Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Away Days; Derby County

A Leeds United side once flirting with relegation are now almost sending it pornographic text messages another defeat to nil, this time at high flying Derby County. However, it's less the results and more the performances that are bringing the Whites a lot closer to the Championship's drop-zone. Leeds upset the apple-cart in late November beating the Rams comfortably at Elland Road but the result, only their third win since mid-September, was an anomaly, a performance not befitting the ones before and especially after it. Back to back home defeats to nil against weak opposition did nothing to raise optimism levels ahead of the trip to the iPro, with Leeds having won only once away from home all season. The Rams sensed an opportunity for revenge against a side that had not beaten them at home since 2002.

As performances continue to be so poor, Neil Redfearn's team selections become more and more worrying with the severe shake-up the team looks to need still not being executed. Last night saw a mis-firing Souleymane Doukara return in favour of Billy Sharp with Michael Tonge making way for Rodolph Austin. A horrendously out-of-form Tommaso Bianchi retained his place in the heart of the Leeds midfield, whilst the creative Adryan was benched again, this time through a mysterious illness. Ultimately, it was an eleven - and the diamond formation - far too similar to the one we've seen bullied by much weaker opposition throughout the season.

Throughout, Leeds found themselves dangerously exposed out wide, an issue that all Leeds fans, as well as a worldwide television audience have witnessed on a number of occasions - okay, every week. Any width in this formation comes from the full-backs who both like to get forward and it was fairly unfortunate that Leeds lost captain Stephen Warnock after just five minutes. He was replaced at left back by Gaetano Berardi, another member of the ineffective Italian contingent who refuses to get forward and can't kick with his left foot. Not ideal when you're lined up against a tricky, pacy winger in Johnny Russell.
On the opposite flank, Sam Byram had an equally tough task in coping with Liverpool loanee Jordan Ibe - the kind of quick, exciting Premiership winger that if Derby could, then Leeds also could surely have loaned. Byram did half a decent job on the youngster for fifteen minutes but it was Ibe who controlled proceedings for much of the evening. The away sides centre half pairing of Cooper and Bellusci were on hand for much of the first half to desperately hack away at Ibe's teasing crosses which for much of the period, prevented Derby from having a clear shot at goal. In fact it was Leeds who could have fashioned the best chance of the opening exchanges, but after an outstanding run Lewis Cook was halted by Richard Keogh when a simple pass could have played in either Austin or Mirko Antenucci who were both through on goal.

That ten second piece of brilliance from a young player heading to the Premiership whilst Leeds go the other way was about as exciting as it got for Leeds who for forty minutes were more concerned with harassing an increasingly frustrated Derby. Frustration lifted four minutes before the break though; in a half of little goal mouth action, it was Leeds who shot themselves in the foot again with their second own goal in four days. Alex Mowatt, who must have only touched the ball six times throughout the ninety minutes, was the unlucky man this time, looping the ball into his own top corner with Johnny Russell bearing down upon him. 1-0 and probably game over, given that the spark in Leeds' front players has gone, if it even ever existed. Derby almost went into the half time break 2-0 up and would have had it not been for an excellent save from Marco Silvestri who acrobatically turned away Richard Keogh's goal-bound header. From the resulting corner, the outstanding Ibe tested the Italian stopper again with a half volley, but Silvestri gathered at the second attempt.

Look, Doukara nearly touched the ball. 
Surprisingly, the likes of Bianchi and Doukara emerged for the second half, but they might as well not have as they remained on flight Air Asia up until their substitution. Less surprisingly, Derby doubled their lead imminently with fan favourite Jake Buxton managing to lose Doukara - easily done - before steering his header into the top corner from a Jeff Hendrick free kick. Undoubtedly game over, and surely a bench mark for Derby to grab four or five. They probably would have had it not been for Silvestri who made two low saves to deny Ibe and Martin. The Rams' top scorer also had a glorious headed chance of his own, nodding wide after again being gifted far too much space by some generous Leeds marking. Adryan and Sharp were introduced for Doukara and Bianchi but it was far too late for either to make any sort of impact against Derby's resilient back four. With seconds to go, Rudy Austin struck a free kick inches over from distance, as close as Leeds had come in a game where they again failed to manage a shot on target. The Rams march on, as Leeds continue to look nervous
ly over their shoulder.

Derby County: Grant, Christie, Keogh, Buxton, Forsyth, Eustace, Hendrick (Bryson 80), Hughes, Ibe (Coutts 90+1), Russell (Dawkins 90), Martin. Subs: Roos, Best, Shotton, Mascarell.

Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Bellusci, Pearce, Warnock (Berardi 8) Cook, Bianchi (Adryan 79) Mowatt, Austin, Antenucci, Doukara (Sharp 66). Subs: Taylor, Del Fabro, Tonge, Montenegro.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Millwall; the verdict

Despite widespread change off the field at Leeds United, little changed on the pitch in South-East London as Millwall recorded their annual victory-to-nil against the West Yorkshire side. Mark Beevers swept home the opener on eight minutes before Sean Williams' late penalty secured three points for the Lions, condemning new Leeds boss Dave Hockaday to his first defeat, some would say, of many.  The former Forest Green coach was forced to leave ex-Millwall man Steve Morison through a conveniently timed calf strain and opted for a front three of Noel Hunt, Souleymane Doukara and recent new signing Nicky Ajose. Warning bells were already ringing in the eyes of the away following then, with Matt Smith benched for a still goal-less Hunt.

With an arguably incorrect team selection, Hockaday had a lot to do to improve his team's fortunes as the game wore on following a shocking first half in which the Lions ran riot. Leeds were second best and failed to string a decent move together, whilst their opposition threatened at every opportunity with Scott McDonald at the heart of everything. Despite a number of new signings, the Whites are still extremely short at the back and their vulnerability was capitalized on before the ten minute mark. Leeds reacted slowly to a well-taken short corner and Mark Beevers shrugged off Scott Wootton before sweeping the ball excellently past Silvestri. If ever a young centre half from Juventus needed to sign on the dotted line, it was right about now.

Beevers probably should have doubled the home sides lead a few minutes later but planted his header over the bar. Leeds' formation was clearly not working, with Ajose and Hunt extremely isolated out wide, which in turn isolated the unimpressive Doukara. An equaliser never looked likely were Millwall to remain as solid as they are renowned for at the Den, but it should have come following a mistake which set Luke Murphy one on one with Forde. With both Doukara and Ajose screaming for it in the box, the midfielder panicked and sliced his cross-cum-shot horribly wide. By only just missing the corner flag, that was as good as it was going to get for Leeds and they were lucky to be only one down at half time. With no Leeds defender within five yards, Alan Dunne somehow failed to hit the back of the net with a header well held by Silvestri before Ricardo Fuller thumped a volley just over the bar.

Half time, and at this stage, we're relegation fodder. There is undoubtedly not three teams worse than us in this league.

Surprisingly, not one of those under-performing, some would say all of them, were replaced at half time but Hockaday did mix up his front three, with Ajose taking a more central role. To some extent, it worked and Ajose flourished in the second half, proving a nuisance to the home sides previously untested back four. The striker's busy nature led to Leeds' best chance less than two minutes after the re-start. Under pressure from Ajose, Forde failed to handle an aimless ball forward, allowing the ex-Peterborough man to round him and cut the ball back into the path of Hunt. Reeking of a lack of confidence triggered from last year's goal-less spell, Hunt panicked before poking an effort goal-wards that was cleared off the line by Dunne. Millwall responded instantly, with Martyn Woolford's thumping strike blocked away by Silvestri, with Abdou slicing the rebound over the top.

As Leeds pushed harder for an equaliser, the game became more open and therefore as Leeds looked more likely to score, they also in turn looked more likely to concede. Matt Smith was finally introduced for Doukara and flashed a few headers wide from Sam Byram crosses before Silvestri was again on hand to deny Millwall, this time clutching an angled Scott McDonald strike.

Youngsters Lewis Cook and Dominic Poleon were introduced by Hockaday whilst Millwall threw on Jermaine Easter and new signings Magaye Gueye and Lee Gregory. Smith was starting to win aerial duels in a way that Doukara wasn't and substitute Poleon did manage to latch onto one of these, but his effort was well saved by a sprawling Forde.

However, Millwall did steady a ship that could have seen Leeds steal an equaliser and doubled their lead with four minutes to go. Leeds youngster Cook gave the ball away too close to his own box and despite Silvestri delaying Gregory's direct run, the striker was eventually tripped by Cook with the referee pointing to the spot. Contact did look minimal, but Leeds couldn't co
mplain after getting away with one, if not two valid penalty shouts earlier on. Sean Williams stepped up and converted, sealing three points for Ian Holloway's side.

