Belfast Telegraph

Play-off woe fuels Leeds' bid to reach top: Dallas

Driving factor: Stuart Dallas admits he was gutted to miss out on promotion last year
Driving factor: Stuart Dallas admits he was gutted to miss out on promotion last year

By Steven Beacom

Northern Ireland hero Stuart Dallas has revealed his worst ever experience in football is driving him on to help Leeds United win promotion to the Premier League this season.

Dallas was outstanding for the Elland Road club in the Championship play-off semi-final against Derby County last term but it wasn't enough as the Rams made it to the Wembley decider, where they lost to Aston Villa.

The Cookstown native, who earlier in the week signed a new and improved four-year deal to stay with Leeds, has suffered tough defeats for club and country in the past, but the play-off pain tops the list.

"The end of last season was the worst I have ever felt in football," explained Dallas ahead of tomorrow's big Yorkshire derby at Barnsley.

"I've experienced being knocked out of the Euros and the World Cup play-off, as well as not going up with Brentford, but losing to Derby in that play-off was the worst feeling ever.

"We were in control of the game, two up, and then it suddenly changed and there was a massive momentum swing.

"Everyone felt like we had what it took to go up, and we believed we could, but then there is a feeling of letting everyone down.

"I read a lot about Leeds choking, but until then we hadn't been in the play-offs when I was there, so I'm not sure where that comes from.

"We believe we have a good enough squad to win promotion this season and the start has been good.

"I never want to experience the feeling of last season ever again. Knowing we would have to do it all over again in the Championship was tough but it's a challenge we are all looking forward to now."

Speaking about his new contract, Dallas, superb against Germany in Monday's 2-0 defeat at Windsor Park in the Euro 2020 qualifiers, stated: "We were talking before I left for international duty and, to be honest, it was a very easy deal to do.

"I want to be at this club, my family love living there and I'm happy there. Being a part of the group to take Leeds back to the Premier League would be unbelievable.

"Growing up I always knew they were a big club but I had no idea how big. There is a big supporters' club in Cookstown where I grew up, but until you're in the middle of it I don't think it's possible to appreciate how big a club they are.

"If I'm out and about in Leeds it's obvious, but when we went to Australia it became really clear to me. This wasn't the centre of Leeds, we were on the other side of the world!

"There were people coming up to us when we were having a coffee, showing us their Leeds shirts or telling stories. I even met a few fans from Belfast who now live in Australia."

Against the Germans, Dallas had a chance to equalise in the second half but fired inches wide after a fantastic run from Gavin Whyte. He admits he should have hit the net.

"I had to watch it back to see what I could have done differently. At the time I wondered if I should have taken a touch," said the 28-year-old.

"When I saw it again, I couldn't have, but in that position you have to hit the target and I should have scored.

"If I'd been a yard closer to the goal it probably would have gone in, but it curled just wide of the post.

"You have a split second to make a decision but, sadly, our luck was out and it went wide. If the score is level then you never know how they react, but let's remember how good they were in the second half.

"We believe we had them rattled in the first half but they are a quality side. We should have taken something from the game, though when you don't take big chances at crucial times you will pay the price."

With Germany (12 points from five games) now in front of Northern Ireland (12 from five) in Group C on goal difference, and the Netherlands (9 from four) closing in, many think the chances for Michael O'Neill's men to finish in the top two and qualify are fading fast. Dallas begs to differ ahead of next month's trip to Holland.

"Some people think that's our chances gone but we are still second in the group," said the ex-Crusaders ace.

"Holland have to beat us and there is no way we are going to make that easy for them.

"We have to take the positives out of the Germany game and, if we can replicate that first-half performance for 90 minutes, we will give them a game, and if we can get a little bit of luck, you just never know what we can do."

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