weekend's fightback win against the Clarets had given everyone at Elland Road a huge lift.

The United manager said: "I said before the Burnley game that they are one of the best sides in the division. So, it was a big result and one that gives us confidence as it showed what we are capable of doing that against quality players.

"We have players who can turn games around, we have shown that several times recently. What really pleases me is these players have shown willingness to do the ugly side as well. I have been delighted with the attitude and the desire. We set out at the start of the season to try and get promoted, just like everyone else in the division. We have done quite well recently but there is a long way to go.

"We certainly can't allow ourselves to get carried away. All we can do is try to extend the run. QPR will be a difficult game but my players are playing with a lot of confidence, quality and belief."

Grayson's praise of how his side dug deep into their resolve during the second half at Turf Moor is understandable, but what really shone through in the thrilling 3-2 triumph was the attacking verve that has characterised the charge up the table over the past couple of months from 16th to fourth.

Employing a 4-2-3-1 formation, United's true intentions are underlined by the two supposed holding midfielders, Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny, being among the most attack-minded players at the club. 
A consequence of this is that the back four can be left badly exposed, so much so in fact that only Crystal Palace and Preston North End have conceded more goals than the 35 that have flown into the Leeds net this term.

But, in a division that is once again proving to be incredibly competitive, a determination to put the emphasis on getting forward could well prove to be a rewarding approach.

Grayson said: "When you have players like (Robert) Snodgrass and (Max) Gradel on the wings, (Luciano) Becchio up front and (Ross) McCormack on the bench then it means you can put opposing sides under pressure.

"Sometimes, you have to take risks. Whether people call us adventurous or not doesn't matter, we just play the shape that suits us.

"What I will say, though, is that the most pleasing bit (about beating Burnley) was how much defensive work Gradel and Snodgrass put in. Bradley Johnson also contributed alongside Jonny Howson and it was a good team performance."
United's current push for a return to the Premier League represents a substantial improvement on the ninth place in League One the club occupied when Grayson took charge at Elland Road a little under two years ago.

Dropping down a division from Blackpool may have raised a few eyebrows at the time among the football fraternity, and that was before the Seasiders went on to win promotion to the top flight.

But, for Grayson, moving back to the club where it had all begun as a young apprentice was a no-brainer and he is delighted by the progress that has been made since succeeding Gary McAllister on December 23, 2008.

He said: "I would think that, in terms of being a realist, two years down the line and being fourth in the Championship may have been a bit ahead of where I expected us to be.

"The reason I came here was to get us out of League One first and then, hopefully, out of the Championship.

"It doesn't mean to say we will do it this year but what we have done is given ourselves an opportunity.

"But, whether it happens this year or not, someone will take this club back to the Premier League."

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