Season 2010/11 Part 1
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After the high drama of the club's promotion campaign, a dilemma faced Leeds United supporters in the summer of 2010: should they be satisfied with consolidation or dreaming of a first-time advance into the top flight? A relegation dogfight was just not on the agenda, but the club's last experience of the Championship had been a desperate one.
According to the eve of season poll in the Leeds Leeds Leeds magazine, 'Building a platform for 2011/12' was the priority for more than half of respondents, though 43% expected United to finish in the Play Off places.
Manager Simon Grayson was bullish: 'We are not in the Championship to make up the numbers, we are in it for promotion … but the sensible aim would be to make sure that we don't waste a lot of seriously hard work by going straight back down. It took the club three years to get out of League One and the last thing we want is to risk going back there.'I'd like us to have a go at the Play-Offs and if the squad here realise their potential then I think we can. But if it doesn't happen and we end up halfway down the table then we have to be honest enough to class it as a decent season and remember that we were new to the league.
'We believe we have a group capable of performing at this level. The younger ones who haven't played in the Championship should be excited about the places they are playing and the teams they are playing and the crowds they will play in front of. Those that have played here before, we will be looking at them to help the others.'
The team was unquestionably stronger than that relegated in 2007, but most of the players were untried at this level and it was difficult to predict how they would adapt.
The announcement of the retained list on 14 May confirmed that Casper Ankergren, Rui Marques and reserve player Andrew Milne would not be offered new contracts, while Alan Sheehan, Lubo Michalik, Andy Robinson and Tresor Kandol were advised to 'actively seek to find a new club for the 2010/11 season even though they are still under contract'; veteran striker Paul Dickov had already departed at the end of a short-term contract to take up his first managerial appointment, at Oldham Athletic; and young reserves Tom Elliott, Tom Lees, Alan Martin and Liam Darville were loaned out to lower league clubs.
Andy Hughes accepted a new one-year deal but Jermaine Beckford ended a four-and-a-half year stay by completing his widely-anticipated Bosman transfer to Everton. Leeds agreed to terminate Beckford's contract on 28 May, rather than allowing it to run to its formal end on 30 June.
Since signing from Wealdstone in March 2006, Beckford had scored 85 goals in 150 appearances for United. He paid an emotional farewell on the club's LUTV channel, saying that he broke down in the dressing room after scoring the goal that clinched promotion: 'I got to the changing rooms and put my head in my hands and the tears dripped down my face… I can still feel it now talking about it. It felt like such a weight had been lifted.
'I've enjoyed every single moment … The fans have been amazing and they have opened up my eyes to what football should be about.'
The exodus left United manager Simon Grayson free to reshape his squad and he was quick off the mark, impressing with his first signing, goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, son of Manchester United legend Peter. Signed from League Two champions Notts County, where he had kept 24 clean sheets and been named PFA League Two Player of the Year, the 23-year-old Dane agreed a two-year contract.
The rest of Grayson's summer signings were more mundane: Paul Connolly (Derby, right-back), Fede Bessone (Swansea, left-back), Billy Paynter (Swindon, striker), Neill Collins (Preston, centre-back, returning after a successful loan period), Lloyd Sam (Charlton, midfield), Alex Bruce (Ipswich, centre-back), Honduran international forward Ramon Nunez and loanees Sanchez Watt (Arsenal, winger) and Adam Clayton (Manchester City, midfield).
There were rumours of other arrivals, but such interest as there was in midfielders Nick Montgomery, James McArthur and John Eustace, former United men Ian Harte and Rob Hulse, and strikers Billy Sharpe and Gary Hooper came to nothing.
Perhaps the most important deal was the three-year extension signed by the manager himself on 13 July, thwarting interest from Leicester City.
Chairman Ken Bates said: 'I'm very pleased. Simon has committed his future to the club despite enticing offers from elsewhere. We have every confidence in him. He has won two promotions in his managerial career - one here and one at Blackpool - and we're hoping he can make that a hat trick at the club where he first started out.'
