Here, for the fifth month in a row, is a screenshot taken from the BBC website showing the top seven teams in the Championship, the second tier of English football. The previous four screenshots all showed the team that I have followed since childhood, Leeds United, at the top of the table. As this image shows, they have dropped to second, below Norwich City. If Leeds are still in the top two at the end of the season, after the final five fixtures have been played, I will be happy.
Norwich have been in the kind of form that every supporter wants for their team, something like eight wins in a row before an unexpected draw in midweek. Leeds have been less consistent, and the defeat at home to Sheffield United last month (noted in this piece) has kept things much tighter than they would otherwise have been. If Leeds had won that game, Sheffield United would be seven points behind. A draw would have left them four points behind. The dramatic events in the games two weeks ago, which left Leeds in second place when they seemed likely to drop to third, prompted this piece, “Twists and turns”. Since then, two further rounds of games have been played. They both, in a quirk of the fixtures list, involved Leeds and Sheffield playing the same teams one after the other.
Last Saturday Leeds travelled to Birmingham City and lost 1-0. Sheffield United won 1-0 at Preston. That left Leeds in third, a point behind the Sheffield team. In the midweek games Leeds won 2-0 at Preston on Tuesday, and Birmingham held Sheffield United to a 1-1 draw on Wednesday night. Leeds returned to second place, a point clear, as you can see in the screenshot above. Before the Birmingham-Sheffield game, with Leeds two points clear, I told my wife that I wouldn’t be greedy and expect Birmingham to win. A draw would do, and that’s what we got.
I was following the progress of the Leeds game on Tuesday closely, via the Sky Sports Soccer Special Show on my phone, while my daughter flicked between the two Champions League quarter-finals on TV. Manchester City lost at Tottenham 1-0. Liverpool beat Porto comfortably, 2-0, while Leeds were winning by the same score in Preston. On Wednesday I did not follow the Birmingham-Sheffield game live but kept an eye on the evening’s Champions League quarter-finals: Barcelona won 1-0 at Manchester United and Ajax drew 1-1 at home to Juventus. After 10pm I checked the score from Birmingham and was glad that I hadn’t been following it live. The game had stayed at 1-1 throughout the second half. I would have been rather tense.
Two things are clear after the midweek games. First, Leeds are guaranteed to finish in the top six, for the first time since 2006. (Mathematically Sheffield United could still drop to seventh but it’s very unlikely.) Secondly, Leeds United’s fate is back in the team’s hands: win the next five games and a top two finish is guaranteed. That would make the next 22 days, right up to the final game at Ipswich (12.30pm, Sunday 5 May), a very pleasurable time for me, but I’m expecting plenty more twists and turns in that time.
Today Sheffield United kick off at 3pm, less than an hour from now as these words are being drafted. When they do, and the score is 0-0, the “As it stands” table will show them climb to second place, above Leeds. A point is all they need. Their opponents are Millwall, who twice took the lead against Leeds two weeks ago. Millwall were still leading that game with 19 minutes to go before losing 3-2. Naturally I hope that they will do better in Sheffield, but I will not be following events live and direct. I will avoid all football news until after 5pm, when the games are over. Instead I will conserve my energies for the kick-off from Leeds at 5.30pm, against, wouldn’t you know it, the other Sheffield team, Wednesday. How will I spend those intervening three hours or so? Well, lunch is nearly ready (moussaka, yum). Paul Gambaccini is playing the Top 20 from 1989 on his “Pick of the Pops” show on BBC Radio 2. That takes us to 3pm. And I haven’t heard any of Ken Bruce’s Pop Master quizzes from the last week. An hour or two on the BBC Sounds App beckons, to catch up. And from 5.30pm my attention will be devoted to events from Elland Road which will determine my mood for the next six days, until next Friday’s home game against Wigan.
Update, just before midnight
Well, that went better than I dared to hope. Millwall snatched a 95th-minute equalizer at Sheffield United to draw 1-1, and Leeds beat Sheffield Wednesday 1-0 to move three points clear in second place. Also, I hadn’t realized until checking earlier this evening that the next three sets of fixtures also involve Leeds playing after Sheffield United. When Leeds play Wigan on Good Friday we will already know the result of the lunch-time game between Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest. On Easter Monday Hull City host Sheffield United at 3pm and Leeds play at Brentford in the evening game. The following weekend Sheffield United play Ipswich on Saturday and Leeds are at home to Aston Villa on Sunday. Whatever twists and turns these fixtures bring they will happen consecutively rather than concurrently.