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The Waiting Game

23 November 2015
The Waiting Game
A mischievous mind might suggest that the course of Leeds United’s season is being plotted in absolute parallel to the darting trajectory of Massimo Cellino’s whims. Certainly in terms of head coach appointments, that has to be true, but while two consecutive wins followed news that the Italian free spirit was looking to sell the Club, Saturday’s 1-0 defeat to bottom-of-the-table Rotherham United was delivered after news broke that Cellino would not be relinquishing ownership until the new year, and therefore felt entirely appropriate to the prevailing mood.

But Leeds fans are used to waiting. What’s another turbulent December and New Year period when results like Saturday’s defeat suggest we can write another season off before we have even sipped our Yuletide Eggnog? To be fair, there is an incongruous logic to Cellino’s latest decision. The suggestion is he is waiting for Leeds United’s divisional status to be secured before looking to seek the best price; compassion of sorts mixed with business common sense. Meanwhile, one more campaign drifts idly by with Leeds treading water; furiously squandering energy to catch up only with themselves. ‘Free beer tomorrow’ is the jocular deception; next season will be the one, they cry. It’s always next season.

Rotherham’s manager Neil Redfearn was savouring victory for the first time in his latest position, indeed the Millers’ first win since Leeds United’s head coach Steve Evans had filled the post. In the aftermath of the win, Redfearn revealed that he had been denied the humdrum privilege of a car parking pass prior to the game. Leeds United countered that they had allocated the regulation number of passes and Rotherham requested an extra one. Details so draining and trivial, but that will be poured over in depth and act as a handy distraction to the real issues, and more tiresome media attention which casts ‘Leeds United’ as the nefarious demon, when such a petty move carries the fingerprints of one man and one man only. A small victory of some sort I guess, but one which will make Redfearn’s opportunist swiping of the three points all the more satisfying. Redfearn himself claimed he was “…not sour towards Leeds United at all; it’s just one man”.

Whichever story you believe in this most small-minded of plot twists, Redfearn is correct that it is all about one man, and while Cellino’s laboured battle with the Football League, the Italian judiciary and with the overall ownership of the Club drags on, the conclusion that Leeds United as a football team will struggle to prosper is an increasingly compelling stance.

While Leeds United’s inability to secure a Sunderland reserve midfielder on loan has mystified many fans – and the real reason behind such inactivity can only be speculated on - the problem appeared less grave in the midst of two consecutive victories. It would only take one defeat to very swiftly highlight the need for cover in almost every department, and that has duly come. Injuries, illness and suspension have caused concern across the defence, and in the goalkeeping department. You could argue Leeds lack a genuine goal scorer too, and somebody to truly put the pressure on a Chris Wood and Mirco Antenucci pairing which has lost whatever chemistry it once possessed and failed to deliver on Saturday, when for once, each was provided with gold-plated opportunities to do so.

In truth Leeds lost the game in midfield, the critical mass of pretty much every football match, primarily through their desire to completely bypass it. Not one of Leeds’s four-strong unit could claim to have had an influential game and Steve Evans’s men suffered for it. Desire too was more evident in Rotherham’s players, where the extra percentage of effort the circumstances of the game merited was gleefully taken on by the visitors at Leeds’s expense. Such a deficiency in desire is unforgiveable, but so too were other conspicuous aspects of Leeds’s game that successive coaching regimes and a frenzied turnover of players simply cannot address.

Anyone sitting within earshot of me whilst watching Leeds United over the last decade will wince when another set piece or cross sails tamely into the goalkeeper’s arms without a single Leeds player within ten yards of it. Amongst the over-spilling catalogue of bugbears that every Leeds fan carries, this is one of the most irksome. The Championship is brimming with teams lacking in quality and who are separated by very little; Leeds United themselves are the embodiment of a team who can win or lose a game via particularly fine margins. Set pieces are a scenario within a game where the reset button is pressed and equality is restored; not football purity or artistry by any means, but a valuable weapon within the rules of the game. If you are struggling to make inroads in open play, then a set piece allows the surety of a good delivery into a dangerous area, and pre-determined positioning with which to cause maximum menace. A set piece is a luxury; one which endless blunt probing, channel-running and mis-directed passing will rarely afford you. Leeds United’s apparent and eternal inability to recognise the worth of a set piece would mystify the world’s most learned scholars. Often the quality of delivery is the fundamental flaw. On Saturday, once again, it was also the complete absence of any Leeds United player judging the trajectory of the ball and attacking it, or even appearing to want to.

For years I have watched guileful crosses arc into the box desperate for a Lee Chapman, an Ian Baird, or even a Luciano Becchio to fight tooth and nail to get on the end of them. An endless procession of corners and free-kicks sail in on the breeze like a playful paper aeroplane ready to be plucked from the air by a grateful goalkeeper, while Leeds players stand by listlessly watching on like unpaid extras in a black comedy sketch they don’t quite understand. On Saturday an even more heinous crime in the closing minutes: in open play Chris Wood harried a defender and whipped in a delicious left wing cross which had defenders and goalkeeper furiously back-tracking, while Mirco Antenucci stood motionless on the edge of the six yard box and chose not to make any movement towards it. It was a scarce and precious nugget in a quagmire of disoriented gracelessness, and when Leeds nonchalantly allowed it to pass by like junk mail to the recycling bin, you truly knew the game was up.

Leeds did create other chances, however, underlining the generous nature and conquerable stature of the opposition they were facing. Alex Mowatt under-hit a back post opportunity in the first half, allowing Rotherham goalkeeper Lee Camp to cover his ground and gather it; Antenucci skewed two presentable opportunities narrowly wide, Luke Murphy was played clean through but, under challenge, his chip was deflected wide and Wood did finally plant his head on a cross but directed it straight at the grateful goalkeeper from point blank range.

Notwithstanding the fact that it was against the Championship’s bottom-placed club, confirmation that the same problems still exist under a new head coach and will possibly never go away, all added up to grade this as one of the more depressing defeats of a languid season, particularly when lowly Rotherham converted their only real opportunity of the game when Joe Newell was left woefully unmarked and guided his header where Chris Wood couldn’t. Both teams completed the game with ten men when an altercation between Gaetano Berardi and Rotherham striker Leon Best left Leeds’s left back with a bloodied nose. His reaction saw both players ordered off the field, but it scarcely affected the game.

Leeds were left to rely on long balls into the box from both centre halves, which Rotherham’s previously porous defence accepted gratefully, while substitute Jordan Botaka threatened to liven up the game, but again failed to deliver.

The final whistle was greeted with muffled boos and the customary grumble of weathered discontent that seems to circle around Elland Road on an endless loop; and so the waiting game goes on. For Steve Evans, delivery of the fresh personnel he has longed for since his arrival; for Massimo Cellino, clarity on his guardianship of the Football Club, and for Leeds fans a coherent and credible sign of progression and hope for the future. Nothing on display on Saturday suggests the current protagonists can truly repay such patience any time soon, however much they might want to.

Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.