Pre-season injuries sustained in Slovakia and Norway by Paynter and Robert Snodgrass meant they would miss the opening weeks; Grayson was disappointed with a 4-0 defeat at Bury, though there was one decent performance against higher class opposition, with a Max Gradel cracker crowning a 3-1 defeat of Wolves.
For the opening day fixture, at home to Derby County, Grayson was deprived of Gradel, Snodgrass, Paynter and Davide Somma through suspension and injuries and was forced to go for Luciano Becchio as lone striker, flanked by Watt and Sam. Schmeichel, Connolly and Bessone debuted in defence and the side was made up by skipper Richard Naylor, Collins, Neil Kilkenny, Jonny Howson and Bradley Johnson.
United didn't look out of place in their new surroundings, but in the end only a sterling debut in goal by Kasper Schmeichel staved off a heavy defeat.
Derby took the lead after 13 minutes: midfielder Paul Green robbed Howson at midway and United defenders backed off as he played in former Elland Road favourite Rob Hulse. Hulse took the pass in his stride and clipped a shot around Schmeichel's despairing dive. The striker declined to celebrate the effort, perhaps in deference to his former employers.
United sprang back to equalise within two minutes. As Derby sought to work their way out from the back, Becchio chased down Leacock and the defender's loose ball left Robbie Savage in trouble. Howson was on it in a trice and slipped past the wrongfooted Savage, running on into the area as two County defenders converged on him. Spotting Becchio in yards of space on the blind side, Howson clipped the ball back nicely, allowing the South American to slide it home.
Shortly afterwards, Naylor's shot clipped the Derby crossbar but after 26 minutes the Rams regained the lead, when Kris Commons scored from a penalty after Sam was adjudged to have tripped Tomasz Cywka in the United box.
Collins was the second man to rattle the Derby woodwork, but the rest of the action was with the Rams and Schmeichel denied them with a man of the match performance, prompting Simon Grayson to comment, 'Kasper Schmeichel made some fantastic saves for us. He is a big personality with a big stature like his dad. His distribution and shot-saving were very good.'
It was United's first opening day defeat since August 1989 - the same season Howard Wilkinson led the club to promotion - and Grayson said there were plenty of things to take from the game: 'I thought we did well at times and I was pleased with a lot of things, but there's also things to work on if we are to do well… You have to play your football in the right areas. We want to be known as a team who like to pass the ball around but it has to be done at the right time and we didn't do that against Derby. We were done twice on the counter attack and it showed me that we needed to work on when to play, when to go long and how to combat good players… When teams break, they break quickly and they have the quality to punish you. You can't give opportunities in this league because the players at this level take them more often than they did in League One.'
After that, the Carling Cup-tie against Lincoln City was a breeze; United won 4-0, any nerves settled by a 2nd-minute goal from Howson. Becchio doubled the advantage five minutes later and Sam and Neil Kilkenny completed the rout.
United next faced Nottingham Forest at the City Ground and, after falling behind to a ninth-minute Dexter Blackstock header, fought back to share the spoils with a Sam equaliser.
An 18-man melee ten minutes from time dominated the headlines. Forest full-back Chris Gunter probably should have been dismissed for stamping on Watt after a coming together, but the referee satisfied himself with cautions for the two players. United were later fined £7,500 and warned as to their future conduct, while Forest were fined £12,500 and Gunter given a three-game ban.
The Yorkshire Post's Richard Sutcliffe credited Grayson for a tactical switch: 'United, employing the same 4-3-2-1 formation and personnel that Derby County had found to their liking on the opening day, simply weren't in the same class as their hosts. Run ragged in midfield and with Luciano Becchio receiving little support as a lone frontman, Leeds offered nothing to suggest a fightback was on the cards. But, after having seen his side opened up almost at will once too often, United manager Simon Grayson took decisive action as Sanchez Watt was pushed forward in a 4-4-2 formation. The transformation was instant. Freed from the duties that had come with being the holding player in a three-man midfield, Neil Kilkenny began to exert more and more influence. Bradley Johnson also became a major threat along with Lloyd Sam and the pair combined beautifully for United's 36th minute equaliser.'
