Marathon Men: Leeds United v Nottingham Forest
Between 20th October 2010 and 18th March 2011, Leeds United remained undefeated against English league opposition. What an incredible record, although slightly misleading. Simon Grayson’s men were beaten three times in the Championship during this period, twice by Cardiff City and once by Swansea. And when another English team finally took all three points, alarm bells rang.
Nottingham Forest went on a long unbeaten run of their own, avoiding defeat on home soil from September 2009 through to early March this year. Although not quite as misleading as Leeds’ excellent record against fellow English clubs, there was, nevertheless, the anomaly of the 4-3 reverse at the hands of Blackpool in the decisive home leg of last season’s play-off semi final.
After those lung-bursting runs of good form, both Leeds and Forest now need to get back on track. If, as the cliche suggests, the English league calendar is more akin to a marathon than a sprint, there has been a six-strong group at the front for much of the race and now the chasing pack are closing fast.
The build-up to Forest’s trip to Elland Road this weekend would have been very different had it taken place six weeks ago. Since the middle of February, Leeds have won just two of their last seven games. In the same time, Forest have won only one in nine. A battling point at Queen’s Park Rangers on the eve of Valentine’s Day looked to have secured their position as the chief challengers to Neil Warnock’s men. One poor run later and Billy Davies finds himself clinging onto sixth place. Defeat in West Yorkshire followed by a Reading victory over Portsmouth later on Saturday afternoon would see the Reds fall out of the top six with just seven games to play.
There are many similarities between Leeds United and Nottingham Forest, most of which need no great explanation. Two of the biggest clubs in the Football League, both endured an extended period in the third tier in recent times and both have a far more illustrious history to reflect upon. But it is the respective stages for many of those past glories and the actors that currently take to those stages that provide more common ground.
At their best, Elland Road and the City Ground are two of the most intimidating football venues in the country. Frequently packed to the rafters, both are infinitely preferable to the standard-issue arenas that so many clubs now call home. But at their worst, they are hell-holes for home teams instead of the opposition. Whatever the root cause of their respective spirals into the lower leagues, these two famous old grounds each seemed like a hindrance at times.
The weight of expectation for Leeds this season could have crushed a less resilient team, especially after three successive demoralising home defeats to Preston North End, Leicester City and Cardiff City in September and October. Shipping twelve goals in three games at Elland Road in the period of less than a month, Leeds looked nothing special. Preston infamously came back from 4-1 down to triumph 6-4, Leicester played their hosts off the park during a 2-1 win and Cardiff duly thumped four past their former loanee Kasper Schmeichel in a dazzling display.
Since then, Leeds United stand proudly unbeaten on their own ground. This is a great credit to everyone associated with the club, from manager Simon Grayson to the supporters that continue to pay such high prices to watch their side on a regular basis. Perhaps most deserving of credit, though, are the young players that have shouldered the responsibility in such demanding circumstances – particularly stand-out performers Schmeichel, Robert Snodgrass, Max Gradel and captain Jonny Howson.
Anyone familiar with Billy Davies’s public proclamations will associate his Forest side inextricably with youth. Davies mentions it at every possible opportunity. This is a young Forest team with plenty to learn and naivety to dispel. And although Davies is quite clearly attempting to remove the burden from his squad, it is true that there are not many old heads among his troops. The City Ground, much like Elland Road, has the capacity to destroy fragile minds and Forest’s recent record there is exceptional. On Saturday, however, they are off up the M1 to Yorkshire to face what is arguably their biggest test to date, given results since similarly labelled encounters with QPR and Swansea.
Back to those alarm bells which were ringing in the ears of Leeds United supporters a fortnight ago. They have grown to trust the likes of Schmeichel, Howson, Snodgrass, Gradel and Luciano Becchio. Even Bradley Johnson, who divided opinion among Leeds fans before this campaign, has enjoyed a regular first-team berth in their successful side. But, in the midst of many who have excelled, there remains a defence which Leeds fans do not seem to trust. The two goals conceded at Sheffield United confirmed their fears and it is this weakness which Forest must look to exploit.
If there is one thing this Championship season, or any other, has taught us, it is that nothing is a lost cause until mathematical impossibility takes hold. Defeat for either side on Saturday will not fatally harm their hopes of reaching the play-offs, but it will be a huge mental test which could speak volumes about the side with the greater strength of character.
When they met early in the season, Forest flew out of the traps and threatened to overrun their newly-promoted visitors. The way that Leeds came back into the game to earn a deserved point was a display of fighting spirit that Billy Davies will be looking for from his own side in the return fixture.
Into the home straight we go. Will it be Leeds United or Nottingham Forest that finds that vital sprint finish?