The 2016/2017 has come to an end, and what a season it has been for the lads in White. With Garry Monk steering the ship, we actually got within a whisker of making the playoffs - a thought which was more of a dream than a reality prior to the start of the season.
In a three-part series, I am going to look at this incredible season: the unbelievable highs, the painful lows and the pride we all have felt for those players and the management team who have united the fans and the club once again.
In today’s piece, I look back at the problematic start in August, the gradual change of September, and the upward momentum we saw as we ended October.
However, first, I would like to discuss the decision to appoint Garry Monk as manager. It was a strange feeling I had as the new season approached: the Leeds job looked like a poisoned chalice, and I wondered who with any true managerial quality was going to risk their reputation on a job that they will most likely lose before the Halloween masks are on the shelves.
Both Karl Robinson & Darrel Clarke chose to stay with their lower league clubs rather than manage Leeds United. Think about that. I just kept thinking, “Which secondary school P.E. teacher was Cellino going to give the position to this time?”
Then, something miraculous and out of the blue happened: Garry Monk was announced as manager. My thought was, given what Monk has achieved at Swansea, this could turn out great. As much as it pains me to say, Massimo Cellino pulled one of out of the bag in signing Monk.
The summer dread, especially after losing Lewis Cook, turned to reserved optimism by the end of July, and we all slept a little better knowing for the first time in a long time, we had a decent manager running the show.
And yet, the opening month of the season was dismal in terms of results for Leeds. Something seemed to be missing to make all the pieces fit. You could see the ideas that Monk and his team were trying to implement, but the team lacked the mental and physical fitness to really put them into practice.
Certain results though can be deceiving: whilst we were beaten against QPR and Nottingham Forest and were lucky to walk away with a point against Fulham, we did beat Sheffield Wednesday comfortably and for the first 45 minutes against Birmingham at least, we were the better team. I believe that preseason did not give the team enough of a workout to give them a chance to be ready for the beginning of the season. Also, the issues around management meant Garry Monk didn’t have enough time with the players to ensure they were match fit.
Overall, the month of August brought all the dreamers among us back down to earth with an almighty thump and many of us expected to see Garry Monk collecting his P45 within a couple of weeks. However, some fans could see the potential in the squad and hoped that history under Cellino did not repeat itself. (Lucky for all of us, it didn’t.)
The international break meant the season didn’t restart until the 10th of September against local rivals Huddersfield Town. In terms of performance and level of commitment, this was the bleakest moment in the season for me. We were awful throughout and it felt like the promise I had seen towards the end of August was just hopeful thinking.
Garry Monk was interviewed after the game and looked like a man on the edge, already a defeated man.
And then came the catalyst and defining moment of the early part of the season, a Tuesday evening against another struggling side: Blackburn Rovers. The game wasn’t a spectacle by any means. Both teams looked very poor to be honest and were fairly drawing the game as we approached the final whistle.
Then two things happened: first, Rob Green made two superb saves to deny Blackburn the lead, and then, Leeds won a free-kick in a decent position.
I remember the moment I sat and prayed that the ball would end up in the back of the net and we could start to forget previous results.
@DeadlyAntonsson Goal 9) vs Blackburn Rovers ⚽️ Kyle Bartley Elland Road 13/09/16 pic.twitter.com/2iQy1KYKl4— Jack (@JackLUFC0410) September 16, 2016
That Bartley header flew in and our season truly began. The Blackburn win seemed to free the lads and give them the belief to push on, and that’s exactly what they did as they won their next three games.
One of these games was against Ipswich, a performance which we would see more and more over the coming months. Chris Wood scored for the fourth time in a row as Leeds walked away with a 1-0 nil victory. We only won by the 1 goal, but we dominated the game and you could tell the players were buying to the Monk Philosophy.
We did finish the month with a defeat away to Bristol, whom at the time were playing some decent football and we played well enough, but it just wasn’t our night.
Overall, September became the month of change. We started to see Leeds play football like we haven’t seen them play for some years. The optimism when Monk was appointed had returned and we felt confident about the rest of the season, at least confident enough to not worry about relegation anymore.
The momentum we gained in September continued throughout October as Leeds would climb to within a touching distance of a playoff position come the end of the month.
The month started with another dominating home display against Barnsley - the game finished 2-1, but Leeds were dominant throughout and never really looked in trouble. Kyle Bartley and a sexy finish by Pablo Hernandez would give Leeds the victory.
The next two games were a disappointment, as we lost to Derby and should have beaten Wigan, that result is one of a few this season I felt cost us the playoff position. We were the better side that night and should have killed the game off, but as is football, we didn’t and we were truly punished.
Although we finished the month on a high with two league wins against Wolves and Burton, we didn’t play great in either game. Instead, we dug in and got the points.
However, it’s the EFL Cup game between these fixtures that demarcated October for me.
I personally did not rate the EFL Cup prior to this season. I felt it was an unnecessary distraction - but I was wrong. On the 25th of October 2016, I experienced the full set of emotions of cup football, and it was the first time in a long time it felt that the manager, players and fans were all in the fight together.
The lads battled hard throughout 120 minutes of football to emerge victorious and book their place in the 5th round, and the atmosphere and togetherness is what Leeds United is about. We went through it all together.
We finished October knowing that this team was more than capable of challenging at the top end of the table. October had awoken a belief and fire within us all that we thought had burnt out long ago.
The first few months of the season became the base for success, and we started to play decent football, looking like a team with real potential. I think next season, as long as we keep Monk, we will start the season a lot stronger. The weakness of August and September should not be repeated: I think people underestimate the importance of a good start to the season.
Next time, I will be looking at the team’s best months: November through January. That was the best part of the season for Leeds United as the team started to play some exhilarating football. Hope you’re looking forward to part two as much as I am. MOT.