The familiar feeling of disappointment at five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon is back then and the universal verdict wasn't a good one. Leeds did rally briefly in the second half but it was nowhere near good enough. The first half was as bad as last season, if not worse and despite a few excellent chances in the second half, Millwall never found themselves severely tested. It was defensive mistakes rather than Leeds' attacking play that saw such chances created. Individually, nobody shined. Italian goalkeeper Silvestri was probably the only one to emerge with some pride having made a number of good saves behind a back four bullied far too much by Ricardo Fuller. Stephen Warnock did a good job on a number of occasions of covering his wandering centre halves but found it much tougher to deal with Lee Martin one on one. Despite being a massive fan of the work Michael Tonge does, the veteran midfielder had a shocker and Luke Murphy was nowhere near his best. Austin's game varied as it usually does from the impressive to the incredibly frustrating while the front three were equally frustrated by a resilient Millwall defensive line.

 I was happier at full time than most having at least seen something to indicate we might not finish bottom with zero points. Hockaday won't be here by November though, some think October.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Best and Worst of the 2013/14 Season

A misty-eyed look back on some of the highs and lows of another disappointing season supporting Leeds United. Do you agree or disagree?

Editor's Comment: If you think I've missed a match, an event or a goal glaringly obvious, please comment. The likelihood is I wasn't there. Or I was there and forgot, in which case, I apologise, you're right. 

The way of the world dictated I missed two of the stand-out matches at Elland Road against Birmingham and Huddersfield, with six points gained and nine goals scored. I enjoyed Blackpool at home, taking my Grandad for his first visit in years and Middlesbrough on my birthday weekend, but the most memorable home game for all in attendance was the opening day sell-out against Brighton. In traditional Leeds United fashion, we went 1-0 down early on before Luke Murphy completed our come-back, securing a 2-1 win in the 95th minute. 

Again, university ensured I missed the stand-out away day, undoubtedly the 4-2 win at Charlton in November. Of the fifteen or so away games I attended, there weren’t many successful ones and so I’d have to go for either the 3-0 win at Doncaster or the final away day of the season at Birmingham. We led mid-way through the first half at the Keepmoat before being seriously pegged back. McCormack’s individual brilliance saw us sneak an un-deserved second and the scenes were reciprocated shortly after when Rodolph Austin added a third. Birmingham away was just amusing; two awful teams seemingly playing out a dour 0-0 draw until we scored three times in ten minutes.

There’s almost been too many to choose from. Finally, being away at university brought me some success, missing both the 5-1 reverse to Bolton and the 4-2 thrashing by Reading, but I did see some shockers. For a terrible match, a very poor atmosphere and an even worse result, the 1-0 loss to Charlton has to take the honour, but Forest at home isn’t far behind either.

There were three that no Leeds fan should ever have to experience again. Millwall, Rochdale and Sheffield Wednesday will remain forever in the memory bank all for the wrong reasons with the latter two coming within a week of each other. We were out-classed at Millwall, but as it features elsewhere here I’ll go for Sheffield Wednesday. Rochdale embarrassed us, but they were a young, in-form side epitomising everything that we don’t. You can’t watch your side concede six against noisy neighbours and say you endured a worse away match. 

Away days on the whole are more about the travelling, the visiting new places and the eating and drinking with your mates than the football, which as a Leeds fan is a good thing considering the football is usually awful. I loved both Birmingham and Barnsley with my closest friend, Ipswich was good but, because it was made all the more amusing for the football, I’ll go for Watford. I wasn’t expecting to go, my ticket was free, I met some outstanding people and we had a good drink. And then we lost 3-0. 

Travelling three and a half hours on a Wednesday night to lose 1-0 in the 97th minute to an incredibly irritating Reading wasn’t great but you can’t look any further than Millwall. It’s a long journey to an area somehow worse than Beeston. You arrived and you’re greeted by gestures and Istanbul chants. It wasn’t particularly cheap. The £4 hot dog was the worst I’ve ever had and I could have found nicer lager teasing my glass around in the urinal. We also got thrashed. 

Sheffield Wednesday weren’t bad, Forest were average and I’d imagine Derby were good but I wasn’t there so, as most said, Middlesbrough. They travelled in good numbers and saw their side go both a goal and a man down inside the first half. Special mention must go to Charlton as well. They weren’t particularly loud, and considering it was a Tuesday night, there wasn’t great numbers either. For a side struggling badly with relegation, they looked to enjoy themselves however and you couldn’t help feeling slightly happy for them as they celebrated Ben Hamer’s last minute penalty save.

There’s a lot to choose from. Huddersfield, deluded. Reading, boring. Millwall, non-existent. I wasn’t there but I’ll go for Doncaster. They boycotted a game that was “too expensive” when in reality, the extra money they had to spend on the ticket was saved on the travel. It’s half an hour down the road lads.

It has to be Millwall unfortunately. If they could cut out the vile chants it’d be a unique place to watch football because it’s incredibly loud. Their “to the Den” chant works outstandingly and despite going too far when Leeds are in town, it’s full of people that genuinely care about their football club.

