LONDON: Flirting with relegation less than three weeks ago, Leeds United looked destined for Premier League survival on Saturday after clocking up a fourth win in five games against Birmingham City.
Goals from Norwegian midfielder Eirik Bakke and Australian striker Mark Viduka brought Leeds’ points tally to 13 from a possible 15 – giving the Yorkshire club an ideal start to 2003 after the misery of the previous year.
On New Year’s Day in 2002, Leeds were top of the Premier League and looking like serious title contenders before the club were rocked by injuries, suspensions and a sharp drop in both form and team morale.
The result was a downward spiral that began under David O’Leary and accelerated under his close season replacement, Terry Venables, amidst the departure of England defender Rio Ferdinand to Manchester United.
From early November to mid-December, Leeds won only two and lost seven of their 10 matches in all competitions as they tumbled out of the UEFA and League cups and plummeted towards the relegation zone to lie 16th in the table.
Worse still, they lost all four of their home games over the period, dividing the Elland Road faithful into two distinct groups – those calling for the former England manager to be given more time and those demanding he be sacked immediately.
To his credit, Venables kept faith with his team and their potential, stressing wherever possible the positive aspects in what was a dismal run of results.
The turning point finally came with a morale-lifting 3-0 victory at Bolton Wanderers on Dec 16.
A subsequent home draw with Southampton has been followed by wins over Sunderland, Chelsea and Birmingham – the latter two at Elland Road, to the relief of manager and players alike.
“It’s good to get another win, especially at home,” Venables told reporters on Saturday. “The crowd were magnificent again, we gave them what they wanted.
“I think the players know there is room for improvement, we can do better. But it’s (already) a lot better, it’s what we were after and we’ve got to try and maintain this level of consistency to take us up the league.”
Though his side lacked some of their recent sparkle, Venables defended their performance after a demanding run of matches over the festive period.
“A lot of people are looking for this fairytale, ideal world where you’ve got to take a match by the scruff of the neck,” he told BBC radio. “I think you’ll find in the Premier League tonight a lot of very tired players.
“I think they’ve played too many games in too small a time ... we’ve played two games in three days, that is nonsense. That is just not practical.”
Whatever the physical state of the Leeds squad, who return to battle in the FA Cup third round against Scunthorpe on Saturday, they have several reasons for optimism at the start of the New Year.
Safely ensconced in 11th place in the table, the objective should now be a place in Europe rather than avoiding a financially punitive drop to the First Division.
Like Everton with Wayne Rooney, Leeds can also look to teenage revelation James Milner, scorer of two goals in his last three games, to further lift their season.
But most important of all is the returning confidence, enabling players to give full rein to their talent rather than worry constantly about what might happen next.
“I think all of us are more relaxed now and the results are showing that,” Viduka said on Saturday.
If those results continue, Leeds may yet be able to look back on a season that finished up being creditable when it could easily have been catastrophic. – Reuters