Monday, 30 December 2013

Away Days; Nottingham Forest

With Leeds sitting pretty in 5th having lost just one league game in nine, you could have been forgiven for heading down the M1 full of optimism. However, with the last two games ending in bore draws following equally as boring performances, it would have been wrong from the start to expect miracles away at high-flying Nottingham Forest. After a small blip, they themselves were on a good run of form with two wins and two draws coming from their last four games in which they have succeeded in keeping four clean sheets. They were yet to face Matt Smith and Michael Brown though.

I overslept; probably my alarm attempting to warn me to stay in bed and not attend the match, kind of like Dobby sealing off the barrier in the second Harry Potter film. McDonalds was awaiting me though and having clearly not eaten enough this Christmas that was enough to send me on my way to Elland Road. Coach One was busy and as usual, Leeds fans attending the game on their own were seemingly not keen on sitting next to each other; there were no seats for two people but plenty of single seats strewn across the coach. Thankfully, a gem of an elderly gentleman offered to sit next to an already asleep younger gentleman allowing Kez and myself to sit next to each other. The coach was long, slow and extremely dull. Just over two hours it took to arrive at the City Ground and by that time, we'd missed our chance of having a quick pint at the Trent Bridge. Instead, £2.40 was spent on a Coke with no lid - presumably the guy behind the counter knew I'd throw the tiny piece of plastic at Michael Brown if he came near enough.

Yes, the proverbial talent Brown was to start again in the heart of the Leeds midfield that also included Luke Murphy, returning from his one-match suspension. The starting eleven for the hosts offered much more quality, with even their bench including talent that McDermott must sit at home fawning over. The likes of Reid, Lansbury and Chalobah could wipe McDermott's arsehole with the money spent on them and the latter didn't even make the starting eleven. Centre half Greg Halford was again starting up top for Billy Davies' men due to an injury crisis that another waft of the Forest chequebook should solve come January. I sound incredibly bitter, when I'm not actually that bothered. Nottingham Forest are a big club and I'd rather see them win the league than QPR. Its just annoying and slightly scary when you see Chalobah sat on the Forest bench, ten yards away from Luke Varney or the un-tried Gboly Ariyibi.

Ariyibi, the young winger signed after his release from Southampton was to get his chance to brighten up a dismal Leeds performance. To his credit he made runs, offered some attacking outlet and even had one of Leeds' few opportunities on goal mid-way through the second half. I say on goal when really I mean he sliced a shot out for a throw in, an act that epitomised Leeds' afternoon.

Forest are and were on the day a different class, with Reid, Lansbury and Majewski pulling the strings in midfield. They had an opening at goal inside fifteen seconds as Halford charged down Paddy Kenny following a poor back pass from Zaliukas. Kenny did well, preventing the rookie striker from scoring and injuring himself in the process. The Leeds stopper managed to complete the ninety minutes but had serious trouble kicking which did effect the quality of Leeds' play. Clearly, a back-pass every five minutes is an integral part of our fluid, attacking "football".

In a way consistent with Leeds' recent run, Forest controlled possession in the opening stages and looked lively but never really created a golden opportunity. Don't get me wrong, they were far more the dangerous but the back three of Lees, Pearce and Zaliukas was again holding firm. Leeds' midfield wasn't though and after Reid ghosted past Austin for a tenth time, Michael Brown took matters into his own hands by hacking down the Forest playmaker. Both Brown and McDermott claimed he got the ball. He didn't.

I've always thought a player giving away a stupid free kick that results in a goal should be berated in the same way that a goalkeeper would be for letting a shot through his legs. That's what happened here as Reid's deep cross was met by Halford who planted his header past Kenny and into the far post. Forest had the lead they deserved but the visitors had gift-wrapped it for them.

Forest could then have ran riot as it took them just under two minutes to have another attempt on goal. The Leeds midfield three looked tired and gave the ball away allowing Reid to break before dipping a shot just over the top. Majeswki was then denied by Paddy Kenny who shovelled the decent attempt around the post and Mackie fired high and wide from a good position as Forest finished the first half much the stronger of the two sides. In and amongst, Matt Smith had flicked a header wide for the visitors but it wasn't even a half chance.

