By David Williams
Steve Cooper insists “heart and soul” will decide the Championship play-off race involving his Swansea City side and rivals Cardiff.
The Swans head coach was left defeated but not demoralised by his club’s 1-0 home defeat to Leeds United on Sunday – a contest settled by former Swan Pablo Hernandez’s last-gasp winner.
Cooper admitted it was a missed opportunity – his team would have gone above Cardiff and into sixth place had they held on for the draw – but thinks the outcome will not be settled by ability alone or the fact they only have a few days’ rest before facing Nottingham Forest on Wednesday.
By then, Cardiff could be four points clear if they beat Derby County at home on Tuesday night, but Cooper said: “Forest have an extra day of recovery, going to Wednesday’s game, but at this time of the season it is more about heart and soul.
“I’m not going to commit to a prediction of how many points will be needed. Our plan is simply to try and win our last three games.
“The dressing room is down, but there is still fire in the belly.
“It’s a tough one to take, but we have to get over it quickly. There are still points to take from the remaining games.
“I thought we were comfortable in the game and I’m really disappointed to lose like that. I think both teams were cautious in terms of attacking and defending and I would have just liked to have had a bit more of the ball in the second half.
“We would have liked to have picked up a point, but it wasn’t as if anything was going to be decided today. It’s probably going to go to the last game as most things are in the league.”
Leeds moved to within a couple of longish, Jack Charlton-sized strides of the Premier League with a performance founded on the type of virtues he would have found familiar.
Disciplined, organised and obstinate until they found their reward, Marcelo Bielsa’s side took a hard-earned three points from a game which featured five yellow cards, some routine histrionics from their Argentinian manager as he reacted to flare-ups, and one crucial late goal scored by substitute Hernandez.
It means Leeds need just four more points from their remaining three games – two of which are at Elland Road – to secure automatic promotion. Seven points will give them the Championship title, whatever West Bromwich Albion can achieve.
Swansea remain in seventh place, a point behind Cardiff and a point ahead of Preston and Millwall, after Hernandez expertly swept the ball low into the corner from Luke Ayling’s cross with a sense of composure no-one on either side had matched to that point.
It was Leeds’ third successive victory and fourth win in five games since they lost their opening fixture after the re-start away at Cardiff.
Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa said: “I can not enjoy this.
“What you feel just is that you are taking a step forward. The only thing I can enjoy is the last objective, if we get it.
“The match was very close, very narrow, few chances. When the match progressed our possibilities were growing and in the last 30 minutes I think we deserved to score and to make the difference.”
Taking to the field for the first time just 24 hours since the death of their former World Cup-winning centre-half, Leeds players had already paid tribute to Charlton with “RIP Big Jack” emblazoned on their warm-up shirts.
They must have warmed his soul with the manner in which they smothered a Swansea side which had scored five goals in their previous back-to-back victories over Sheffield Wednesday and Birmingham City, and then struck decisively to seize the win.
“I know the situation a little bit, but I did not know him a lot,” admitted Bielsa, 64, of Charlton, who played 773 games for the club.
“The legends of the group deserve to be honoured by us, but I don’t want to take the risk of talking about the victory and the loss of one person. I don’t want to link those two things.”