Adam’s latest “The Championship Corner” column.
For the first time since 2011, when Arsenal travelled up to Yorkshire for an FA Cup tie, Elland Road will be a sell-out on Sunday for when Leeds United welcome Newcastle.
Both clubs have gone through difficult recent periods, but this weekend the 39,460 seater-stadium will be packed with supporters cautiously optimistic that the good times have returned.
Rafael Benitez’s Newcastle are on course to return to the Premier League at the first time of asking following their disastrous relegation in May, but Leeds, now in their thirteenth campaign out of the top-flight, a spell that has also taken in three years in the third tier, could also now be realistically targeting their way back up.
The Whites have made their way through 11 managers since Simon Grayson took them out of League One in 2010, but now it appears Garry Monk has finally cracked the code.
After rumoured to be close to the sack from controversial owner and “manager-eater” Massimo Cellino after taking just 4 points from the opening 6 games, Leeds have won 7 of their last 10 games to move up to sixth.
Subject to constant protests, Cellino remains a hated figure around west Yorkshire and the disdain will run further with news that he has abandoned plans to sell the club to Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani, but Monk has managed to regenerate excitement on the field.
That has been despite inheriting a club that has worked to keep costs down since posting a £23 million loss in 2013-14, with Cellino aiming to trim a wage bill that stood at £17.4 million in 2014-15, a figure at 71% of the club’s turnover.
Ross McCormack, Sam Byram and Lewis Cook, who this summer moved to Bournemouth, have been sold for big money to alleviate some of the financial pressure while high-earners Mirco Antenucci, Giuseppe Bellusci, Tommaso Bianchi and Sol Bamba were shifted out in the close period.
Kemar Roofe, the exciting youngster instrumental in Oxford’s promotion from League Two, is a wise investment for the future, but otherwise Monk was canny in bringing in league experience in Luke Ayling from Bristol City, Liam Bridcutt in an astute deal from Sunderland and goalkeeper Robert Green who arrives on a free from QPR.
Eunan O’Kane, who could miss the meeting with Newcastle after pulling out of international duty with the Republic of Ireland due to a groin injury, has grown into a consistent midfield performer since his arrival from Bournemouth and the performances of 20-year-old Kalvin Philips alongside him, Charlie Taylor at left-back and Ronaldo Vieira, who scored the late winner at Norwich, on the wing, suggests the youth production line is running well.
More fight and resilience being shown under Monk
The win at Carrow Road, plucked late on after Norwich equalised in the 88th minute, hints that Monk has injected some fight and resilience into his squad, addressing the soft underbelly that saw them lose 15 times last term.
Pontus Jansson, the burly centre-half who has joined on loan from Torino but has proved popular enough with supporters for his own clothing range to be released, has helped, forming a defence with Swansea loanee Kyle Bartley, whom Monk knows well from his time in south Wales, that has shipped just 8 goals since losing 3-1 at Nottingham Forest at the end of August.
Newcastle’s free-scoring side will be tasked with breaking down that solid unit on Sunday but with O’Kane out, Monk will need to solve the dilemma of whether to plug the midfield hole defensively, or put his faith in the lively yet inexperienced Vieira, who insists his team do not fear the league leaders, in a more attacking side.
Leeds need their support cast to step up
Benitez will also have to contrive a plan to contain the tricky Hadi Sacko and Pablo Hernandez, who with 3.1 chances created per game is the league’s most prolific provider, in an attack that is led by the powerful target man Chris Wood.
Wood has 8 goals to his name but Monk will know that, with the next highest scorers tied on just 2, the New Zealander cannot continue to be relied on so heavily.
Marcus Antonsson was signed to address last season’s scarcity of goals but has netted just once since moving for over £2 million from Swedish club Kalmar.
If Monk can get Wood’s support cast firing then maybe Leeds fans, who have suffered as their club has been taken through the mill and back in recent seasons, will continue to dream.
The toxic atmosphere that surrounds the ownership will remain while Cellino clings on, but on the pitch Monk is bringing the good times back.
Written by Adam Gray
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