The first Championship victory of the season came a week later when Leeds hosted Millwall in a fixture that had become infamous over the preceding six seasons.
United had beaten the Lions just once in six meetings; memories of Millwall's Elland Road win in March were still fresh in the memory and Kenny Jackett's side had been victorious in the Play-Off semi-finals in 2009.
Millwall took the lead after 15 minutes when Naylor, under token pressure from Kevin Lisbie, headed into his own net, but Sam equalised just after the half hour. Becchio played the ball into Sam's path and the winger struck a fierce low drive past keeper David Forde.
That boosted the Whites' confidence, but they couldn't find a cutting edge and failed to turn possession into clear cut opportunities, though Collins headed against a post.
After 75 minutes, Grayson brought South African striker Davide Somma on for his League debut in place of Fede Bessone as United looked to force a win.
Within four minutes the change paid dividends; Forde, under pressure from Becchio, flapped at a Connolly cross and Watt returned the ball; Somma, with his first touch of the game, hammered home his first Leeds goal to send United supporters into raptures.
That was only the prelude to extraordinary injury time scenes when Somma added a third goal, showing brilliant footwork to score after taking a 50-yard Howson pass.
The South African's clinical finishing made him an instant cult hero. 'I felt I had a point to make after missing the start of the season,' said Somma, who spent the previous campaign on loan at Chesterfield and Lincoln. 'I believe I can take on the role of main striker that Beckford filled … I'd always back myself to take a high proportion of the chances that come my way and I am confident of my ability to score 20 goals a season at this level.'
There was an unbelievably positive tone among the community of United fans after the game, more so than at any other time since the coming of Tony Yeboah in the mid-90s and 'Somma-Time' rapidly became the new catchphrase.
The display earned the striker a start in the Carling Cup-tie with Leicester during the week, when Max Gradel made his first appearance of the season.
Somma headed a 32nd-minute opener from a Gradel centre, and United seemed set to build on the Millwall result. However, they lost their way in the second half after Richie Wellens brought City level and Steve Howard netted a penalty two minutes from time to put Leeds out of the competition.
A couple of days later, Cardiff's Scottish international striker Ross McCormack joined United on a three-year contract and before the end of August the loan signing of Adam Clayton was converted into a permanent arrangement.
In the midst of this, United won 1-0 at Watford, courtesy of a sixth-minute Richard Naylor tap in. The victory edged United up into the Play Off positions as they took a couple of weeks off for the international break.
By the time they next took the field, on 11 September at home to Swansea, United had enlisted two more players, 33-year-old Senegalese international midfielder Amdy Faye, on a short term contract, and Blackburn keeper Jason Brown on loan for a month after Schmeichel sustained a foot injury.
After falling a goal behind to Stephen Dobbie's 13th minute effort, United hit back strongly to beat Swansea with second half goals from Bradley Johnson and Luciano Becchio, but their steady advance was abruptly halted three days later at Barnsley.
6,732 United fans in a crowd of 29,309 saw Jonny Howson smash home a Neil Kilkenny corner in the third minute, but were in despair as the game was thrown away by a feeble defensive display.
In the 42nd minute Bessone conceded possession inside his own area, allowing Adam Hammill to cut the ball back for Garry O'Connor to find the bottom corner for an equaliser. The lapse infuriated Simon Grayson, who replaced Bessone with Andy Hughes three minutes after the break. It was the South American's final appearance in the United first team.
Barnsley took the lead after 49 minutes when Connolly and Higgs failed to deal with Hammill's through ball and Jim O'Brien tapped home.
Matters went from bad to worse: in the 65th minute Diego Arismendi scored from a Barnsley corner; 81 minutes - Neill Collins put through his own goal; 82 minutes - Hammill crowned an excellent performance by netting the home side's fifth of the night.
