There is nothing at Leeds United – no breathing space or margin for error – allowing the club to lose as they lost at Ewood Park. Neil Redfearn knows it and the road home from Blackburn on Saturday was long and quiet for him.
His team cannot capitulate like this. Not when they play as well as this. Not when they lead until the 71st minute, stifle one of the Championship’s better striker partnerships, finish the game with an extra man and benefit from an away crowd half the size of Clitheroe’s population.
There was a difference of opinion about all sorts of issues afterwards and while Gary Bower, the Blackburn Rovers manager, talked up his side and the penalty which won the game, Redfearn lamented a day when everything that could have gone wrong did.
“We deserved to win,” Redfearn said, and it seemed possible that Bowyer might privately agree that Leeds had earned more than a post mortem. Rovers’ strikers, Jordan Rhodes and Rudy Gestede, have 17 goals between them this season but Rhodes needed a hideous error and a late penalty to settle the match. Two finishes from him in the final 19 minutes made Souleymane Doukara’s earlier goal a distant, irrelevant memory.
Those wounds denied Redfearn the chance to dwell on pleasing subjects like Adryan’s class in the first half, the general attitude of his players or two centre-backs who faced down Rhodes and Gestede in open play. Instead, he focused on the confusion between Marco Silvestri and Liam Cooper that presented Rhodes with a tap-in and the penalty which the Scotland international buried two minutes from time.
Bowyer said the penalty – given for a challenge by Sam Byram on Luke Varney, the player who Brian McDermott bombed out of Elland Road last season – was a “stonewaller”. A few yards up the touchline, Redfearn saw a dive. “That’s never been a penalty,” United’s head coach said but the referee, Kevin Wright, thought otherwise.
Rhodes, who had missed his previous spot-kick at the same end of Ewood Park, tucked it safely to Silvestri’s left.
Blackburn were playing with 10 players at that staged, reduced in numbers by the sending off of Tom Cairney for a second yellow card on 80 minutes. Seconds before Cairney’s exit, with the scores level at 1-1, Mirco Antenucci had ghosted in behind Rovers’ defence and hammered a shot off the inside of a post. It was one of those days, and no mistake.
“Blackburn didn’t deserve anything,” Redfearn said. “They huffed and puffed in the second half but we dealt with them and we were the better side.
“We gave them the first goal and the second goal was a penalty which has never been a penalty. But there’s no point in me berating our luck.
“This is a young side and we’ve got to learn to get across the line because for 70 per cent of the game we were excellent. Blackburn got frustrated.”
Rovers’ discomfort was evident from the moment Doukara turned home a corner on 33 minutes to the crucial juncture in the second half when Silvestri hacked a dithering clearance against the body of Cooper, leaving Rhodes to run the ball into an empty net.
The goalkeeper – one of Leeds’ better players this season – has been here before and very recently; involved in an identical blunder which confirmed Leeds’ defeat at Cardiff City three weeks ago.
Blackburn’s equaliser came during their firmest spell of pressure, and Redfearn may wonder in hindsight if earlier substitutions would have kept Leeds in a higher gear, but the concession was self-induced. Prior to it, Cairney had hit the crossbar with a curling shot from 20 yards and Ben Marshall’s low shot drew a scrambled save from Silvestri but their attacks in the first half were at arm’s length, a mile away from Rhodes and Gestede.
Leeds played in Redfearn’s fashion before half-time; passing religiously in open and tight spaces and squeezing Rovers until Bowyer’s defence gave in after the half-hour. Goalkeeper Jason Steele delayed the opening goal with a brilliant save, getting his fingertips to Adryan’s beautiful hit from the edge of the box, but Doukara was unmarked from a corner that followed and bundled the ball in at the far post.
There was class and precision in that period, and Redfearn duly highlighted it, but Leeds are two points above the Championship’s bottom three at the early stage of a hard month and in a league which, Blackpool aside, is dangerously tight.
Bowyer was chipper at full-time, talking about Blackburn’s “desire, commitment” and the usual attributes managers seek but Saturday was not a game where Leeds looked 10 points or 10 places worse than the team who hosted them.
That, all the same, is what the table shows.
Blackburn, as Redfearn said, grafted in the early part of the second half and gradually they saw more of the game; more space, more gaps, extra seconds in possession.
Silvestri parried away a rising volley from Rhodes before his horrible tangle with Cooper opened the floodgates but the onslaught provoked by the equaliser should have been stopped dead by Cairney’s dismissal.
The former Leeds academy player had been booked in the first half for a foul on Tommaso Bianchi and he left himself prone by flying into a tackle on Cooper. “I’ve no complaints with that at all,” Bowyer said. “The ref got it right.”
Redfearn looked immediately for a winner, quickly forgetting about a chance which Antenucci drove against a post two minutes before Cairney’s sending off.
Leeds broke quickly after Jason Pearce knocked Marshall’s cross off his own goalline and Adryan’s pass sent Antenucci clean through.
The Italian sized up Steele and beat him with a clean hit but watched the ball come back off the frame of the goal.
“It was a good chance and usually Mirco sticks them away,” Redfearn said.
“He was unlucky really because it’s hit the inside of the post and come out. To be honest, I’m more concerned about the mix-up for Blackburn’s first goal. At that point Blackburn were struggling to create anything.”
There was little coming their way in the closing minutes until the ball arrived at Varney’s feet 70 yards up the field.
The forward ran at Byram, tempted the right-back to poke a leg out and tumbled with all the theatrics he could muster.
It went without saying that the incident would cause a disagreement between Redfearn and Bowyer but Rhodes kept his head and sent Silvestri the wrong way, stroking the ball safely into the net.
Redfearn’s players looked rattled at the final whistle and an away crowd of almost 7,000 – a phenomenal following which proved once again that nothing Leeds do will ever kill the addiction – drifted off in bewildered disappointment.
“There’s that something about us,” Redfearn said. “Whether it’s youth or a lack of experience, we’ve got to be more ruthless. There won’t be many people in the stadium who didn’t think we were worth a point. And to be honest, I’d have been gutted with that.”
Blackburn: Steele; Baptiste, Hanley, Duffy, Olsson; Cairney, Williamson (Tunnicliffe 65), Evans (Taylor 89), Marshall; Gestede (Varney 74), Rhodes. Subs (not used): Eastwood, Henley, Dunn, Conway.
Leeds United: Silvestri; Byram, Pearce, Cooper, Warnock; Cook (Sharp 89), Bianchi (Bellusci 76); Mowatt, Adryan, Doukara; Antenucci. Subs (not used): S Taylor, Berardi, Austin, Tonge, Dawson.