Leeds must pull together to reach Premier League again - Garry Monk
LEEDS, England -- Leeds United face Liverpool in Tuesday's EFL Cup quarterfinal at Anfield displaying signs that one of English football's most historic clubs may finally be ready to end its 12-year exile from the Premier League this season.
A club who were once one of the most feared in Europe in the 1960s and 70s, and who won the title the year before the inception of the Premier League in 1992, were relegated in 2004 and again to League One in 2007 before suffering a financial implosion that almost saw them wiped out of existence.
But under former Swansea City boss Garry Monk, the club's seventh manager in three years, there is stability and belief back at Elland Road. The club climbed to fifth in the Championship table with a 2-1 victory at Rotherham on Saturday and will travel to Anfield having lost just once in seven games.
But after more than a decade of upheaval and heartbreak, can Monk lead the club back to the top flight? He sat down with ESPN FC to discuss the club's hopes for the future.
Q: Leeds are usually the team everyone wants to beat every weekend in the Championship, so is a trip to Liverpool something of a night off from that?
A: There is no pressure on us whatsoever, but we want to go there and give a good performance and do ourselves justice. We have already shown in the cup that we are capable of winning games, but this can be the next step for us. It will be a good opportunity for me to be able to say to the young players that, if we are going to reach the top level, this is what you are going to come up against and have to do well against. It will be a good measure for this group.
Q: It's Liverpool vs. Leeds, an historic English fixture, so can you just go there and enjoy it or is there still an expectancy that comes with being Leeds United?
A: It's great for the fans to go back there because they had been used to it for so long, going to places like Anfield on a regular basis every season, playing this kind of opposition all the time. But I don't think the history or expectancy of this club is a weight around the necks of my players.
It's a young group and we are not the Leeds United who were in the Premier League back then. We are a new group, we are on the journey of trying to fight our way back there, so for my guys, they have some freedom because there is no pressure on them from our sense. The only pressure we feel is the pressure to put on a good performance for our fans and for the club.
Q: The club had its first sell-out crowd for six years last week, you are playing at Anfield on Tuesday, so is there a sense that Leeds are finally beginning to turn the corner?
A. My message to the group at the start of the season was that, it has been a long time now since the club was in the Premier League and there will come a time when one set of players takes it back there. We have that opportunity right now, to be the group that takes Leeds United back to the Premier League.
Whether that happens this year, next year or the year after, we are the ones who can put the club's name back on the page and we are fighting for the right to be able do that. We are only five months into the process, but we are heading in the right direction.
Q: What is the mood at Leeds now -- is it desperation to be back in the Premier League or realism?
A: I could sense the history here from day one. It's a massive club, one of the biggest in the country, and that will always be here. The drive and ambition of the fans and a club of this size will always be there. But until Leeds are back in the Premier League, I don't think people will ever settle for what they have, and even then, they will still want more, but that is always the way with big clubs and Leeds United is a very big club.
Q: Is that why you took the job? Despite the uncertainty and unpredictability of recent seasons, and the turnover of managers, were you attracted by being the guy who could take it back to the top?
A: I wanted the challenge. I am in this job and this profession because I want to be challenged and I saw this as a good opportunity. After speaking to the owner, I felt I could help put the club back on track and heading in the right direction.
I am here to win, I am here to do well. I want the club to get back to the Premier League, but I know it is a process and so does the owner. We are trying to help the crowd understand that, with the journey we are on, we are only going to get there if we are united.
Q: When Howard Wilkinson became manager in the 1980s, he took down the pictures of the Don Revie era when he took charge because he felt the history was imposing too much pressure on the players. How do you view it? Pressure or motivation?
A: My mentality is that you have to use all those things as motivation. The history will always be there and quite rightly so. The fans will always have that affection for the club and they are proud of what the club is -- you should never shy away from the history and achievements of former teams and players.
But what is good for these young players is that, every time I have spoken to the fans, they know the need to be patient with this young group. I have been through the leagues and been promoted to the Premier League, so I know what it takes and that the only way it happens is when everyone is together.
There is an understanding that we are going to have ups and downs, but the crowd have bought into that completely and the players have responded to it It means that performances and result are better, which in the end, benefits all of us.
That has been really important with what we have been doing. We need to continue that and focus on results, but the fans understand that they are going to support the players, no matter what now.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_