Toss-up between Reading and Newcastle. The Madejski is a number of soul-less bowls that is kick-starting the end of the beautiful game known by most. Their fans are silent for the entirety, until they sneak a last minute winner. Newcastle fans disappointed me the most though; it’s an incredible stadium in a part of the country famous for its football. Admittedly, it was only a League Cup tie, but they earn this award for a lack-lustre attempt at joining in the chants for Gary Speed, a hero for both clubs.

I often complain how we never score good goals; it’s rare a Leeds player drills one in to the top corner from thirty yards and if they do, I probably wasn’t there to see it. McCormack’s goal against Sheffield Wednesday at Elland Road was outstanding earning him the club’s official “Goal of the Season”. His goal away at Doncaster wasn’t bad either. As for the opposition, Chesterfield’s team goal in our League Cup tie was outstanding, whilst Reza Ghoochenejhad, Matt Derbyshire and DJ Campbell all scored with stunning individual strikes for Charlton, Nottingham Forest and Millwall respectively. 

Aside from the Luke Murphy winner on the opening day, this would have to go to McCormack’s goal at the City Ground. For eighty minutes we were absolutely out-classed until a strike of enormous fortune saw us draw level with ten minutes to go. With our play-off ambitions still very much on, we went wild at what we thought was the goal to secure an excellent point. Nottingham Forest scored the winner twenty seconds from the restart, brilliant.

I wasn’t there for Ross McCormack’s show-stopping performance at the Valley so I’d probably choose Jack Butland’s debut at Middlesbrough. For a young goalkeeper making his debut at a club the size of Leeds United he was outstanding and kept us in the game. He’d be a contender for the best performance by an opposing player for his heroics against us whilst at Barnsley but would probably just lose out to Tom Cairney who was unbelievable for Blackburn in their 2-1 win at Elland Road.

Mariusz Zaliukas away at Sheffield Wednesday. He must have been pissed.

Similarly to last season, in our games against the champions I wasn’t overly impressed and for me, the best side I saw finished second in Burnley. Sean Dyche has done an excellent job creating a squad that on paper, looks average but that works unbelievably hard and relies on its key performers such as Danny Ings to step up to the plate. They were brilliant at Elland Road and could have been three or four up inside fifteen minutes.

Birmingham. I don’t understand how any team can concede seven goals to us in two games. Defensively embarrassing and limited up front.

And some quick fire awards…

BIGGEST DICKHEAD: David Haigh. Lied and cheated his way to a massive wage.
PLAYER OF THE SEASON: Ross McCormack. Not his biggest fan but twenty nine goals in a team this bad is outstanding.

UNSUNG HERO: Matt Smith. His size ensures your average, clueless Leeds United fan expects him to win everything in the air and delivery forty headed goals. In a team with no creativity and no wingers, Smith has contributed well with both goals and assists.
THING EXCITING ME THE MOST: Massimo Cellino, all being well. On the playing side; Luke Murphy.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Away Days: Rochdale

4th January 2014. Remember the date and remember the afternoon where League 2 Rochdale embarrassed mighty Leeds United at Spotland. You could bring out all the F.A. Cup giant-killing cliches. Maybe Rochdale will bring out a DVD or maybe the loyal Dale faithful will remember the game for the rest of their lives. Instead, its a day that will remain rooted in the memory bank of everyone connected with Leeds United; the day in which Leeds United sunk as low as ever. Forget two relegations, discard play-off final defeat and dismiss being dumped out of the F.A. Cup by Histon. This was the first day in a long time in which the fans snapped and the valuable rapport between fans and club was breached in a moment of disgusted fury. The reaction greeting the players at the final whistle was akin to the one at Oakwell last season but somehow more bitter, a culmination of a five match win-less run that has seen Leeds take just two points from four Championship games. Boss Brian McDermott described it as his worst moment in football.

Until Mike Jones blew his whistle at 3pm sharp, I'd had a pretty good day. The Regal Moon, a Wetherspoons establishment is the shining light in a fairly gloomy town  and was rammed full of Leeds fans by 12.30. I'd got there early and even sat on my own for half an hour waiting for the lads, only for them to arrive and be told that the pub was full and that they wouldn't be allowed in. We headed off to Yates' in search of some food. Two all-day brunches for £6.65. Beauty. "We're not serving food" they told us. Everyone around us was already enjoying their meals. I couldn't be arsed arguing. We wandered aimlessly through Rochdale, the only town in England that has five bookies but nowhere to eat. Eventually, we came across the back door of the Regal Moon and wandered straight in, despite it being "full". The day improved from there and a taxi from there to the ground was a reasonably priced £5.50 split between five of us.