The urinal philosophers were as negative as deserved at half time with most agreeing on one thing. "We're shite". Changes were needed and they did come, with young Ariyibi and Sam Byram replacing Michael Brown and Lee Peltier during the second half in a desperate attempt to give Leeds some width.

All the action out wide seemed to be coming from Forest's Djamel Abdoun who thankfully spent half the afternoon offside. When he did get on the ball however he looked extremely lively and was next to try his luck with a near post drive that was beaten away by Kenny. Leeds fared ever so slightly better in the second half, managing on occasion to string two or three passes together and even on the odd occasion, forced their way into the Forest half. It was all side-ways passes and negativity though as Leeds probed with as much enthusiasm as you would when using a rectal thermometer on Billy Davies.

Davies must have felt slightly threatened by the probing as the defensive minded Chalobah replaced Abdoun, tightening the home side up a bit. Immediately Forest went on the front foot and the substitute laid off Reid who struck the post with a delightful strike from distance.

That's when it happened. Leeds' Mariusz Zaliukas did what he does best, intercepting a stray pass and striding through midfield in a fashion akin to Chelsea's David Luiz. I know, I'm bullshitting. His through ball to Byram was perfectly weighted and the youngster prodded the ball goal-wards only for Jamaal Lascelles to clear off the line for the home side. However the clearance was fired straight at goalkeeper Darlow from close range and rebounded into the path of McCormack who slid home Leeds' equaliser. Cue pandemonium in the away end as the visiting fans celebrated as if Leeds had won the F.A. Cup. In our defence there looked to be more chance of Leeds winning the F.A. Cup than ever finding a way back into this match.

The celebrations of 1,800 turned into the delirium of many more seconds later as Forest regained the lead before Leeds could tell the City Ground who they were. Two passes straight from kick off was all it took to defeat a non-existent Leeds midfield before Matt Derbyshire unleashed an unstoppable strike into the top corner of Paddy Kenny's goal. Leeds had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. Everyone knows not to switch off straight after scoring; you can watch a team score on Ardsley Rec before hearing their captain tell everyone "its still 0-0 lads". Everyone tells him to fuck off, but the sentiment behind the cliche is true and Leeds failing to remain switched on was almost as embarrassing as the performance.

Dom Poleon was introduced as McDermott threw the dice once more and even though the young striker found space to head wide from eight yards it was all in vain as Forest held on for a fully deserved three points.

Both managers stressed the importance of a positive January transfer window. You have to believe that Forest will be challenging for automatic promotion should that never ending chequebook be waved in the right direction. As for Leeds, who knows what the month could bring.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Away Days; Blackpool

Christmas is the best day of the year for me.  It is for most and I hope you all enjoyed yours. Its not the best day of the year for the Stone Island wearers who love to remind us every year on Twitter that they prefer Boxing Day because of the football. Strange, really strange but even I appreciate the existence of the full programme of football fixtures that welcomes us on December 26th - what better way to blow off the cobwebs left behind by a day of eating, drinking and being merry than football? With Leeds facing a trip to Bloomfield Road however, the eating and drinking was always going to continue. The "being merry" would have to be dependent on the final result. 
Me being arty.

Boxing Day is a special occasion in our household as, if Leeds are drawn away, its the only away game Mum makes every year. She loves it, bless her. I love it too, means I don't have to fork out on coach travel. It also means we never leave the house on time. After instructing Kez we'd be leaving at twelve, we were still watching Hull-Man United at half past one, before eventually leaving. The pre-planned pub stop en-route was delayed until we actually arrived in the crown jewel of Lancashire and located the Wetherspoons right on the Blackpool sea front. At this point, clearly still full of Christmas spirit I got excited and kindly took my Snapchat friends on a tour of my surroundings. Everyone has probably seen both Blackpool Tower and the sea before and they were all probably muttering for me to fuck off but it isn't my problem if they're playing the Grinch.

