The Christmas period has long been pinpointed as the critical run of games where lost ground can be regained very quickly and somewhat under the radar. Such an opportunity has never been more pivotal to Leeds United’s general wellbeing, and given the opposition lined up over the next 19 days, has seldom looked more inviting.
Saturday’s trip to struggling Charlton Athletic is followed by a Thursday night visit to Wolverhampton Wanderers; then Leeds face Preston North End at home on Sunday 20th, before they reach the halfway point of the season via a date with Nottingham Forest a week later. Leeds end the year with, on paper, their toughest fixture of the festive period, when Derby County come to Elland Road on the 29th. To some Leeds fans, the prospect of reaching the turnaround point of another campaign does nothing to set the pulse racing, particularly with their team once again entrenched in the foggy void of the Championship’s no-man’s land. Another season is rapidly slipping by before Leeds United have made any tangible impression on it, bar some spectacular goals and plenty of off-field commotion.
Such a lack of durable and tangible imprint is of course largely self-induced, but the overriding focus of most fans’ dissatisfaction and sense of fatigue is that, in essence, life is too short to stand by and watch Leeds United limp forlornly from one mid-table finish to the next. My generation of fans could always distinguish one football season from another, even up to our Club’s three-year sojourn into League One. There was always something that resonated years later, be it specific games, specific goals, a new manager, a cup run, a European campaign, play-off heartache, relegation or promotion; they all defined that season.
Since the 2010/11 campaign - when Leeds stood within touching distance of back-to-back promotions, but due to a criminal lack of investment at a crucial time finished seventh and one place outside the Play-Offs - stultifying immobility has been the order of the day. Both Norwich City and Queen’s Park Rangers have been promoted twice since this time, while Blackpool have been promoted to the Premier League and since relegated to League One. The four complete seasons since that missed opportunity have seen Leeds finish 14th, 13th, 15th and 15th. Today they sit in 17th position with only fleeting suggestions that they are capable of anything better.
Such stiffening inertia makes a fan weary and goes a long way to explaining why patience is thin. Four years is a long time to do effectively nothing. In this time many of us have seen loved ones born and raised and older ones have sadly passed, family pets have experienced an entire lifetime. We have seen Governments elected and re-elected, business empires raised from nothing, iconic cultural creations nurtured from small seedlings to a glorious enrichment of our lives. The Smiths entire recording career spanned four years, and their legacy will be talked about, dissected and listened to forever more, yet in that same time period Leeds United have moved only one place in the league table, and not even in the right direction. It is for this reason that I agreed with Uwe Rösler’s pre-season statement that a top ten finish would measure acceptable progress. Right now, most Leeds fans would snap your hand off were it offered. A top ten finish from where Leeds are sitting currently would mean the second half of the 2015/16 season will see some long overdue consistency, and would therefore provide a solid base for the following season, barring any ructions from accompanying ownership battles. In years to come a top ten finish may be something that a Leeds fan remembers, and distinguishes the current season from the accumulation of nondescript mediocrity which all blends into one. If it was the springboard for greater things, then all the better.
This is why the remaining games of 2015 are a gift horse that Leeds United really need to accept. At a critical juncture of the season, of course, any game is important, but with the January transfer window, a possible Football League ban for owner Massimo Cellino and the expected ownership fallout from that, all on the horizon when the corner is turned on December 31st at midnight, only a fool would fail to identify the fact that December represents the calm before the storm. Leeds have been presented with a relatively flat wicket on which to rack up some much-needed points, and to be blunt, before chaos erupts again, they need to take advantage of a lack of distractions.
Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Hull City showed that they can do just that. Leeds visit the Valley this weekend – some of them for the first time after last season’s infamous no-show from the ‘sick note six’ – to face a Charlton side who are in the bottom three, have lost seven of their last nine games, and are experiencing plenty of fan unrest as a result of the club’s ownership. Wolves are far from the play-off-chasing outfit that beat Leeds twice last season, and sit in 14th place just two points above Leeds. Preston North End have recovered from a dreadful start to the season, but Simon Grayson’s men are still one place below Leeds in the table. Nottingham Forest are also hosting a disgruntled fan base at the City Ground, with their mid-table travails closely matching Leeds’s own in recent years. Finally, Derby County represent the biggest challenge for Steve Evans’ men, with Leeds entertaining the club currently in third place after a sticky start, but with a reasonable recent record against the Rams, winning two of the last three encounters.
Football fans are quick to leap on any cause for celebration, be it Player of the Month nominations or the anniversary of a famous win, but nothing provides a tonic quite like three points. Last month’s shattering home defeat to bottom-of-the-table Rotherham demonstrated clearly that Leeds are still a club unaccustomed to grasping an opportunity for forward momentum, preferring instead their restful abode below the parapet.
Only the circumstances of Neil Redfearn’s return could stand as a defence against the wretched underperformance that day. Football rarely works out how we think it should, but nobody at Elland Road can complain about how the fixtures have panned out. As it stands, Leeds United now have a fair wind with which to bring plenty of Christmas cheer, and while the environment is conducive to stability and focus, if only for a little while, they need to discard the shroud of lethargy and torpor and make the most of it. No excuses.