The trouble with the Championship is that it affords little room for experimentation and less still for mistakes. A transitional club are a vulnerable club, as Leeds United know from experience.
At the end of Saturday’s draw with Birmingham City, it was hard to credit the point gained to anything other than two substitutions made with 63 minutes gone and Leeds a goal down.
There are ample resources in the club’s squad but no chance to pick the best team from it with freedom or impunity. Six games in, United are learning as they go.
Pre-season was their window for putting the pieces together and they lost it to a gamble with a flawed head coach who, a fortnight on from his sacking, is yet to be replaced. Over time and with a permanent successor to David Hockaday, the team should settle and find their shape but they are doing so against the backdrop of a league in which results always matter.
For an hour at St Andrews, Leeds saw much of the ball but almost nothing of Birmingham’s goal; “lots of possession but no poke,” as Neil Redfearn, the club’s caretaker, put it. Until the 64th minute, Redfearn had the right idea but the wrong combination – a problem solved when Souleymane Doukara and Rodolph Austin stepped off the bench and offered direction, drive and space for other players.
Alex Mowatt equalised with 14 minutes to go and victory almost ensued, though not without a penalty claim which left Birmingham manager Lee Clark climbing the walls at full-time. Leeds needed Doukara’s intensity and Austin’s legs and Redfearn didn’t deny it. But with 15 new signings and options in every position, it was always likely to be this way; a case of trial and error.
“I’ve said a few times that this process, whoever comes in as head coach, is going to be two steps forward and one step back,” Redfearn said. “A lot of signings have come in and we’ve got young players coming to prominence too. They’re integrating with lads who were already here so it’s a long process. But there are encouraging signs.
“We got a point out of this game because the players were brave enough to pass the ball.
“There was only one side trying to play football. They’re a dangerous side, Birmingham, but they’re very direct. The pleasing thing for me is that we got on the ball for 90 minutes. For 90 minutes, we were prepared to pass it.”
Hockaday’s Achilles heel at Leeds was a commitment to patient football which amounted to nothing and earned three points from four league games.
United are averaging two shots on target a game at present but the last half-hour at St Andrews was the first time this season that an opposition team have been pushed to breaking point.
City’s late appeal for a penalty – ignored by referee Scott Duncan who booked Demarai Gray for diving – was a key moment but very nearly a favour for a team who had run short of energy and ideas. Clark ranted afterwards but said less about the balance of the game in the closing minutes. “It looked like a penalty to me,” Redfearn admitted. “But we should have been 3-1 up by then. That would have brought it back to 3-2.”
Deep down, Clark knows that he needs points on the board as badly as Leeds. Birmingham saw off relegation with seconds to spare last season and their own transitional summer has not dispelled the suspicion that City have another hard year ahead of them.
They were more effective than Leeds in the first half and opened the scoring in the 37th minute as Wesley Thomas took the sort of chance that United looked incapable of creating, but the pressure got to them eventually. Mowatt replied on 76 minutes, finishing with poise after Neil Eardley headed a tired clearance to his feet.
Doukara and Austin made the equaliser possible, straining City with their running and their aggression. Austin operated as a number 10 – a position which could have been tailor-made for United’s Brazilian wildcard, Adryan – and looked better than the player whose form before the international break put his own place in jeopardy.
“The changes helped at the right time and gave us a different dimension,” Redfearn said.
“If I’m honest, if it had gone to 2-1 then it would have gone to 3-1. We got in front of their goal a few times and they couldn’t have had complaints.”
United, in turn, could not begrudge Thomas’ goal, aside from chiding Giuseppe Bellusci for switching off as the forward drifted in-field from the left wing. Brek Shea fed him with a simple pass and Thomas punished Bellusci’s absent marking by stroking the ball past Marco Silvestri and destroying the net. Birmingham’s staff took almost 10 minutes to reassemble it.
It was one of relatively few chances but Redfearn conceded that before half time, his players were tepid in the final third of the pitch. “We controlled the game quite well but we had no poke,” he said. “We didn’t go anywhere. We never really looked like scoring and that was the message at half-time.”
The momentum was turning slowly before Austin and Doukara stripped down, the latter replacing Billy Sharp who oozed frustration at the service given to him, but it took the substitutions to tip City over the edge.
With 14 minutes to play, Bianchi attacked their box with a cross which Eardley met unmarked but nodded weakly to Mowatt. The midfielder controlled the ball, stepped away from David Cotterill and tucked it past Darren Randolph.
Mowatt, 19, made no appearances under Hockaday and said afterwards that he “mustn’t have been his type of player.” He is certainly Redfearn’s sort. “Football’s about opinions,” Redfearn said, “but I know what he can do and it was a great finish, a composed finish. He showed great awareness.”
There was no disputing that but plenty of debate about Birmingham’s 86th-minute appeal for a penalty. Gray – a livewire of a substitute who threatened to win the game singlehandedly – danced past two defenders and skipped around Bellusci, going down as his right leg clipped the centre-back. Gray appealed but Duncan booked him.
Gray could still have had the final say in injury-time when he careered through the middle of United’s defence but Silvestri took the sting out of his chip with a sharp reaction and Jason Pearce arrived in time to hook the ball clear from under his crossbar. Between them they averted defeat in what would have been a bad fixture to lose and a compelling finish gave Mowatt and Austin chances to win it.
United’s owner, Massimo Cellino, took in the second half after arriving home from Miami in time to catch the best of Leeds’ performance. There were flickers of promise for him to think about but unmistakable signs of experimentation too; experimentation by a temporary coach who Cellino does not intend to keep in the job long-term. It will be time before long to give someone a mandate to take the team on and nail it down.
Birmingham City: Randolph, Eardley, Edgar, Hall (Robinson 46), Grounds, Cotterill, Caddis, Davis (Spector 79), Shea (Gray 67), Thomas, Donaldson. Subs (not used): Doyle, Gleeson, Duffy, Shinnie.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Berardi, Pearce, Bellusci, Warnock, Cook, Mowatt, Bianchi, Sloth (Austin 63), Sharp (Doukara 63), Antenucci. Subs (not used): S Taylor, Wootton, Cooper, Tonge, Adryan.