A £6.19 all-day brunch went down as nicely as it always does in a pub full of bald heads, Adidas suede trainers and Stone Island. If you can't tell already, this particular fad is one I aren't a fan of. Mum stuck out like a sore thumb sat sweetly doing her puzzle book and proudly announcing to us that she'd just remembered the Warwickshire town linked with writer George Eliot. Nuneaton, I think. I couldn't care, I was more bothered that Hartlepool had just equalised against Chesterfield, ruining my good-looking accumulator in the process.

Blackpool's Matt Smith
The team news filtered through as we made our way to the ground, with two changes being made from Saturday's draw with Barnsley. Luke Murphy was banned after picking up his fifth yellow card and was replaced with Michael Tonge, whilst Alex Mowatt was rested with Michael Brown also starting. No comment. Blackpool remained unchanged, starting as they always do with Tom Ince. I know, I'm hilarious.

To give Ince some credit he is an outstanding footballer, a shining light in a very average Blackpool side. He started brightly as both sides probed rather than penetrated, a recurring theme throughout. Another recurring theme is the lack of quality on Leeds' final ball, one that was reciprocated by both sides in an edgy opening. The only really highlight was Michael Brown being Michael Brown, somehow escaping a clear yellow card after scything down Basham in front of the Leeds faithful.

Of late, Leeds have been solid if not overly impressive and, if not for Ross McCormack, might have struggled for goals. Here they took the lead thanks to the most unlikely of sources as Lee Peltier notched his first for the club since his move from Leicester. Danny Pugh found space down the left before delivering a deep cross met by Peltier who's header looped over Gilks and into the far corner. Scenes. Limbs flying, lovebites everywhere.

Not a bad view for Bloomfield Road
Blackpool are on a shocking run and the goal ruined what had been a good performance so far. They threatened through a succession of corners and were unlucky not to be level as Kirk Broadfoot headed over the bar from a good position. Leeds were practically playing on the counter attack already and it nearly worked wonders, but after being sent through on goal, McCormack was crowded out well on the edge of the area. 

Chances were few and far between and fifteen minutes into the second half, Leeds were strangely rather comfortable, even coming closest to scoring next as Jason Pearce hooked a corner wide. Blackpool threatened with Jack Robinson firing just over from thirty yards, but otherwise a Leeds back five that had kept two consecutive clean sheets was again looking firm. It was eventually to be breached by who other than the talismanic Ince, but a helping hand was needed. Leeds could only half clear a free kick and were rewarded by a thumping drive from Ince that took a huge deflection before finding the back of Paddy Kenny's goal. 

The equaliser increased the tension stakes and preceded a moment of real controversy, with Blackpool again getting lucky. McCormack appeared to be clean through on Gilks' goal before being impeded by Broadfoot. A free-kick and yellow card was awarded by Scott Mathieson when everybody in the ground and watching on television expected red. Leeds felt hard done by and the resulting free kick was rushed and dumped into the wall. 

Blackpool had the last, golden opportunity in the 75th minute when Ince, who else, curled a delightful effort just wide. From then on, the home side pressed and looked the more likely to score but didn't produce a meaningful chance. They did succeed in something though as, for the sixth time in a matter of weeks, they managed to finish the game with less than eleven men. Justice was arguably done twenty minutes too late as Broadfoot received his marching orders for a horrific tackle on Mariusz Zaliukas. 

A point is a point and a point on the road is a good one. It would have been a very good one had we beaten Barnsley on Saturday. Its not a great one considering the poor performance and the fact we have to travel to Nottingham Forest on Sunday. But we're unpredictable - we might stick six past them. 

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Leeds United 0-0 Barnsley

For the fourth time in five attempts, Leeds United failed to defeat neighbours Barnsley as the Tykes displayed immense grit and determination to scrap, fight and limp to a goalless draw at Elland Road. Back to back failures to breach the Barnsley back line was a disappointment for a home side in great form, especially following the final ten minutes in which the visitors soldiered on with ten men after Marcus Tudgay was dismissed for a lunge on Marius Zaliukas. The point lifts Leeds to fifth following Reading's defeat by Wigan Athletic, whilst Barnsley remain rooted to the foot of the division.

