The last 5 seasons at Leeds United Football Club have been like a broken record. A handful of decent results peppered into a recipe of disappointing defeats, numerous managerial casualties and a brief, but slightly nail biting, flirtation with the bottom three.
Finishes of 14th, 13th, 15th, 15th and 13th since their brush with the play-offs under Simon Grayson, had many long-suffering Leeds fans resigned to the fact that this was the reality of the Elland Road club now.
The once great giant of English, and arguably European, football had become a symbol of second tier mediocrity. That was, until Garry Monk came along.
After a tumultuous start to the 2016/2017 season which saw Leeds pick up one win in their first six league games under Monk, many fans were beginning to feel that uneasy air of familiarity that had plagued them the last five seasons.
But as the campaign rolled on the victories began to come, and whispers of a half decent season became cries of a play-off push and potential promotion.
Leeds’ 2-0 victory over 2nd placed Brighton on Saturday solidified their place in the play offs and with eight games to go they sit in 4th, just eight points off automatic promotion.
Garry Monk’s arrival has lifted the dark cloud that has been covering the club for years. His mix of shrewd signings and injection of youth has seen the club reach heights this season not even the most optimistic of Whites fans could have forseen, with the revamping of the backline being one of Monk’s wisest decisions.
Defensive frailties had become a hallmark of post Premier League Leeds United. Even in their 7th place finish in the 2010/2011 season, Leeds conceded a whopping 70 goals (only four teams who managed to stay up that year conceded more)
A mixture of constant rotation and overall lack of defensive quality meant that conceding upwards of 55 goals a season was nothing more than an inevitability.
However with the departure of inconsistent club captain Sol Bamba and often rash and rather reckless Italian Giesuppe Belluschi, at the start of the season, Monk had the opportunity to bring in some new faces to the much scrutinised Leeds backline.
In came Swansea defender Kyle Bartley and Bristol City right back Luke Ayling, along with experienced keeper Rob Green. But it was the signing of relatively unknown Swedish defender Pontus Jansson from Italian side Torino that truly galvanised Leeds United’s season.
“Pontus Jansson’s Magic” sing the Leeds United fans. It’s hard to argue with them. The Swede has formed a formidable partnership at the heart of the Leeds defence alongside Kyle Bartley which has seen him included in this seasons Championship team of the season.
The back five, which is rounded off by either youth product Charlie Taylor or versatile cult hero Gaetano Berardi at left-back, have seen Leeds concede only 36 goals this season; the third best in the league.
Monk has also crucially done what so many others at the helm of this club have failed to do. He has made the once feared Elland Road a fortress once again, with Leeds already picking up 13 wins at home, the 5th most in the division.
Leeds also have the best home defence in the league keeping 11 clean sheets and only conceding 12 goals in their 20 games at Elland Road so far this season. Their impressive run from mid September to November saw them go 6 league games unbeaten at home, helping them climb up to the play off spots they currently occupy.
For all the exceptional work Monk has put in to solidify the defence and make his team hard to beat, his arrival has also coincided with an upturn in form for their talismanic striker Chris Wood.
With 24 goals in the league and 27 in all competitions, Wood has been absolutely pivotal in Leeds’ outstanding season, contributing to 46% percent of his sides goals in the league. Only Sunderland striker Jermain Defoe with 58%, has a higher percentage of their teams goal return than the New Zealander in the top 4 divisions.
This version of the big number 9 a far cry from last seasons, who despite netting 13 times in the league was often wasteful and frequently jeered by the Elland Road faithful.
Perhaps his step up in performance could be put down to Monk bringing in ex-Southampton and Everton striker James Beattie as a first team coach.
Speaking to the Independent in December ,Wood outlined the influence Beattie is having on his season. “It’s good having him there, a striker that I watched playing and scoring goals through his whole career,” said Wood.
“It’s good having them to give me that extra support, those extra ideas, to take my game on a bit further.”
If there is a criticism of this Leeds side you could argue it is their over reliance on Chris Wood. This, however, does not mean that there isn’t attacking quality in the side.
In Pablo Hernandez, Monk has brought in a truly high quality number 10 who can make a difference in tight games- something the championship is renowned for.
Add to this the midfield anchors of blue chip youth prospect (and wonderfully named) Ronaldo Vieira and club captain Liam Bridcutt and it’s clear that Garry Monk has built a really solid side in his first season at Elland Road.
He has instilled a togetherness in his players that has been sorely missed from Leeds United sides of recent memory. The fans have firmly bought into Monk’s philosophy too, with Elland Road seeing it’s first sell out since 2010 when Newcastle visited in December.
While it seems certain by now that Brighton and Newcastle will join the EPL next season, regardless of whether Garry Monk can lead the Whites to the promotion or not, this season can still be seen as a massive success for the club.
With a play-off spot all but guaranteed and automatic promotion still a possibility Monk deserves endless praise. Will he be the man to end the 13 years of hurt and send this sleeping giant of English football back to the Premier League? Leeds United fans certainly hope so.