Substitute Somma collected his fourth goal of the season in fine style with three minutes remaining, but it was mere consolation on a disastrous evening, which left Simon Grayson furious and the Barnsley fans chanting, 'One team in Yorkshire …'
Grayson: 'It was hugely disappointing, we were on the wrong end of a doing. We'd started well enough, got an early goal which gave us a platform and we looked comfortable in the first half… We made some wrong decisions and that contributed to their first goal and that gave them a lift … The way we went to pieces in the second half was hugely disappointing. We lost our hunger and desire. You want to harry and hassle and they did it better than us. We looked out on our feet with 15 minutes to go.'
While many of the travelling fans headed for the exits following Barnsley's fifth goal, they had been outstanding all night, with the mood of those that remained defiantly positive. 'They are unbelievable,' said Grayson. 'How our fans can cheer our players off amazes me after that. We bring 7,000 which is huge and they were still singing and cheering.'
When asked if there was a possibility of team changes for the Friday night encounter with Doncaster, Grayson snapped, 'Too right … There were players sitting on the bench, players who travelled to the game and players sitting at home who could have been playing. Bessone got a bit of a knock but he would have come off anyway. No one who started the game did himself any justice whatsoever. Whatever decisions I make on Friday, nobody will have any arguments about the team I put out at Doncaster.
'Davide Somma came off the bench, had a couple of half chances and scored and that is all you can ask of a player who comes on. Obviously the damage was done at the other end of the pitch in terms of mistakes made. We have training sessions on keeping the ball but we gave it away too often. It was dreadful.
'I expect the players to bounce straight back in the next match. They are hugely disappointed and rightly so. Every time we have had a setback - and I don't want any more like this one - we have responded in the right manner. That is what I am looking for now.'
Connolly, Naylor and Bessone were unceremoniously dropped and Luciano Becchio rested. Andy Hughes, Alex Bruce and Aidy White were drafted into a new look back four and Ross McCormack and Davide Somma formed a fresh attacking partnership with the fit again Robert Snodgrass added to the bench.
There was some improvement and Doncaster had 40-year-old former Leeds keeper Neil Sullivan to thank for keeping them in the game as United did most of the pressing.
Somma struck the Rovers crossbar in the 23rd minute and then flashed another effort inches wide. Then the South African was denied by Sullivan when played in by Johnson's pinpoint pass. United continued to dominate and thought they had earned all three points when Somma netted after 74 minutes, but the effort was disallowed for offside. United were disappointed again when Somma appeared to be fouled in the area but referee Andy Woolmer was unmoved by the appeals and the game finished goalless.
Days later, Simon Grayson reinforced the defence by bringing in Northern Ireland international George McCartney on a month's loan from Sunderland, an arrangement that was later extended. McCartney made his United debut on 25 September against Sheffield United.
Richard Sutcliffe in the Yorkshire Post: '"I want to go home, I want to go home," sang the travelling Sheffield United fans early in the second half before questioning the quality of life in Leeds compared to their own home city.
'For much of this dreary and disappointing Yorkshire derby, the sentiment about getting as far away as possible from Elland Road was surely shared by many in the Football League's highest crowd of the season. But, then, just when the 75th meeting between these two old rivals seemed set to peter out into an equally unremarkable finale, the game suddenly sprang into life.
'Perhaps fittingly, considering some of the dross that had been served up over the previous 84 minutes, it was a mistake that led to the winning goal. The unfortunate miscreant was Stephen Jordan, the left-back being guilty of a horrendous fresh air kick on half way when attempting to deal with an apparently aimless clearance out of defence by Leeds.
'It allowed Robert Snodgrass, making his first appearance at Elland Road since May following an injury-plagued start to the season, to race clear before cleverly rolling a pass into the path of Bradley Johnson who finished from close range.
'Now behind, the Blades belatedly cast aside their caution to hunt an equaliser and, at last, the 33,622 crowd had a contest to savour.
'Robert Snodgrass' 89th minute dismissal for blocking a run by Leon Britton - the Scot's second booking of the afternoon after earlier being cautioned for not retreating ten yards at a free kick - further cranked up the tension and noise levels.
'Even then, there was still time for one last dramatic twist as referee Anthony Taylor evened up the numbers by dismissing Jamie Ward for what he deemed to be an over the top tackle on Neil Kilkenny.