A crowd of over 30,000 at Elland Road was treated to an enjoyable opening to the afternoon as owners GFH Capital continued their good work with a parade in celebration of their one year anniversary as Leeds United owners. Their excellent work was displayed in a short video highlighting the key moments in a year which has seen David Haigh, Salem Patel and chairman Salah Nooruddin transform the club into from the darkest depths to a position of enjoyment and genuine optimism. Following the parade, the owners walked through the stand to their East Stand box, meeting fans along the way with the Football League Show's Clem there to witness the whole spectacle. Sadly, the football didn't live up to the introduction.

Leeds remained unchanged again with the only notable difference to the squad being the return of El Hadji Diouf after a tough month for the attacker. Barnsley, led by the returning Danny Wilson for the first time, made two changes with Lewin Nyatanga and Bobby Hassell back in the starting eleven, the latter of which was to sit in front of the back four in a 4-1-4-1 formation that was to deny Leeds all afternoon.

A point away from home; the Wilson Wonderland.
It was the away side's organisation that was to quell a Leeds side who went into the game unbeaten in six games on their own turf. Ross McCormack, the second most in form striker in English football after the incredulous Luis Suarez was kept quiet for ninety minutes; his tame effort straight into the hands of the impressive Jack Butland mid-way through the second half summed up the game for both himself and his team.

Despite a performance lacking any real quality, Leeds were thwarted by Butland on a number of occasions. A frustrating afternoon for Matt Smith began early as, after a fantastic chest down, his thumping half volley was wonderfully palmed away by the Stoke loanee. Just five minutes later, Smith was again sent through but could only scuff his chance under pressure from Ramage. As Leeds huffed and puffed, Barnsley started to grow and often found far too much time in the centre of midfield with Mellis instrumental. Under pressure from Kenny, the ex-Chelsea midfielder slotted wide inside two minutes before teeing up Tudgay for the best chance of the game. After holding off Zaliukas, the s
triker went one on one with Kenny and fired wide when it seemed easier to score. The returning Hassell also went reasonably close as an ambitious half-volley looped just wide before Paddy Kenny did well to help a Tudgay header over the bar.

Hassell's influence sat in front of the back four led to a packed midfield littered with niggly fouls and referee Keith Stroud was more than happy to get into the Christmas spirit early. Mellis and O'Brien both received yellows before Rudy Austin, Luke Murphy and Alex Mowatt were booked for Leeds. The youngster paid the price for his, being substituted at half time to same an inevitable second yellow. As it was, his replacement Michael Tonge survived two minutes before also being wished a Happy Christmas from Stroud. The whole of Leeds' midfield was now in the card-book but only Jack Butland was added to it late on for wasting time.

As well as Tonge, Sam Byram was also introduced at half time in place of the ineffective Lee Peltier down the right. Byram's first chance to get forward resulted in the young right back firing his cross straight into the South Stand, a recurring theme as Leeds' final ball continued to disappoint. A similarly bad cross from Danny Pugh nearly did open the scoring however as it hurtled towards the top corner before Butland tipped it over

Smith; frustrated.
Leeds' lack of quality was apparent throughout and only really created half chances. Butland was again on hand to tip a McCormack header over the bar after a knock-down from Smith, but aside from that Leeds only tested the stopper from distance. Tonge and Austin both tried their luck from distance before the disappointing Smith finally showed a bit of quality with a quarter of an hour to go. After holding three Barnsley defenders off in the box, he turned and shot, but his effort flew an inch wide of the far post.

It wasn't all one-way traffic as Barnsley rallied at times until the sending off of Tudgay. Tomasz Cwyka came within an inch of connecting with a fabulous Mellis cross ten minutes into the second half, with Mellis himself also finding the side netting as the half wore on. Jim O'Brien had the visitors' best chance of the half but shot tamely at Paddy Kenny.

