A draw away at Bolton Wanderers is a palatable result these days and Neil Redfearn would not have said no to that outcome before Saturday. When it came to pass it felt as if a winnable game had slipped through his fingers, though not without some thread to cling to.
An exchange of penalties between Rudy Austin and Eidur Gudjohnsen shared the points at what is now the Macron Stadium and while Leeds United are at the stage where scorelines outweigh all else, it made a change to hear Neil Lennon banking a point more gratefully than Redfearn.
Lennon, whose management has rescued Bolton from the deepest of trouble, berated his team for not playing “anywhere near as well” as they have. “Sort of satisfied,” was the most praise he could muster.
Redfearn said Leeds were the “better side” and knew victory had been there for the taking, if only a goal from open play had presented itself.
Six games and more than 600 minutes have elapsed since United last scored without the help of a penalty.
Austin buried one two minutes into Saturday’s match and Leeds had Bolton on the run repeatedly in the second half but a harsh drought refused to yield. “We need more goals from all areas,” said Redfearn, who does not want to be bemoaning that issue when the season reaches its most critical juncture.
The club’s head coach, nonetheless, called a 1-1 draw a “great result” and it classed as United’s cleanest display away from home since their win at Bournemouth in September.
At Nottingham Forest three weeks ago, two dubious offside flags helped Redfearn’s players sneak out with a point but they fought Bolton hard, at a ground where the Lancashire club no longer roll over and die.
“In the end we’re probably a bit disappointed,” Redfearn said. “We deserved to win and that’s taking nothing away from Bolton.”
Moving clear of the Championship’s relegation places is the sole priority for Redfearn, as it has been for at least a month.
Saturday was one of those strange afternoons where Leeds dropped two points, moved one further clear of safety but fell to fourth-bottom in the table.
This Saturday’s match against Birmingham City, with Bournemouth to come a week tomorrow, is another critical fixture and Bolton will rank as a good result so long as Leeds win this weekend. A better performance notwithstanding, Millwall kept them out of the bottom three by contriving to lose away to Blackpool.
Redfearn talked once more about the importance of new signings – a recurring theme of his press conferences – and he needs them still. Owner Massimo Cellino did not make Saturday’s due to a delayed flight from Miami, and reports of Leeds’ 1-1 draw should read more positively than other matches he missed, but it is inconceivable that the Italian will allow another week to pass without any the arrival of any players.
“We need two or three in, and ideally soon,” Redfearn said. “People are recruiting now. Your Millwalls and Brightons are getting players in and there are players out there. But we’ll need to have these conversations and get our heads together.”
The 49-year-old wants Luciano Becchio on loan from Norwich City and it was easy enough at Bolton to see where the Argentinian would fit into his line-up.
Redfearn took a gamble by playing Steve Morison as the lone striker in his 4-2-3-1 formation – a vote of confidence in a footballer who has never found his niche at Leeds – and the jury was out at full-time. Morison grafted up front but didn’t look like the weapon who would undo Bolton at the last. His failure to converted a sugar-coated chance with Leeds 1-0 to the good proved costly.
United’s goal came in the opening moments of the match after Austin slid into a tackle and hooked the ball to Lewis Cook who, true to form and true to his ability, caught Bolton’s defence square with a lovely pass behind them.
Sam Byram anticipated it and drew Andy Lonergan, tempting the former Leeds goalkeeper to dive in and clip his heels. “I’m not convinced that was a penalty,” Lennon said.
“But then I’m not convinced ours was either. You can probably read my thoughts on the referee’s performance.”
Redfearn described the referee in question, Andy Woolmer, as “excellent” and Woolmer gave Austin his chance. A calm, low finish slipped the ball to Lonergan’s left but a second goal should have followed on 10 minutes when Gaetano Berardi found Morison unmarked with a gem of a cross. From six yards out, Morison nodded it at a height which allowed Lonergan to claw the ball wide.
“To be honest, I’d be more disappointed if Steve Morison wasn’t getting into those positions and didn’t look like scoring,” Redfearn said. “He looked like scoring and he held the ball up well. It wasn’t coming back at us like it did at Sunderland.
“We’ve got supply lines now and if we get good ball into Steve Morison, he’ll start getting goals.”
The supply for Leeds came from Cook, Charlie Taylor at left-back and Sam Byram on the right wing, a new position which suited Byram perfectly. Bolton came onto Leeds after Morison’s chance and should have equalised on at least two occasions, with Taylor’s toe denying Liam Trotter an easy finish and Matt Mills guiding a simple header inches wide from a corner. There was concern, too, when Giuseppe Bellusci struck Emile Heskey in the face with an elbow – an incident which followed a peculiar spat with Morison – but Woolmer chose to book him.
Half-time came and two minutes after it, Bolton got their goal. Silvestri produced a weak punch as Liam Feeney’s cross attacked a stretched defence and Luke Murphy tripped Darren Pratley as the midfielder shaped to shoot. Gudjohnsen, who at the age of 37 has not quite lost it, cracked a deadly finish into the roof of the net. It ended a gap of 14 years since his previous Bolton goal.
The hosts’ impetus fell with the game level and Leeds were able to press with more regularity. Murphy missed Lonergan’s net by inches in the 57th minute when Byram pinched possession and cut the ball back to him on the edge of the box, and Lonergan denied Byram with his fingertips after Cook, at number 10, spotted a hole in front of the keeper late on. The wind howled and the sleet lashed down but there was no suggestion that Leeds would fold. There was no sign of a winner either.
“We looked more balanced and really effective,” said Redfearn, whose 11 league games as permanent boss have produced nine points.
“I feel I’ve done a lot right so far and our blips are magnified because of the poor start I inherited. We’ve got to be tough but in the last three away games we’ve taken two points from Forest and Bolton, both good sides. Our away form’s been hit and miss but it does feel like we’re turning that round.”
Bolton Wanderers: Lonergan, Mills, Ream, Dervite (Wheater 67), Vela, Feeney, Trotter (C Davies 73), Danns, Pratley, Gudjohnsen (Walker 90), Heskey. Subs (not used): Bogdan, Moxey, Spearing.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Berardi, Bellusci, Cooper, C Taylor, Byram, Austin, Murphy, Cook, Sloth (Mowatt 85), Morison. Subs (not used): S Taylor, Pearce, Bianchi, Montenegro, Antenucci, Sharp.