'Such a thrilling finale to an otherwise wretched game of football underlined just why the Championship is considered the most unpredictable league of all.'
There was a rude awakening three days later when United hosted Preston in a remarkable game: after falling behind in the fourth minute, Leeds came storming back to lead 4-1 by the 39th minute, with Somma snaffling two of the goals. Even when Jon Parkin pulled a goal back a minute later, the game seemed in the bag. Cue a startling second half comeback with Preston rattling in four goals to complete an astonishing 6-4 triumph.
It was heartbreaking stuff for Simon Grayson who acknowledged the result as 'embarrassing', going on to say, 'I was lost for words ... ashamed … In the second half we completely capitulated in terms of doing all the wrong things. There were too many players playing as individuals and not as a team. There were too many mistakes. I could be here all day and night talking about the wrong things.'
A 2-1 defeat followed against Ipswich Town with Alex Bruce dismissed against his former club and goalkeeper Shane Higgs limping off, to be replaced by Jason Brown. Amdy Faye made his debut and lasted 90 minutes in his first competitive outing for 14 months, giving Grayson some cause for optimism: 'He was comfortable. He did a very tidy job for us in the middle of the pitch and he didn't look out of place… He'll improve with every game he plays for us.'
With Schmeichel and Higgs both injured, and loanee Brown the only fit keeper, 36-year-old Tony Warner spent some time training with a club for whom he played a few games in 2006. In the end, however, it was 22-year-old Spurs custodian, Ben Alnwick, a former England Under-21 cap, who filled the gap, arriving on a 28-day loan deal, though he never featured in the United first team.
Jason Brown was on duty at Middlesbrough on 16 October and United returned from Teesside with a 2-1 victory which effectively brought an end to Gordon Strachan's reign as manager at the Riverside.
United took the lead after 12 minutes when Davide Somma continued his impressive goalscoring run, accurately guiding the ball into the bottom corner of the net from a left wing cross by Sanchez Watt. Eight minutes after the break, Kris Boyd brought Middlesbrough level when he scored from close range. The equaliser did not stay United's momentum, and Luciano Becchio fired home a spectacular left-footed volley in the 63rd minute after Johnson had pulled the ball back across goal. Five minutes later the South American almost netted his second when he struck the woodwork with a terrific long range drive.
With Amdy Faye bringing some much needed stability to midfield and Jonny Howson playing as well as he had all season, United controlled long periods of the contest and fully merited their victory, which Grayson hailed as a 'big result'. He added, 'I thought we showed that lessons have been learned from previous games. We looked like a side who had learned how to deal with the situation. It may have been boring to watch at times, as we took the ball into the corner. But, to me, that trait showed we have learned from mistakes.
'We showed character in the way we started and the way we came back, but we also showed naivety at the start of the second half. We have a belief we will get goals, but we have to know how to kill games off as well, and we did that, and got a valuable three points.'
Grayson's optimism proved unfounded; three days later United lost 2-1 at home to Leicester.
An unchanged Leeds eleven was clearly out of sorts and Leicester could have been four goals ahead in the opening quarter of an hour. They got the goal their swift and intelligent football merited when Tottenham loanee Kyle Naughton shrugged off challenges from Somma and Snodgrass to come in from the right and score with a shot which was deflected by Neill Collins.
Grayson threw on Gradel and Kilkenny for Snodgrass and Faye, but there was no improvement and Steve Howard doubled the advantage in the 81st minute.
Becchio got a consolation goal a couple of minutes later, but United never looked like getting back on terms and Grayson described the narrow scoreline as a flattering reflection of a display with "no life or energy". It was all too familiar after the feeble defeats to Barnsley and Preston and he admitted that his men had been comprehensively outclassed.
Nevertheless, he expressed satisfaction with United's placing in the table, saying, 'If someone had offered us this position at this stage I would have taken it. I know people have expectations, but did people expect us to be at the top at this stage and steamrollering the league? We've just come out of League One, we're playing better quality opponents than we were last year, and this is a tough division. We're in a decent position, but the frustration is that we go to Middlesbrough on Saturday and perform well, then perform how we did against Leicester a few days later.'