It was to be O'Brien who was replaced by Jason Scotland with ten minutes to go as Danny Wilson showed real intent with two strikers on the field of play. As it was, they finished with just one as Tudgay's afternoon came to an early end. His lunge was a dangerous one which rendered Wilson's attacking switch completely useless and put Barnsley under pressure during a nervy six minutes of stoppage time. The Whites mustered up nothing though, as a number of long balls were dealt with fairly easily by the solid Barnsley back-line. Two points dropped and the Barnsley curse continues but a point that could have real significance come May.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Away Days; Doncaster Rovers

The prospect of a trip to Doncaster's Keepmoat Stadium doesn't excite anyone. Not even the most loyal of Rovers fans. Its one of those modern, soulless pits that looks like something you'd eat your Weetabix in. The club that play there are equally as dull; a small fan-base turn out every other week to watch a team who'd be more than happy to survive relegation on goal difference this season. However, today marked the first day of my Christmas break from university and offered the opportunity to watch the Whites on the road for the first time since a dire 2-0 defeat to Millwall in September. I couldn't wait, but I did expect a tough game. I thought we were due a defeat or at least a frustrating day. I'm fairly pessimistic but I couldn't have been more wrong about today.

Like a tit, I agreed to work on Friday night which pushed back my return home by a day meaning the A1 had to be negotiated on Saturday morning before I could even think about South Yorkshire. Aided by a McDonalds breakfast en route, I arrived home to complete two important tasks. Dropping my over-flowing washing bag for my doting mother was the first, picking up my football tickets was the second. I met Kez at Elland Road at 12pm where we had lunch - another McDonalds. There isn't a McDonalds in Durham, I thought it best that I make up for lost time.

Despite the Keepmoat being equivalent to a graveyard in atmosphere, its modern nature ensures it offers a pleasant welcoming to visiting fans. The view from the vast majority of away seating offers a clear and uninterrupted view of the game and the facilities in the concourse are good. I paid £2.90 for a pint of Becks, a fairly cheap price I thought for a pint of lager that was actually what it said it was - far too many grounds these days serve piss under the name of Budweiser and Carlsberg.

Brian McDermott made just one change to the side involved in last weekend's enthralling 3-3 draw with Watford. Tom Lees returned in place of Sam Byram, meaning Lee Peltier continued at right back alongside a central half trio of Zaliukas, Pearce and Lees himself. Doncaster's last league game resulted in a 3-0 defeat against an ever-improving Bolton Wanderers side and boss Paul Dickov made two changes to his side, with Brown and Woods returning in place of David Cotterill and Mark Duffy.

The most famous Matt Smith in the world.
The Keepmoat was cold, very cold and the strong wind wasn't doing anything to aid the err, passing football that both teams like to play. Both struggled to hold onto possession during the opening exchanges, with neither side asserting themselves with any vigour. Matt Smith's nod down led to the first real chance of the game which was put over the bar by McCormack before the giant striker fashioned a header at goal himself. He however made no mistake, meeting Alex Mowatt's fantastic delivery from a free kick mid-way inside the half. Failing to pick up the visitors' man mountain was a key indicator of the home side's defensive frailty, a weakness that was continuously exposed as they battled into the wind with as much confidence as a Sunday League side. The whole back four looked shaky, particularly the full backs and Ross McCormack was unlucky not to double Leeds' lead as he fired inches over from outside the area. To Doncaster's credit, they survived the rest of the opening period without looking particularly threatened as Leeds' final ball was poor on more than one occasion. The home side did end the half well, winning a succession of quick corners that were dealt with well by the outstanding Leeds back three, before Theo Robinson fired a half volley into the stand after bringing the ball down well. Leeds nearly made the loanee pay and probably should have as Matt Smith headed over an exceptional McCormack cross when hitting the target should have been the minimum requirement.

The wind was always going to make things tough for the visitors in the second half and it did as Richie Wellens' early curled effort set the benchmark for a torrid period for Leeds. Doncaster established total control without ever really penetrating, as Zaliukas, Lees and Pearce continued to impress. Kenny was finally tested ten minutes into the second period and got down well to deny Wellens before a huge slice of luck went Leeds' way in a moment of real controversy. After being played through, Theo Robinson was given enough time to count to ten and score by both a stranded Leeds defence and a seemingly distracted linesman. Score he did, celebrate the home faithful did and cover our eyes we did, until the linesman's flag eventually went up. Robinson did look offside, but the flag was incredibly late. "Sit down, shut up" was the cry from a very relieved away end towards the agitated Rovers supporters.

