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?

The Seventy Two
The Seventy Two published an outstanding series of articles about the Football League between 2010-12 and was the brainchild of Leicester City fan, David Bevan. As well as collaborating with The Two Unfortunates on the Football League Blog Network and a mammoth 2011-12 season preview, the site featured a host of leading bloggers and David was rewarded with a nomination in the 2011 Football Supporters’ Federation awards. Latterly, he was joined as co-editor by Joe Harrison and TTU is happy to present this archive of the site’s output.

4 Comments

  1. John
    March 31, 2011

    If Forest lose to Leeds (and assuming Reading win at least one of their two home games against Portsmouth and Preston, or Burnley beat Ipswich at home), Forest will probably be out of the play-off positions by next Saturday, and the knock in confidence may be too great to overcome given the quality of their upcoming opposition: play-off competitors-to-be Reading and Burnley, coincidentally, are their next two matches. For this reason, I think the game is a must-win for Forest.

    Reply
  2. Jeff
    March 31, 2011

    I have to agree with John there, Forest are desperate for a win here. They’ve struggled for goals all season long, McGugan hasn’t weighed in with one of his ridiculous efforts for some time and last season’s top goal-scorer Earnshaw has barely hit the net all year long.

    Looking ahead at the fixtures on the Forest plate, I’m struggling to see how they’ll hang onto their top-six place with Reading, Hull, Burnley, Leicester and Portsmouth all likely to take more points in that period.

    When it all boils down to it, I think they are going to regret this dreadful run against sides they should most definitely have been beating.

    Reply
  3. Rob Hartnett
    March 31, 2011

    I think that the two sides could go in very opposite directions, starting on Saturday. Looking at the potential Championship promotion contenders last week http://bit.ly/ecRTT6, I found that Leeds had taken 17 points from the reverse fixtures of their eight remaining games, joint best of all the possible climbers, while Forest had only taken nine. Leeds home record vs Forest’s away is another obvious pointer to where the points will most likely go this weekend as well. I fear the tricky trees will not enjoy the next few weeks.

    Reply
    • theseventytwo
      March 31, 2011

      I have long thought that Leeds would fall away and that Forest would end up second or third. Shows how much I know. I’d put Leeds alongside the other two newly-promoted teams, QPR and Watford as the five sides that have over-achieved most this season.

      It’s exactly the right type of game for Forest to put themselves back on the front foot, though. A win has got to give them the belief that seems to be lacking at the moment.

      Reply

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