He was even more furious after the following game, which saw United crash to a third successive home defeat, by 4-0 to promotion-chasing Cardiff City, an absolute disaster from start to finish.
Kasper Schmeichel made a surprise return in goal but was involved in a comic misunderstanding with Alex Bruce in the 22nd minute which gifted the opening goal. Bruce allowed a long clearance from Cardiff keeper Tom Heaton to bounce and then got in Schmeichel's way as he sought to make amends, leaving Jay Bothroyd the easiest of tasks to place the ball into an unguarded net. United never recovered and though there was only that goal between them at the break, City added three further scores before the hour and were simply in a different class.
Grayson acted swiftly to address the defensive shortcomings, recruiting Irish international centre-back Andy O'Brien on loan from Bolton. The manager commented: 'We need a new centre-back in there to give us dominance and experience.
'Andy has had a fantastic career, and has great experience. He's a leader and will be a valuable member of the squad for the next month. He brings to the table what maybe other people can't at this moment in time. He's here for a month and hopefully all those qualities that he has will rub off on our players over the next few weeks... I want to see him organising people. He's an experienced player who can bring out more from those around him. We have players who we know are good players and I'd like to think Andy will help them.'
O'Brien was given an immediate debut, on 30 October at Scunthorpe. United came storming back to form, achieving their second win in six games, inspired by a hat trick from skipper Jonny Howson in the space of fifteen second half minutes.
After Max Gradel's opening goal was wiped out by a Scunthorpe equaliser, the game slumped into a midfield stalemate, but in the second period Howson was in scintillating form, scoring with right foot, left foot and head as United ran riot, returning a 4-1 victory.
The 22-year-old, who continued to sport the captain's armband in the absence of Richard Naylor, said afterwards: 'It's my first professional hat trick and on a personal note it's a good achievement. It's always nice to get a goal whatever the circumstances, but Saturday was extra special. I had the licence to go forward when I wanted with Amdy and Killa sitting in behind. For me I think that's my best position. I like to go forward and get in the box and chip in with a few, and on Saturday I did that.'
The game marked a switch from 4-4-2 to a more fluid 4-2-3-1 with Howson given scope to push forward behind lone striker Becchio; United looked far more impressive with the revised formation and they stuck with it for the rest of the campaign.
United followed up with an impressive victory at Coventry, as reported by David McVay for the Telegraph: 'How many times in the course of a lifetime does the neutral leave a football ground feeling empathy for Leeds United? If the answer is an entirely predictable "never", then that legion of non-partisan supporters should have been at the Ricoh Arena on Saturday, where the visitors prevailed in a rousing contest of contrasting styles.
'Despite Coventry City's spirited second half recovery, Leeds emerged with their third successive away win, a victory for fluent football that lifted them to the fringes of the Play-Off places.
'Even their often maligned followers deserved credit, booing substitute Marlon King's every touch, a timely prick of the Coventry conscience, perhaps, after their decision to employ a player who has only recently been released from prison following his conviction last year for sexual assault and actual bodily harm on a slight 20 year-old student.
'Those 6,000 travelling fans were rewarded early on when Jonathan Howson headed Leeds into a fourth-minute lead after a clever dink across the six-yard box by Robert Snodgrass. The same combination created what should have been a second goal, but Howson's header was off target this time. However, Snodgrass redeemed his captain just before half time with a fine left foot shot to double the lead.
'This was the largest league crowd, 28,184, at the Ricoh Arena since it opened five years ago, the pity being that the lush, flat turf befitting such a splendid stadium is seldom troubled by the crude, long ball tactics employed by manager Aidy Boothroyd. But the plan reaped a dividend early in the second half as a high ball into the penalty area eventually fell to Lukas Jutkiewicz whose close range header reduced the arrears. On the hour, however, Richard Keogh's clumsy challenge felled Max Gradel in the 18-yard box, and the Leeds winger converted the penalty to restore the two-goal cushion.
'That was eroded when Ben Turner's low effort eluded Leeds goalkeeper Jason Brown in the 64th minute, again the result of a lofted centre falling from the skies. Leeds, though, held on deservedly.