With Leeds fans taking up one whole touchline stand it would have been easy to have a rubbish view but thankfully we were lucky and took up our seats right on the half-way line. Spotland is an attractive little ground for this level with a capacity of 10,249 and three seated stands. Their average attendance this season is just under 3,000 but with Leeds taking more than that themselves, closer to 9,000 piled into the ground to see which side would be pulled out of the F.A. Cup 4th round draw by a suited, smarmy, irritating ex-professional.

Surprisingly, McDermott didn't deliver his promise of "shaking things up" and only made two changes from the side that lost haplessly to Blackburn on New Years Day. Only two changes were made and no key players were rested as Scott Wootton and Lee Peltier returned in place of Alex Mowatt and Tom Lees. I'd love to describe the formation but I couldn't quite work it out. It did see Sam Byram feature in a must more attacking role, one that didn't pay dividend despite the youngster's first half efforts.

Despite the vast range of lower league football I've acquired mainly through Football Manager, much of Rochdale's squad was fairly unknown to me. Keith Hill made three changes to his side that lost 3-0 to Scunthorpe on Wednesday with Matty Done, Rhys Bennet and Joe Bunney starting ahead of Michael Rose, Joe Rafferty and Graham Cummins. Rochdale sit 5th in League 2 and with Keith Hill in charge were always going to pose a threat to the hopes of Leeds' cup run. Nobody quite predicted what would happen next.

From the moment the linesman's flag chalked off a Joe Bunney goal in the eighth minute Leeds were on the back-foot, struggling to compete with the home side's fast-paced, flowing football. A couple of crosses flashed across the Leeds six yard box before Leeds registered their first attempt on goal with Matthew Lund clearing off the line following a Matt Smith header. That was Leeds' solitary decent opportunity in a first half where they were run ragged. Paddy Kenny was on hand three times to thwart Dale, twice denying Scott Hogan. The first was a superb save low down to his right with Lee Peltier reacting well to clear the danger before he then smothered well at the feet of Rochdale's top scorer. The impressive Henderson then tested the Leeds keeper who was on hand to keep Leeds in the tie again. It was a case of Leeds hanging on in an attempt to be undeservedly level at half time but they couldn't even manage that as Rochdale took a deserved lead in the second minute of first half stoppage time. Peter Vincenti again found space down the right hand side and delivered an accurate cross which was glanced into the far top corner by the head of Hogan. As expected, Leeds were booed off at half time.

What wasn't expected was the same Leeds team emerging for the second half as many of the travelling faithful felt sure players like Rudy Austin had misplaced his last pass for the afternoon. A tired Leeds huffed and puffed with a little more vigour in the opening exchanges and Smith was again denied on the line by some desperate Rochdale defending. Rochdale could only threaten on the counter and were let down by some weak finishing, with Kenny gathering a few efforts hit tamely straight at him. He was then called upon to make another good save, denying Henderson with his legs with twenty five minutes to go. Leeds then came close twice in a five minute spell. First, Ross McCormack, touching the ball for the fourth time all game, curled a delightful effort inches wide of the far post before Lillis in the Rochdale goal was finally tested, turning Danny Pugh's shot around the near post.

Responding to jeers from the crowd, McDermott made a change, replacing Scott Wootton with Noel Hunt in a desperate attempt to save the game. However Rochdale had been carving Leeds' back five open, never mind a back four and the last ten minutes could have seen Rochdale run out 6-0 winners. Vincenti drilled a shot wide of the far post from an excellent position before forcing Kenny into another superb save, the best of the afternoon. Leeds were eventually breached again with six minutes to go. Vincenti was sent through in a spitting image of Jordan Rhodes' goal for Blackburn on New Year's Day but this time the Rochdale winger was forced out wider. His cross was again excellent and Henderson met it with a sublime side-foot volley that looped over Kenny's despairing grasp and into the far corner.

Full of confidence, Henderson then tried his luck from distance with a lovely chip that Kenny turned over his crossbar. By this stage, the travelling support had given up and instead resorted to tasteful songs, jeers and taunts directed at their own players. Some were a little too far, but "the fans turn up, the players don't" perfectly summed up the thoughts of anyone unfortunate enough to have travelled to any of the games across this Christmas period.

McDermott forced his players to "face the music" at full-time as the players stood forlorn in front of boos and abusive gestures. I say forlorn optimistically; the majority of the team didn't look bothered and that's the crux of the supporters fury. I can accept being beaten. I can almost accept being second best. But none of us can accept a lack of effort and desire. The majority accept that McDermott is the man for the job, but throw in a few more afternoons like that and opinions on him will slowly change.