Barnsley 0 Leeds United 1: McCormack’s gem edges Tykes to brink

Barnsley's Liam Lawrence tussles with Leeds' Luke Murphy.
Barnsley's Liam Lawrence tussles with Leeds' Luke Murphy.
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Leeds United are bigger than Ross McCormack and so is the summer in front of them but the club will be built from the ground up if the Scot decides to hang his hat elsewhere.

Players come and go from Elland Road but 30-goal strikers don’t pass through Leeds often.

United have had two in the past 40 years and that bare fact alone is all the warning Massimo Cellino needs about the risk of flogging McCormack before his first season as owner begins.

There are other forwards in circulation and McCormack’s price tag has an upper limit but instincts like his is rare and effective.

When Jermaine Beckford cut loose in 2010, Leeds won promotion. When Lee Chapman did likewise in 1992, they won the first division.

That McCormack’s strike rate – one short of 30 with three games to play – has done nothing more than fend off relegation is another way of telling Cellino that he has little else to cling to. McCormack is his asset, the clean patch on a blemished canvas.

The striker reached 29 goals for the season at Barnsley on Saturday and this evening’s game against Nottingham Forest gives him the chance of a 30th.

A brace would make McCormack the first Leeds player since John Charles to amass that total in league fixtures, a comparison which harks back to the days of black-and-white photographs and arguably the finest footballer ever to wear United’s badge.

“It’s good to be talked about in the same breath as someone like John Charles,” McCormack said after his winner at Oakwell.

“I’m definitely looking to get two goals.

“It would be a nice personal end to the season after everything that’s gone on. It’s not been easy.”

A trying season would have been blacker without him; perhaps as dire as the Tykes’ is turning out to be.

The South Yorkshire club are as good as relegated after Saturday’s 1-0 loss and it is only because of McCormack’s finishing that United are in no danger of joining them in League One.

United have won two league games without the help of a goal from their leading scorer, two league games in a season of 43.

It could not be said that his form has been wasted when Leeds sit far beyond the Championship’s bottom three but as Beckford, Chapman and Charles showed, there is more to be made of a striker so prolific.

Cellino showed his appreciation of that when he stonewalled a bid for McCormack from Cardiff City late in the January transfer window.

“We are where we are and the bottom line is we’ve not been good enough,” McCormack said.

“At the end of the day, the league doesn’t lie and we are where we are because of performances on the pitch – regardless of what went on with ownership and what went on in January with the takeover.

“We were fifth up to Christmas with a fighting chance and we should have added a few people to the squad and had a right go at the play-offs.

“It wasn’t to be and everyone in the dressing room regrets the season but the beauty of football is that you always get a chance to put it right.”

The club’s manager, Brian McDermott, is tempted to think that the turnaround is underway after back-to-back wins over Barnsley and Blackpool and two clean sheets for good measure.

The past 10 days have been a sharp relief for a club who were beset by their own disorganisation, tempered only by the realisation that the teams beaten by McDermott’s squad were as poor as the Championship has to offer.

Blackpool looked like a team on the way to League One last weekend and Barnsley are cut from the same cloth, seemingly doomed after McCormack’s 16th-minute goal – a wonderful slick strike – freed Leeds from the hell that Oakwell had become.

Viciously battered on their last three visits there, United found peace by quietly murdering a Barnsley team whose poise and direction deserted them.

If relegation shows in a side’s body language, Danny Wilson’s squad were down with 10 minutes to go.

“It was a poor game,” Wilson said later. “A typical derby minus goalmouth action.” His summary was fair. Barnsley extinguished their own threat with useless long balls towards Chris O’Grady and hoofed passes down the throats of three grateful centre-backs.

The combination of Michael Brown, Michael Tonge and Luke Murphy smashed Barnsley’s midfield.

The pressure translated into a single goal and few chances but it gave Leeds a calm experience on a ground where they are used to being tortured.

“We haven’t won here since 1997 apparently and I’m glad no-one told me that before the game,” McDermott said.

“It was settled by a piece of real quality from Ross and after that, I thought we deserved the win. It was a tough day, very windy, and Barnsley needed to win that game but we wanted to win it too. That’s two clean sheets in a row now and I’m delighted.”

McCormack took his goal with a blink-of-the-eye finish, turning his marker on the edge of the box by flicking Matt Smith’s header over his shoulder and sweeping the ball past Luke Steele with his left foot.

In 90 minutes plus five of stoppage-time, the other moments which counted as chances could have been saved by any member of the crowd. Several of the more wayward shots required supporters to fish the ball from row Z. Butland plucked headers from O’Grady and Dale Jennings from the air during the second half but the protection of United’s goalkeeper was rigid and unusually disciplined.

He will wonder where that defence was during the worst of his loan at Elland Road. Wilson tried to shake the derby into life by introducing Paddy McCourt and Nick Proschwitz from the bench but both were passengers, and Barnsley’s well was as empty as Oakwell when full-time came.

McDermott spoke at length about McCormack afterwards, describing him as a “match-winner”.

“You get players who score three or four goals in a 5-1 win but he gets the goal that wins a game 1-0 or 2-1,” McDermott said. The striker has done it countless times for this season, a light in the gloom at Elland Road. The task for United now is to convince him that another year in Leeds is worth his while.

Barnsley: Steele, Etuhu (McCourt 66), Kennedy, Lawrence, Mvoto, Cranie, McLaughlin, Dawson (Proschwitz 76), O’Grady, Cywka, Jennings. Subs not used: Hassell, Nyatanga, Woods, Mellis, Turner.

LEEDS UNITED: Butland, Wootton, Warnock, Pearce, Zaliukas (Hunt 60), Lees, Murphy, Brown, McCormack, Smith (White, 82), Tonge. Subs not used: Austin, Pugh, Poleon, Cairns, Mowatt.

Matthew Pennington.

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