'Coventry harbour ambitions that many feel are beyond their station, but they remain in the top six, propped up by a frenetic high-ball tempo that is likely to defeat lesser sides than Leeds. It causes headaches for opposing defenders but no dilemma for purists, who surely would have acclaimed the beautiful game to which Simon Grayson's team aspired.'
The chronic home form continued on 9 November with United drawing 2-2 with Hull City, after Bradley Johnson sliced the ball into his own net with eight minutes remaining. The midfielder had earlier scored United's first goal, driving home from the edge of the Hull penalty area to equalise Jon Bostock's 14th-minute opener. When Andy O'Brien headed Leeds ahead after 71 minutes it looked odds on a home victory.
At the time of Johnson's own goal, Hull were playing with ten men following Bostock's dismissal for a second bookable offence; Tigers captain Ian Ashbee was lucky not to follow suit when he appeared to strike Luciano Becchio in the face with an elbow in the closing minutes.
Grayson: 'It's a game we should have won. When they went down to 10 men we got sloppy and lackadaisical and if you do that you're bound to get punished. It's cost us two points we should certainly have picked up. That's down to our naivety because we didn't exploit their weakness with 10 men or work them hard enough. I can't fault the effort, commitment or attitude of the players and once we went 2-1 up, I couldn't see us losing our lead. But we should have stamped our authority on the rest of the game.'
United were eighth, breathing hard on the Play Off positions, and a 3-1 defeat of Bristol City on 13 November saw them rise a place. The result came courtesy of a Becchio hat trick, completed in the space of 22 minutes.
The club were still negotiating with the player over an extension to his contract, and Simon Grayson commented, 'Luciano has been battered from pillar to post in the last few games, playing as a lone striker, so I felt he needed a breather and started him on the bench. We certainly reaped the rewards of sending him on just after the hour. He was there in the right place at the right time and fully deserved his hat trick because he has worked ever so hard since he has been here. They were two great headers and a clinical finish.
'The hat trick has probably increased his negotiation rights. We are in negotiations with his representatives and we want to keep him because he is a fantastic player and we want to hold on to our best players. We will look to reach agreement but we must stay within our wage budget. We are not going to any lengths that would take us to the depths we've been at before. Hopefully we can sign him on a deal we can afford.'
Becchio agreed a three-and-a-half-year contract extension on 18 December, but negotiations were less successful with Bradley Johnson, and when he refused the club's final offer, the midfielder was transfer listed on 18 November. Another player whose contract was in its final stages was Neil Kilkenny, and the discussions with him proved every bit as fruitless as those with Johnson.
United returned with draws from visits to Norwich and Reading and when they recovered from falling a goal down at home to Crystal Palace on 4 December to win the game with two Becchio goals in the last ten minutes, they were back in the top six and starting to believe that they could secure an unlikely promotion. The positivity continued on 11 December with United snatching victory from the jaws of defeat at Burnley.
Phil Hay in the Yorkshire Evening Post: 'Leeds United climbed to their highest League position for four-and-a-half years with a sensational victory over Burnley, but captain Jonathan Howson warned that premature focus on a second successive promotion could destabilise the club's season.
'Howson converted an 85th-minute winner as Leeds recovered from two goals down to claim a 3-2 victory at Turf Moor, jumping to fourth position in the Championship for the first time since the penultimate weekend of the 2005/06 season.
'United were on the brink of a first defeat in eight League games after conceding twice in the first half, but Howson's sublime 20-yard finish was the crowning moment of a breathless fightback inspired by earlier goals from Max Gradel and Luciano Becchio.
'Leeds have held a Play-Off position for much of this season, dropping down their division for a brief time during a run of poor form in October, but the club are within two points of the Championship's automatic promotion places following Cardiff City's defeat at Middlesbrough on Saturday.'
Promotion hopes burned ever more brightly after Leeds saw off table-topping QPR on 18 December, a result that took them second in the table, just three points behind the leaders.
