Leeds United death knell leaves bitter taste only a final bullet can wash away after sour bookends

Ilia Gruev ponders what could have been after Leeds United's Southampton defeat -Credit:Ed Sykes/Getty Images
Ilia Gruev ponders what could have been after Leeds United's Southampton defeat -Credit:Ed Sykes/Getty Images

It ended how it began, in the end, except worse. Three wins from the opening eight games became two wins from the final eight. The meat in the middle of that sandwich was outstanding for long periods, but the bitter taste left by this run-in will be hard to wash away.

Ipswich Town’s expected win in Suffolk made Elland Road events academic in the grand scheme of things, but Leeds United’s attempt to turn the screw and end this regular season in the right way fell flat. The international break ended up being the death knell for this top-two push and like virtually every performance since Good Friday, there was little to get excited about against Southampton.

Fifteen of the previous 20 years in the Championship have seen teams promoted automatically with 90 points. Six teams have even won the title with that tally.

READ MORE: Leeds United player ratings with Firpo and Kamara poor in final loss to Southampton

Leeds, that. In isolation, the Whites have put together a remarkable campaign in 2023/24. Daniel Farke’s side fell marginally short of the two-points-per-game average generally accepted as the gold standard in the Championship.

They won one less game than Ipswich Town, lost fewer than Leicester City and beat them both, home and away. This squad was just three short of the points tally racked up by Marcelo Bielsa’s 2020 champions, who won the league by 10 points.

Farke was considered one of the three best managers in the division, Crysencio Summerville was the best player and Archie Gray was the best young player. In isolation, it was a spectacular year that deserved promotion.

And yet, football seasons are not played out in isolation. They are exposed to the chaos of 23 teams that can all beat each other, the emotions of a crowd, the financial desires of agents, the egos of relegated footballers, injuries, Premier League-parachuted budgets, slow takeovers and hurried pre-seasons.

While it is staggering 90 points have not been enough for Leeds to seal a direct return to the flight, it’s plain to see where the top two found their edge. The bookends of the season say it all.

On Farke’s first day in the job, when he sat with the media in the Jack Charlton Stand on July 4, he warned the opening months would be bumpy. The German had been briefed on what was going on behind the scenes and he could see the upheaval coming throughout the squad he inherited.

Between the German’s arrival and the close of the summer transfer window, Leeds would recruit nine senior faces and wave off 13. That was an immense turnover of players after an already tumultuous summer post-relegation.

Farke would not be able to relax and settle his squad until the final minute of the window. Some exits, and near exits, became publicly acrimonious, destabilising events. Very few people will forget the anger on the terraces at St Andrews where it became clear Luis Sinisterra and Wilfried Gnonto had downed tools.

Three wins from the opening nine matches would leave Leeds eight points behind Leicester City and nine behind Ipswich Town on September 30. This is the kind of advantage the Whites were gifting their nearest rivals at the very start of the competition.

Nine wins from the next 11 games made autumn a transformative period for Leeds. It was a run of form which finally showed what might be on the cards under Farke, including those memorable Huddersfield Town and Leicester wins across six days. It was also a run which underlined what they were up against, though.

Taking 28 points from an available 33 was enough to take Leeds up to third, but they were still, despite that form, seven points behind Ipswich and eight back from Leicester. That was December 9. By December 29, they were 17 behind Leicester and the play-offs began to feel like a reality.

The festive period was strange. The 4-0 demolition of Ipswich remains the best display of the season, but it was their only win in a sequence of five games. This young Leeds side could turn out thrashings like that, but lose at Sunderland and see Illan Meslier sent off at Deepdale.

The turn-of-the-year introductions of Patrick Bamford and Ilia Gruev, with Ethan Ampadu in defence, transformed Farke’s side. A 15-match unbeaten run took them from irrelevance to the heart of the title race and built the hope that eventually crushed everyone in Shepherd’s Bush last week.

The wins in Wales at Cardiff City and Swansea City stand out for the away dominance, but the home win over the Foxes, a game they deserved to lose, will go down in history. Elland Road was feral. Supporters had forgotten how to complete basic cognitive tasks. It was an out-of-body experience.

This was a sequence Leeds marched through. Bristol, Plymouth, Swansea and Plymouth again would be visited across 15 days. Win, win, win, win. It became a machine. Ampadu and Joe Rodon looked impregnable, Archie Gray was running rings around £100m midfielders, Gnonto found his form and Summerville kept going.

By March 17, the start of the last international break, Leeds were top of the table on goal difference though Leicester, admittedly, had a game in hand. Ipswich were a point back with the same games played as United, though. They had been overthrown and United’s fate was in their own hands.

That break has ultimately derailed them and brought us to this point. Regardless of how Farke saw the promotion chances in August, September or January, the point is they had their fate in their own hands and they squandered it.

The injuries were cruel, while Junior Firpo’s decision to suddenly represent the Dominican Republic, and therefore ruling himself out of starting at Watford, can be another eye-rolling footnote in the great Leeds catalogue. The defence began to splinter and the attack turned one-dimensional, with all paths leading to Summerville.

The pressure has undoubtedly told. Farke’s reminders about the age of this group have only grown in frequency and volume. The momentum and that relentless knack of winning abandoned them. Taking one point from six against Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers will go down as one of the many April weeks that have killed Leeds dreams in years gone by.

And yet, that dream has, as Farke would say, one more bullet to load this month.