Leeds continued to look under threat and the home side looked to be the only side capable of scoring. But, after dealing with a thirty minute long bombardment, the visitors stole a second and decisive goal. It was the in-form but quiet McCormack that scored it, ghosting past two Rovers defenders before calmly slotting under the body of Turnbull. Scenes in the away end; limbs and bodies flew everywhere. 

The second goal killed the contest and it got even worse for Doncaster with two minutes to go. McCormack, buoyed by his goal, found space down the right wing and his deep cross was met first time by a thumping Rudy Austin half volley which left Turnbull stranded. Less scenes in the away end, more bemusement. An incredibly "un-Leeds like" end to an "un-Leeds like" performance that secured another three valuable points. We now sit sixth, nine points behind table toppers QPR. Nine points is quite a lot, but we have Mariusz Zaliukas and they don't. 

The only thing better than winning away is winning away at Christmas. Doncaster fans genuinely should have gone Christmas shopping and apparently it is pretty fun to see United win away. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Durham City 4-1 Marske United

On a run of five games in all competitions without a win, Durham City welcomed Marske United to New Ferens Park on Tuesday, with the visitors also looking to pick themselves up after a 5-0 reverse at Whitley Bay last time out.

With a number players out missing, City named a similarly threadbare squad to the one that battled hard for a point at Sunderland RCA on Saturday. Marske made five changes to the side that shipped five at Hillheads Park, with Dean, Butterworth, Matthewman, Alexander and Stewart all returning to the starting eleven.

Marske's last visit to New Ferens Park resulted in a one-nil win for the Seasiders who stole the points late on against the run of play. This time out they adopted a completely different game-plan, taking full control of the game in the opening period against a City side that couldn't get going. However, late on Monday night the home side secured the services of Carlisle United youngster Chris Brass on a temporary work experience placement and it was Brass, on his debut, that kept Durham in it early on, making two fine saves to deny the visitors an opening goal. The first of these was the best; beating away a header from a long throw that was causing City some real problems.

It took twenty five minutes for Durham to stamp any authority on the game, with Ellison in particular slowly becoming more influential spearheading a central midfield three also including Hotchkiss and Hindmarch. However, it was to be the transfer-listed Scott Fenwick that produced the home side's much needed opening goal. The somewhat controversial striker picked the ball up on the left wing and drove for goal, before making space for himself and firing into the near bottom corner. A goal worthy of higher league football perhaps, but the services of the front-man are something that City cannot lose.

It was to trigger a bizarre twelve minutes in which City scored another three, effectively killing the match as a contest. Denver Morris was next to find the back of the net, finishing into an open goal after a poor headed clearance from Dean in the Marske goal. The winger added his second just minutes later as a cross-cum-shot sailed into the far corner, leaving the vocal Dean speechless, for once. Man of the match Craig Ellison added the fourth sixty seconds later; Hotchkiss' deep free kick was headed back across goal by Turnbull, leaving Ellison to apply a simple finish.

Marske were somewhat unlucky to be 4-0 down at half time and did pull a goal back five minutes into the second half. A combination of Brass and Jack Walker denied a first shot on goal, but MacDonald was first to react and thumped the rebound beyond the debutant. It was no less than they deserved.

However, had it not been for Dean, it could have been worse for Marske as the stopper made a number of good saves following their consolation goal to keep the score-line down. The first was a routine block at his near post, but the second belonged at St James' Park as only a spectacular finger tip reaction save denied a comical own goal.

The game faded away into a dull second half of "nearly moments" that summed up Marske's day in front of goal. A poor touch by O'Sullivan allowed Brass to smother well before the visitors had a huge penalty shout turned down for handball. Two long-distance efforts flew harmlessly over the City cross-bar before the goal was breached again. Unfortunately for the Seasiders, hopes of a comeback were quelled by the linesman's flag.

Durham ended the stronger as a great chance was wasted by the fantastic Ellison who pulled his shot wide, before our very own Max Stoker flicked a header beyond the far post. It was to be the last action of a game that was effectively over after thirty five minutes, with the visitors left ruing what might have been. As for the Citizens, it was a much needed win that will hopefully ensure the lads go into Saturday's game full of confidence. Top of the league Shildon are the visitors; let's have 'em City!