The tractors had to be called in at Elland Road to ensure that the pitch was playable following overnight snow and United were one of only a handful of clubs to beat the big freeze. Relieved to be playing, the Whites looked to pressurise during a positive opening and took the lead after 25 minutes.
Connolly took the ball down the right before flicking inside to Snodgrass. The Scot worked his man inside and out before flighting a cross high to the back post for Howson to challenge. The ball deflected high into the air and goalkeeper Paddy Kenny should have come out to gather but hesitated and allowed it to drop for Gradel to hammer home from the edge of the six-yard box.
United continued to have the better of the play and increased their lead in the 70th minute. Max Gradel made forty yards down the left and when Fitz Hall stood back Gradel took his chance. He wrongfooted the defender and fired home from eight yards.
Shortly afterwards, Gradel limped off to thunderous applause after his finest performance in a United shirt, on a day when the side gave its best home display of the season.
Simon Hart in the Independent: 'During the downward spiral that brought Leeds United two relegations, two Play Off defeats and one administration, the club's stature must have been like a millstone around the neck. Yet such things as tradition and support can galvanise at other times and it felt that way on Saturday as Leeds' push for a Premier League return gained momentum with a victory over leaders Queens Park Rangers that lifted them to second in the Championship.
'Before the kick off Eddie Gray, a stalwart of the Don Revie era, spoke with confidence about Leeds' squad having the quality and depth for automatic promotion. After an hour, that belief had gripped the whole ground as, with Leeds leading 1-0, fans on all four sides of Elland Road stood swirling scarves and singing an old hymn from Gray's own playing days. "We are the champions, champions of Europe" may not fit the second tier setting - and QPR manager Neil Warnock accused Leeds of overdoing the celebrations after the game as the visitors suffered a second straight defeat after a 19-game unbeaten start - but it showed the renewed optimism at a club last in the top flight in 2004.
'Of promotion, Grayson believes that "somebody will eventually take this club back because of the facilities, the fan base, the size and the history," but knows that a tough Christmas period beckons, including visits to Leicester and Cardiff. "There are big games coming up but we are going into that run with a lot of confidence," added the manager, whose weekend got even better when top scorer Luciano Becchio signed a new contract after the match.
'Leeds have not lost since Cardiff thumped them 4-0 at Elland Road on 25 October, an improvement which has coincided with embracing a 4-2-3-1 formation. They look solid defensively and are fluid in their attacking play.'
The success seemed certain to continue on Boxing Day when goals from Gradel and Snodgrass gave United a 2-0 advantage at Leicester, but they let their lead slip, conceding twice in five madcap minutes, and had to be content with a 2-2 draw.
Amazingly, they did the same two days later, at Elland Road against Portsmouth.
Gradel and Howson put them two up in the first ten minutes; David Nugent pulled one back just after the half hour, but Johnson restored the two-goal advantage on the hour. Within sixty seconds, Pompey reduced the arrears and in the second minute of injury time, Andy O'Brien conceded an own goal, deflecting an innocuous cross past Kasper Schmeichel. The defender was inconsolable after an inexplicable lapse that ruined all his side's good work.
United had earlier looked to have had an obvious penalty denied for a challenge by Ibrahim Sonko on Ross McCormack and a goal by McCormack was also disallowed.
Simon Grayson: 'It is frustrating because we could quite easily have had six points this Christmas. Individual errors cost us again, we switched off at 3-1 and then a lack of communication led to their equaliser… McCormack had a stonewall penalty appeal turned down, the linesman was only 15 yards away. For the disallowed goal, the ball went in the box and the 6ft 4in goalkeeper couldn't get to it. But a foul was given. Our fans are knowledgeable and would not give the referee the stick they did at the end for any old reason. I won't say any more. Apart from they were right.'
Nevertheless, the unbeaten run stood at eleven and United were fourth, level on points with Cardiff, who held the second automatic promotion spot.
At the start of the season that would have seemed a very satisfactory position. It was confirmation of how far the club had come that the mood around Elland Road at the end of the year was one of disappointment, regret at not being even higher.
Could 2011 see a return to the Promised Land of the Premier League?