Leeds midfielder Ilia Gruev relishing ‘one of the biggest games’ of his career

Leeds face Southampton in the Sky Bet Championship play-off final.

Ilia Gruev, right, got Leeds up and running against Norwich
Ilia Gruev, right, got Leeds up and running against Norwich (Danny Lawson/PA)

Ilia Gruev is ready for one of the biggest games of his career at Wembley with Leeds on Sunday after his “most important goal” helped them get there.

Leeds face Southampton in the Sky Bet Championship play-off final with both clubs bidding to bounce straight back to the Premier League at the first attempt.

Bulgaria midfielder Gruev told the PA news agency: “For sure, I think for a lot of players also, including me, this is going to be one of the biggest games I have played. These kind of games are why we play football.”

Leeds narrowly missed out on automatic promotion behind Leicester and Ipswich after a poor run-in, but rediscovered top form in the second leg of their play-off semi-final against Norwich.

After a goalless draw at Carrow Road, Leeds swept to a 4-0 win in the return at Elland Road, where Gruev struck the crucial first goal with an opportunistic free-kick.

“It was early in the game and I thought the goalkeeper was not watching me, so I decided to try and score,” said the 24-year-old.

“I don’t think the goalkeeper thought that I was going to shoot, so I tried it and it went in. It was an amazing feeling. It’s probably the most important goal of my career so far.”

Leeds won only one of their last six games of the regular season and their play-off fate was sealed on the final day when Ipswich beat Huddersfield and Daniel Farke’s side lost at home to Sunday’s opponents Southampton.

“Of course after the Southampton game we were disappointed because we wanted to go directly up, but this is football and the good thing is we have another chance,” Gruev said.

“We’ve taken the first chance and now we have to take the second one.

“When you play such a semi-final, the second leg 4-0 at home, and you play such a good game, it gives you lots of confidence and that was so important for Sunday.”

The former Werder Bremen player’s parents and sister will travel to Wembley from Bulgaria, while friends from Germany will also be there to cheer him on.

He said: “Obviously it will be so big. Me and the other players are working so hard for this moment because we want to play with the best players.

“For me, it would be a great experience to play in the Premier League, the best league in the world. I’ve been doing all kinds of things to play in this league.”

Gruev has emerged as a fans’ favourite at Elland Road. He signed a four-year deal when arriving from Bremen last summer and Sunday’s showpiece will be his 35th appearance for the club in all competitions.

“I needed two or three months to adapt, which is normal because it’s another type of football and another type of country,” he added.

“But yes, I really appreciate that the fans and also journalists and others are appreciating my game and see what I’m doing and how I can help the team.”