While acknowledging the rocky road down which they have travelled of late, Leeds United and their ardent supporters are adamant that a place in the Premiership is their birthright. Achieving that against the pesky Hornets of Watford this afternoon will not be a formality, but experience, says their striker Robbie Blake, is what should carry them through.
As one of the most travel-hardened of an experienced team, the 30-year-old Blake knows what he is talking about. Having arrived at Elland Road via Darlington, Bradford City, Burnley and Birmingham, Blake was immediately impressed by the talent sharing the changing room with him. "Having spent a lot of years in the Championship, I knew at once this was a team that was never going to be out of the top five. Our squad is definitely good enough to go up, there is competition for places all over the park and we definitely have Premiership-quality players throughout our team. All the back four have had a terrific season."
That back four include the inspirational captain, Paul Butler, and a 22-year-old, blue-eyed "Killa" called Matthew Kilgallon who, despite his youth, is coming up for his 10th season at a club he joined from his York school as a 13-year-old. While Kilgallon's prominent teeth and long fair hair have earned him the alternative nickname of Esther Rantzen among his team- mates, "Killa" has had Leeds followers enthusing about him being another Rio Ferdinand or Jonathan Woodgate.
Suitably flattered, Kilgallon said: "Watching those two in training I learned a lot. Now I have modelled myself on them and hopefully one day I can be as good as them. I have been especially likened to Woodgate, and that is a great compliment, but I am getting older now and just want my own personality."
Having been on the club's books when they suffered through the grim times, Kilgallon is especially keen on being of assistance in ensuring a return to a happier era. "The Premiership is where we belong," he claimed, and feels the arrival of Ken Bates as chairman 16 months ago was the turning point. "He has not messed around," said Kilgallon. "He knows what he is doing and he has done brilliantly. He comes in sometimes after games and, win or lose, he is always behind us. It is good to know we have someone like that."
Bates himself concedes that getting to the play-off final is something of a bonus. "Last season was about survival, this one was supposed to have been about consolidation and next year was the time we were supposed to have a go. But as it turned out we had a go this season." As he points out, the worst-case scenario would be collecting the £1.3m proceeds of today's game to invest in ground improvements, but he is not knocking the fans' date with destiny.
The dangers, thinks Kilgallon, will be posed by people who were with Leeds last season, the then on-loan striker Marlon King and the head coach, Adrian Boothroyd. "Marlon is a good lad and has been banging in the goals, but not on Sunday we hope, while I haven't been surprised by how well Aidy has done. He always had a good relationship with everyone here and Watford's success shows just how good he is."
Where Leeds have the edge, in Blake's opinion, is in team spirit and experience. "We are a massive club, in the top five history-wise, so a lot is expected of us, week in, week out. But we have players who can handle that pressure, as we showed in the second leg of the semi-final against Preston. We knew how to slow it down after starting quick and when we got the first goal we knew we were going to win the tie and we did, dug in and deserved it. I am not saying Watford aren't a good side, but I would back our lads against any others in this division."
Blake has one further incentive. If Leeds do go up, they would pass the descending Birmingham, where Blake departed last summer when he did not see much future for his career.Reuse content