For so long an adversary of Leeds United, even at stages of the 13 months in which he managed the club, it was not like Neil Warnock to be fighting their corner after riding into town for the first time since losing that job.
Leeds have changed, Warnock said, since the gruelling days when the weight of their world sat on his shoulders and Saturday proved it. He stood through Cardiff City’s 2-0 win at Elland Road with barely a word of abuse from the crowd, observing a club who have cracked the glass ceiling he toiled beneath before his sacking in 2013. At full-time it was Warnock telling Leeds not to dwell to long on a sobering afternoon.
“Vibrant,” he called Garry Monk’s squad and Monk in his estimation is “manager of the year” after riding out a bumpy start in a post Warnock learned about the hard way. Saturday’s defeat did not make Leeds or Monk look either of those things and a fourth loss in six matches extended what feels like a lull of sorts since the savaging of Derby County last month but Warnock was calling for perspective before Monk had said a word.
“I’m pleased with how it’s gone for them,” the 68-year-old said. “It wasn’t easy for Garry at the start of the season. They’ll move on again now and they’re not going to come up against us every week.
“I know they’re going home disappointed but they can’t forget where they’ve come from. They’ve got a vibrant, young side who had problems they couldn’t solve today but it’s an exciting place to be at the moment.
“Garry’s my manager of the year by a mile because I know what things are like here when it’s not going well. At the start of the year it was pretty horrible. Now they’ve got a stable club and bloody hell, it’s in a better state than it has been for many years.”
That opinion is not in dispute and what Monk and Leeds are seeing is the consequence of their unexpected emergence as candidates for promotion. Cardiff brought a feeble away record to Elland Road, contrasting with the form of a United side whose first concession on Saturday – a 54th-minute header from Cardiff defender Sean Morrison – was the first away goal the stadium had seen in 10-and-a-half hours of Championship football. With spring apparently on the way and Leeds inside the play-off positions, it was a fixture that top-six teams quietly expect to win. Monk could do with one at home to Bristol City tomorrow, to maintain some breathing space over the chasing field.
Morrison’s goal, scored via a free header from an inviting but simple free-kick into the box, was the sort of goal Leeds no longer ship or rarely ship when Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley are pacing around the edge of United’s box. Jansson was taken ill on Saturday morning and his place passed to Liam Cooper, altering one of several areas in Monk’s team where conviction was short.
Greg Halford had failed to dispatch an easy header before the interval – the one clear chance of a half in which Leeds huffed, puffed, controlled 70 per cent of possession but found Cardiff’s deep formation impossible to prize open – but Morrison stuck his away and created the situation which Warnock had aimed for.
Compelled to take risks, Leeds were broken open again 19 minutes from the end when Aron Gunnarsson fought his way into the box and set up Kenneth Zohore to hit a virtually empty net.
Worse was to come for Monk as Liam Bridcutt received an 86th-minute red card for a foul on Halford, his second bookable offence.
The midfielder had been cautioned for dissent late in the first half after contesting referee James Linington’s decision to penalise Luke Ayling for a foul throw.
Cardiff, in every respect, were a Warnock team; a direct, combative unit with the added weapon of Halford’s long throw and a talent for wasting time here and there. Sol Bamba, Leeds’ former captain, heeded Warnock advice – “Leeds fans keep saying he’s an accident waiting to happen” – with good application of the basics, barring a mis-kick in the first half which drew some knowing jeers. Cardiff fell on a day when he hit the sweet spot and stifled Chris Wood. Their collective discipline made Leeds look one dimensional until Hadi Sacko came off the bench.
“It’s your classic away performance,” Monk admitted, “but we’d prepared for that. We made two mistakes, we got punished for those mistakes and they came from situations we knew would come up and we knew Cardiff would be looking for. We switched off, especially for the first goal, which you can’t do and we never put ourselves in a situation to win the game, which we should have done.”
There were pivotal moments, not least a header from Cooper which the centre-back bulleted over the crossbar from 10 yards out with the match goalless, but Leeds’ best chance came in the third minute of injury-time as substitute Kemar Roofe drew a diving save from Allan McGregor. By then a goal would have been a consolation and a meagre one.
“Out of respect to how well we’ve been doing at Elland Road, this is probably the first time we’ve faced a team who set up to frustrate us,” Monk said. “We probed in the first half without really having a cutting edge so I said at half-time to stick with the patience and persistence, even if it took us until the 90th minute (to score). We didn’t need to win the game six or seven-nil. But the mistakes meant we didn’t get to that stage of the game.”
Warnock revealed afterwards that he had told Cardiff to press forward in the second half; to avoid the reticent, negative approach which other clubs, most recently Nottingham Forest, have tried to their cost at Elland Road.
“I didn’t want us to go deep,” Warnock said. “We might as well have a go if we’re going to lose 1-0 anyhow.”
The opening goal when it came was as simple as they come: Noone flighting a free-kick in after Gaetano Berardi was pulled up for a foul on one touchline. Monk’s defence went missing as Cardiff players queued up and Morrison sent a header to the right of a flat-footed Rob Green.
Monk was no more enamoured with Zohore’s strike, coming from a loss of possession by Ronaldo Vieira which Gunnarsson jumped on, skipping past Kyle Bartley before slipping an unselfish pass to Cardiff’s centre forward. Zohore had most of the net to aim at and stroked a shot inside the far post. Three years on from starting his reign at Swansea City with a 3-0 win over Cardiff, revenge was served on Monk in the biting cold.
“Had we not made the mistakes, I’m pretty sure we’d have been able to wear them down,” Monk said. “I actually wasn’t too disappointed with the performance. I thought the players were trying to do the right things.”
It felt, nonetheless, that the exuberance and impetus created by last month’s win over Derby had dissipated somewhat. Cardiff ended a run of six straight home wins at Elland Road, the first team to win there since Newcastle United.
“I still think we’re very competitive,” Monk said. “This was totally different to Derby, playing a totally different side in a totally different way.
“You can’t compare them. We remain focused, we stick together and we’re still in a good position – a position that not many people thought this group could be in. We have to remember that.”